Monday, August 23, 2004

Interview with Dr. Elfreda Massie

When Paul Vance resigned from the position of superintendent for D.C. Public Schools in November of 2003 Dr. Elfreda Massie, who was Vance’s Chief of Staff, took over the top position on an interim basis. Dr. Massie lead DCPS for five months before leaving DCPS for the private sector, taking the job as of Vice President of Strategic Alliances for Harcourt Achieve. Previous to her stint in D.C. Dr. Massie held the position of Vice President of Professional Development for Harcourt Achieve (formerly Rigby Education) which followed 30 years of service in the Baltimore and Montgomery County school districts:
  • 1971-1991 Baltimore County, starting as a classroom teacher and ending as Director of Personnel
  • 1991-1996 Montgomery County as the Associate Superintendent
  • 1996-2000 Baltimore County, Deputy Superintendent
Since Dr. Massie has first-hand knowledge of the inner workings of the District's school system I asked her if she would be willing to be interviewed about her thoughts on the DC's public schools. Dr. Massie graciously accepted and answered the following questions via e-mail.

Click on Read More for the full interview.

DC Education Blog interview with Elfreda Massie

DC Edu Blog: When effectively turning down the chance to become the permanent DCPS Superintendent you cited issues around governance and control.

In your opinion what changes in management, governance and oversight need to be made in order to allow the District's public schools to become world class? Do you feel the current players (the Board of Education, DC Council, Mayor's office) are making appropriate headway in solving these issues?

Dr. Massie: As you are aware, at the time that I turned down the opportunity, there were various proposals from the Mayor, City Council, Board of Education, and advocacy groups regarding governance and control of the District of Columbia Public Schools.

I believe there is a delicate balance of leadership between the Board of Education, Mayor, City Council and Superintendent, and each entity has unique roles and responsibilities. To be effective, the governance function should be carried out jointly by the Board of Education, Mayor and City Council and the superintendent must be responsible for the administration of the educational program. They must hold each other accountable for carrying out their different, but equally important, responsibilities for the education of our children. It will take a great deal of discipline for them to delineate the roles, and not merge them, to address education priorities. The Board must restrain itself from doing the day-to-day work of the superintendent, and operate more as a policy-making body.

I believe the current players are moving in the right direction and that there is a cooperative spirit among them. However, the key will be the extent to which they allow the superintendent to do his job, without interfering, micromanaging, and undermining his authority.

DC Edu Blog: What, in your opinion, have been the main reasons for the District's high rate of turnover in the superintendent position (four permanent superintendents in eight years, not including yourself or Mr. Rice)? Are the Board of Education, the D.C. Council and the Mayor's office aware of these issues and what have they done to rectify them?

Dr. Massie: I assume that each superintendent left for different personal and professional reasons, but I am certain that at some point they may have felt a lack of support and/or insufficient resources to continue to do the job effectively. I believe the Board of Education is aware of the specific issues and that they will work to provide the optimum environment and resources that will allow the new superintendent to focus on developing and implementing a successful long-term educational program.

DC Edu Blog: What were the toughest non-governance / non-political problems that you had to confront as District superintendent? What would be your advice to the future superintendent for tackling them?

Dr. Massie: The toughest problems I addressed were facilities issues and safety and security issues. The buildings, in general, are in such a state of disrepair that it is impossible, within current budget constraints, to provide safe, attractive learning environments for all of our children. The District needs a comprehensive facilities plan that accelerates the modernization of buildings and, at the same time, provides for continuous maintenance and repairs of all buildings.

Dealing with the loss of children’s lives was personally very difficult. I am still deeply grieved when I hear of children’s lives being lost as a result of senseless, violent acts. I don’t ever want to get to the point that I accept violence as a normal circumstance in children’s lives. Parents and students must be involved in helping to prevent violence in our communities, but both of these issues will require considerable collaboration among almost every city agency to resolve.

DC Edu Blog: Which changes / initiatives implemented by a District superintendent would have the largest impact in the shortest span of time, i.e. what are the "low-hanging fruit" that could show results in the span of one school year? Conversely, which changes / initiatives would be long term and/or difficult, but you feel are essential to the success of a school district? What things must a superintendent be ever vigilant about and not "drop the ball?"

Dr. Massie: The superintendent must be vigilant about maintaining an absolute focus on academic achievement and providing a high quality instructional program for all students. I believe that providing intense professional development and training for teachers and principals (with frequent observation and coaching), in the content areas, could have an immediate effect. Quality teaching is critical and it is important that principals assure that effective teaching occurs every single day in every classroom. There needs to be on-going assessments of student progress and close monitoring of curriculum implementation. The district has already begun a k-12 initiative which focuses on developing comprehensive literacy and numeracy skills. I hope that it is continued.

Since schools open in a week, all efforts should be made to assure that they will learn in safe, secure environments. An early meeting with the DCPS Security Team and Chief Ramsey is imperative. I believe there are opportunities to implement some immediate improvements in targeted schools and in the overall system-wide student discipline plan.

The performance appraisal process and measures should be reviewed and revised to assure more accountability for student results. The system should provide rewards and incentives for high performance, and sanctions, including dismissal, for those who are not performing and who are, in effect, doing a great disservice to students and the school district.

