A Failure of Leadership

The appalling revelations within the story of Camden City Public Schools’ fight for survival contain sobering lessons for any school leader.

By Matt Bolch

It feels unfair to hang another pejorative like “worst” onto the broken city of Camden, New Jersey, which has been dubbed not only the poorest in America but also the most dangerous, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau and other national surveys. But combine woeful test scores—27 of Camden’s 32 public schools failed the latest No Child Left Behind report card and six face the most severe penalties under federal guidelines—with recent newspaper headlines, and you’ll be challenged to find a city whose school district is in more disarray.

Consider the past six months: a criminal probe of the district over inflated scores following a series of articles in The Philadelphia Inquirer; the resignation of Superintendent Annette D. Knox in the aftermath of the test-score debacle and amid her acknowledgement that she received nearly $18,000 in performance bonuses without board approval; accusations of fraud and termination proceedings against several staffers who allegedly submitted $28,000 in phony reimbursement vouchers; and the retirement of a district secretary who accrued more than $100,000 in overtime in the past three years.

The negligence shows in appalling performance rates. Overall results on the fourth-grade language arts test are 21 percent lower in Camden than in the rest of the state and nearly 19 percent lower in math. The disparities are clearer in the middle grades, with eighth-grade language arts scores 59 percent lower than the state and average math scores 77 percent lower, with a 13.9 percent passing rate. Only 44.8 percent of Camden 11th graders pass the language arts exam, and 30.1 percent pass the math test. It’s not as if the district is underfunded, either. During the 2003–2004 school year, Camden spent $16,259 to educate each student, compared with a state average of $11,903.

Despite heavy emphasis on programs at the elementary level, the performance of Camden pupils on standardized tests continues to lag behind the state as a whole. “I can’t get past the third- and fourth-grade reading and math scores, which are horrible,” says Lucille E. Davy, acting state commissioner of education. She stops short of saying that Camden is the worst among New Jersey districts, “but certainly in lots of measures, [Camden is] in the bottom five anywhere we look.”
The blame doesn’t stop at the district level. “The woes in Camden point to a serious leadership problem,” says David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, founded in 1973 to advocate for public schoolchildren. “The state [Board of Education] has also lacked the capacity and will, until the last four to six months, to exercise its responsibility to step in and take control.”

Under the Municipal Rehabilitation and Economic Recovery Act, passed by the New Jersey legislature in 2002, the governor’s office has an extraordinary amount of control over the Camden district, including the right to appoint three school board members and veto board actions. The mayor of Camden also appoints three members, with the final three chosen by election. Before the state took action, the Camden Board of Education often failed to meet because it lacked a quorum, which endangered the day-to-day workings of the district. Leaders in the Camden district have “proven they’re unwilling to do the tough things that need to be done,” says Derrell Bradford, deputy director of E3, a school-choice advocacy group with offices in Camden and Newark. “When nothing happens, nothing happens. Parents will beg, borrow, and steal to get their kids out of the Camden district.”

Plan of Action

After the probe into testing irregularities began in February, the state Department of Education sent in an intervention team to assist the district. Governor Jon Corzine signed off on the Camden Board of Education’s appointment of Leonard Fitts as interim superintendent while a national search was conducted for a new Camden schools leader. Fitts has had an intermittent yet long relationship with the district that dates to 1975, when he served as director of special services. He has also served as assistant superintendent, interim superintendent, and as a consultant to the district on two occasions. He has brought in other top leaders to help steady a district that has been reeling from controversy. Fitts says he was “really hurt and felt sorry” when the district’s latest problems began to make headlines. “I said to myself, ‘Camden doesn’t deserve this,’ and if there is anything I can do to help, I will.”

Just before the 2006–2007 school year started, nearly 4,000 teachers and support staff members attended a rally at Camden’s Tweeter Center and tried to raise a muster promising the worst is over. The state has implemented new programs aimed at increasing math and language arts scores in the district, and high schools have a new curriculum.

As the state steps up its involvement in the day-to-day workings of the district, Davy hopes that the Department of Education’s actions, coupled with a strong new leader for Camden, will go a long way to right the wrongs that have plagued the district for decades. “Anything less would be a dereliction of duty,” she says.

After all, despite the egregious leadership problems, Camden is filled with dedicated teachers and principals. Recently, more than 600 people applied for 100 open positions in the district.

“I don’t think anyone chooses to go into the education field unless they care for children deeply and want to make a difference,” says Davy. “I believe we have a moral obligation to work harder to provide for our little ones. Their future depends on us doing the right thing, and we can’t let them down.”

Long-Term Leadership Is Key

So what’s the answer to Camden’s woes? “People in the organization need to understand government and management roles and the consultative roles of parents and the community,” says Kathleen P. Macy, principal associate with TeamWorks International Inc., an organization that counsels troubled school districts. Macy says that proper leadership is critical to the success of a district, both at the superintendent and board levels. School boards in quality districts tend to be hands-off, trusting in the competence of leaders while holding them accountable. Politicized boards often dig into the details, question everything, and interfere with the effective management of the system.

Superintendent tenure is also important in imparting any lasting changes, offers Michael Fullan, professor of policy studies at the University of Toronto and author of Turnaround Leadership and several other books that address education reforms.

By the time Camden names its next permanent superintendent, the district will have had eight leaders in a span of 18 years, which simply isn’t enough time for any one superintendent to bring meaningful changes, says Fullan. “A constant change of direction points to deeper problems, but any school district that hopes to hire a great superintendent and expects him to solve all problems in three years is wrong.” Average superintendent tenure is 4.4 years, explains Fullan. And the continuity of good direction over multiple superintendents is vital to the success of any district.

A quality superintendent should be able to develop leaders from within the organization while keeping an eye on data to propel learning and plot day-to-day strategy. Professional-learning committees at each school will help keep the focus on instruction, but district-wide initiatives are also important so schools can learn from one another.

Finally, the top leader and subordinates must understand the necessity of a consistent strategy and stay committed to it for several years. “Leaders should focus on a rebuilding process that takes a few years, instead of focusing on six and 12-month goals they can’t achieve,” Fullan says. “A turnaround strategy can help in the short-term, but system and cultural changes only happen over time.” @