Saturday, April 3, 2010

Did Pam Stevens miss the point?

The Kenosha News -- which did a hasty and incomplete attempt to catch up with the blogosphere in its story today over the hiring of Michele Hancock as the new Kenosha school superintendent -- has an interesting take in the story from board president Pam Stevens:

Unified School Board President Pam Stevens said she’s disappointed some would denigrate Hancock before she even had a chance to start her job. Stevens said the candidate vetting process was consistent. Stevens said all the candidates were given the opportunity to explain their education philosophies during closed-session board interviews and at the community forum in February.
If this is an accurate portrayal of Stevens' position, she's obviously missed the point:  The criticism wasn't about Hancock as much as it was the school board's failure  -- and that of the headhunter firm it hired -- to perform due diligence in investigating Hancock's background. 

And, if the newspaper's story is correct, then Stevens is either ignorant or incompetent or both.  "Vetting" isn't just about a process being "consistent" or giving candidates an opportunity to explain their educational philosophies.

Consistency is a baseline principle but, if followed strictly, is myopic and can lead to an incomplete and inaccurate picture.  On the other hand, vetting is a process of examination and evaluation, generally referring to performing a background check on someone before offering him or her employment. 

Stevens may be partially correct in that in the hiring process it's not unusual to have a standardized series of questions to pose to each candidate and to that extent consistency has some purpose -- but that's just the beginning of vetting.

Stevens, who I philosophically agree with much of the time, nonethtless misses the point in this quote: “Just because an African-American female walks into a room, all of the sudden we’re going to change our list of questions and ask, ‘Since you’re an African-American female, are you going to teach ebonics?’”

Of course Stevens is correct when she predicates the question of "Are you going to teach ebonics" with "Since you are an African-American female" which is an apparent reference to Hancock's ancestry.  But the issue isn't Hancock's ancestry, it's the controversy over her purported acceptance of the use of Black English Vernacular in school, regardless of the extent she thinks it's appropriate.  More important is the issue that the school board didn't investigate it before hiring Hancock. 

In fact, the first story here about Hancock quoted extensively from the newsletter she wrote and included her philosophy on the use of BEV (ebonics):

The newsletter, Diversity Dialogue, suggests teachers use BEV to communicate with students. It says teachers can: 
• “Switch into BEV in specific situations or informal discussion.”
• "Translate common phrases in Standard English into BEV.”
• “Read and retell stories in both BEV and Standard English.”

“We need to embrace the diversity they bring into our schools,” said the district’s Chief of Diversity and Leadership, Michele Hancock.

Hancock and Tyra Webb-Johnson, Director of Coaching and Leadership, wrote the newsletter. They are both former elementary school principals.

“We want (teachers) to have a better understanding of what BEV is so they can incorporate it into their teaching. That way, they're not alienating the students who are speaking the vernacular and degrading them,” Webb-Johnson said.

Ebonics was debated nationally in 1996 when the Oakland, California school district proposed using it in the curriculum.

Ebonics is defined as a speech pattern used by some African-Americans that does not follow standard grammar.

“No matter how you speak, you do need to learn the standard form so you can embrace the larger audience of people,” Hancock said. “But you can hold on to the richness of your family environment and not feel that is beneath any standard of living.”

Hancock says many people, including her own son, who graduated from college, know how to "code switch" between Standard English and Ebonics. She said students must learn to be proficient in Standard English.

“Many African-Americans are bi-dialectic in their speech patterns. I think it's critical teachers understand those speech patterns so they can effectively, visually show children how they are speaking, but not to denigrate it, but to celebrate it,” Hancock said.

Nowhere here was it said that Hancock advocated teaching Ebonics and, in fact, Hancock's own words clearly show that she believes students must learn to be proficient in Standard English.  Nonetheless she also supported the limited use of BEV in school and that, according to the Rochester television news report quoted here, brought critcism from many segments of that city's black community, including a school board member, former mayor and parents and students. 

As for Stevens' comments about consistency, that's a smokescreen.  Consistency is a minimum across-the-board baseline.  Had the school board or its consulting firm performed due diligence and uncovered this information, the board, if it had done its job, would have asked Hancock about it.  Stevens admitted that the board had closed door interviews of the candidates.  The questioning could -- and should -- have happened there.  Stevens and her fellow board members dropped the ball, plain and simple. 

The board's failure to do its job shortchanged constituents and Hancock.  As noted here, it would have been preferable for the new superintendent to come in on a wave of optimism, not under a cloud of controversy. 

Further, the "Ebonics" controversy is one that is likely to be inflammatory and incite prejudices in quarters other than here.  That's unfortunate because the issues surrounding Hancock's fitness for her new job go well beyond that.

For example, the recent controversy in Rochester where elementary school teachers at a school that voted "no confidence" in their principal (who was reassigned) felt intimidated by Hancock and her boss over the suggestion that the vote may be perceived as racially motivated also deserved vetting.  The Rochester Democrat-Chronicle reported that the Rochester Teachers Association said that Hancock and the Rochester superintendent berated staff and then launched a retaliatory investigation of three teachers at the school.  While denying the union's allegation of retaliation, Superindent Jean-Claude Brizard confirmed that Hanock "said there was a perception of racism in the school."

By itself this tiff may not be terribly significant and could be dismissed as union-management sniping.  But the Rochester superintendent, who is also black, confirmed that Hancock did raise the issue of race with the teachers.  Further, as noted here:

On May 21, 2008 WHAM's veteran education reporter, Rachel Barnhart, wrote that Hancock was named the new human resources chief (later morphed into "Human Capital Initiatives") for the Rochester district although Hancock "doesn't have a background in human resources."

Less than two years later Hancock -- who received $36,000 from the Rochester district toward her doctoral degree studies -- was applying for and ultimately accepted the Kenosha job although she has no experience as a superintendent or even an assistant superintendent. 
Had our school board had done its homework and asked the right questions, perhaps there wouldn't be as many now -- or at least there'd be better answers.

Hancock is being paid a starting salary of  $195,000 -- $45,000 more than the current superitendent, Joe Mangi, a veteran educator.  Yet she has never been a superintendent -- or an assistant superintendent -- of any district and has less than two years of experience in her current personnel position, one which she came into without human resources experience.  Add that to the Ebonics controversy and the flap with the teachers and you don't think that there are things that Hancock should have questioned about?  And let's not forget the $18,000 two-day resort retreat Hancock organized for administrators of a school district that's over $60 million in the red and has a graduation rate of 46%, down 52% from the previous year.

Today's newspaper story drivels on about how Stevens says the board wouldn't think of supporting an Ebonics curriculum and anyone who would suggest it is misinformed.  She's right.  Anyone who would suggest it is misinformed -- even her.  The issue isn't Ebonics -- it's the board's failure to properly check out its choice to be the new superintendent. 

The story goes on to say that Stevens takes "with a grain of salt" what Hancock's detractors say about her.  Then Stevens is quoted as saying, “I really thought some people in Kenosha were above that."

Time out for a reality check.  Get the message, Pam: It's not about "Hancock's detractors" but rather the failure of the board to do its job.  As noted here, Hancock was an outstanding teacher and elementary school principal but her performance came into question when she became a central office administrator.  The board's woefully inadequate vetting of Hancock not only was a disservice to the taxpayers but to Hancock who, if she truly is the best choice for the job, should be able to come on board with full support and confidence, not unanswered questions.  As written here:

That research should have prompted other questions, such as why would the Rochester district take a successful principal away from the job she did so well and move her into another in which her performance was controversial? Why with no personnel management experience (except as a building principal) was she shortly after arriving at the central office put in charge of human resources? Why, if the Rochester district is managed so well, does it have a high school graduation rate of 46%, down from 52% the year before?

Second, the failure to get these issues out in the open and, hopefully, resolved before hiring Hancock is no favor to her.

Incoming chief executives typically have a "honeymoon period" but Hancock's may be short-lived, if she gets one at all.

For example, her controversial advocacy of using Black English Vernacular (Ebonics) in her stint as diversity chief might have been explained better had it been placed on the table sooner rather than later. "Hindsight being 20-20" I suspect many of us have done things earlier in our careers that upon reflection we wish we might have done differently. If, for example, Hancock were to offer that explanation now, wouldn't folks be skeptical?

Our school district has its own set of issues. Relocating, becoming acclimated to this community and getting down to solving the district's problems are enough to keep anyone busy. If Hancock truly is the best choice for Kenosha's new school superintendent, she deserves to come into this community on a wave of optimism, not under a cloud of controversy.
Once again, this isn't about taking a slap at Hancock but rather about the school board's failing to properly exercise its responsibilities.  It's difficult to embrace Hancock as the best choice for the position when the issues come up after the board made its choice.  The board created this controversy -- not anyone else.  Even Hancock noted the legitimacy of a proper inquiry: "I think it’s great they’re questioning. And I can say I have answers because I know me. But I hope people give themselves a chance to know me and it not be generated by misunderstanding." 


You'd have to be naive or incredibly stupid (or both) not to recognize that achieving success rarely comes without some controversy.  That controversy can be misinformed, mean-spirited or just plain ignorant.  But it can also have varying shades of merit.  Regardless, it doesn't go away unless it's addressed fully and honestly and even then you won't be able to please everyone.

Finally, a few words about race.  Frankly, as an old civil rights advocate, I cringe at the thought because in today's world there should be no place for bigotry and racism.  Nonetheless I sadly realize that for some people it is an issue.  Not for me. 

I don't particularly care if Hancock is black, white, yellow, brown or some mixture of whatever.  I only care about if she's the best person for the job.  That said, I must confess that I nonetheless find value in diversity but, as diversity happens, that value should necessarily depreciate.  After all, shouldn't the ultimate goal of the NAACP (or, similarly, the American Cancer Society) be to put itself out of business?


Village People said...

This is one time that I hope for our school children's sake, your critique is wrong and she works out to be the best leader ever.

RAG said...

I do, too.

But that doesn't excuse the failure of an entire school board to exercise due diligence in the selection process.