A long-term plan should be developed to extend the school day and the school year to provide more instructional time for acceleration, remediation, and enrichment. The curriculum and offerings must have more rigor, and should be revised to include the required study of foreign languages at the middle/junior level; participation in visual, performing and/or cultural arts programs; and increased school athletic programs.

The superintendent should not “drop the ball” in pursuing the need to have the school fiscal year changed to begin on July 1, rather than October 1. The budget needs to be approved and allocations given to local schools prior to the start of the school year. DC is the only school system that operates on the federal fiscal year, as opposed to the academic year. Legislation is currently being considered, that would establish a new fiscal year for DC Public Schools. This would allow the system to prepare a more realistic budget, based in part on the student performance results and a realistic analysis of enrollment projections. It would also provide more stability in schools and classrooms by eliminating or significantly decreasing staff disruptions that now occur October through December.

DC Edu Blog: During your time at DCPS what was the general attitude at 825 North Capitol Street towards the District's charter schools and the federal voucher program?

Dr. Massie: The responses to the District’s charter schools and the federal voucher program varied among individuals. There are DCPS charter schools that are under the authority of the superintendent and board of education, and independent charter schools. Many expressed concerns that the charter schools and the federal voucher program would lure the “brightest and best” students from DC public schools, and therefore, lead to its eventual demise. There were also concerns that the focus on funding these schools and programs would overshadow the need to continue to improve struggling DC public schools. On the other hand, others recognized the desire of parents to have optimum choices for their children to assure their successes. Specific concerns about the voucher program related to the use of public dollars to fund the program and the lack of detail regarding the implementation plan.

DC Edu Blog: One of the charges leveled at DCPS has been the low expectation it set for students. For example only recently was Algebra I made a requirement for graduation, and the definition of truancy seems lax at best: ten consecutive days of unexcused absences (down from fifteen) as opposed to seven and nine cumulative days of unexcused absences respectively for Virginia and Maryland. Yet even with the bar set low the District has a much lower graduation rate and higher truancy rate than the surrounding suburbs. Who is responsible for selecting curriculum, defining and tracking truancy, etc? Is this process a formal, ongoing process or does it tend to be ad-hoc? Why do you feel that DC had ended up with lower standards and expectations than its surrounding suburban districts?

Dr. Massie: Unfortunately, in the past, expectations for academic performance have been too low. Some of the surrounding jurisdictions aligned their curriculum and assessments with national standards prior to NCLB. They made some tough decisions and aligned all of their resources to support the purchase of additional curriculum materials, smaller class sizes, increased professional development, classroom coaches, extended learning environments, and other enhancements. DC Public Schools apparently had many competing needs for fiscal resources and did not zero-in on the instructional needs in the same manner.

Students must be seen as worthy and deserving of the highest quality education. And the only way that we can provide that for them, is to raise the bar and maintain high expectations. There are state and federal standards for schools and for individual student outcomes. The District is now adopting the highest standards and developing instructional programs based on those standards.

The board, through its policy setting function, supports the superintendent and staff as they work on a daily basis, and formally in committee structures, to evaluate and select curriculum and establish policies and procedures for students and staff. Input is solicited from employees, parents, and community members and is considered in superintendent and board deliberations.

Recognizing the need to raise standards and expectations, the board has supported a fundamental redesign of the instructional program, including the reform of high schools and establishment of a more rigorous high school curriculum. Higher expectations have been set and resources must now be allocated to allow the expectations to be met.

DC Edu Blog: What, in your opinion, have been the successes at DCPS? What programs/initiatives deserve to be highlighted as examples of DCPS "getting it right?"

Dr. Massie: There are many successes at DCPS and unfortunately, they do not get much public recognition. The following is a brief list of programs and initiatives that deserve to be highlighted. Many of the individual successes are shared and communicated through the weekly staff and community newsletters from the Office of Communications.
  • Transformation Schools that have shown significant student improvement
  • Wrap-around Services that increase support provided by mental health providers and social workers
  • Significant student accomplishments, especially in national math and science competitions
  • Three National Blue Ribbon schools
  • Teachers acknowledged for outstanding teaching – ex: Milligan foundation Awardees
  • DC College Access Program (DC CAPS)
  • Increased enrollment in Early Childhood programs
  • Opening of state-of-the art McKinley Technical high School
  • Successful, unique magnet school programs
    • Oyster – dual language Spanish English program
    • Ellington School of the Arts
    • Banneker Academy High School
    • Montessori
    • School Without Walls
    • Stuart Hobsen Museum Magnet – partnered with the Smithsonian Museums
  • Summer instrumental music programs
  • Saturday STARS program for high schools students who need acceleration
  • High School /College Internship Program – college credits earned while in high school
  • Outstanding Character Education programs in elementary schools

DC Edu Blog: What should DCPS take away as "Lessons Learned" from over the last five years? What missteps should DCPS avoid repeating?

Dr. Massie:Create a realistic strategic plan and STAY THE COURSE. Effective, long-lasting change takes time. Too much change, too frequently, leads to instability, low morale, and high staff turnover.

Get the right people in the right positions. Then allow them to set the direction, with support, not micromanagement.

Don’t permit facilities issues to drive instructional decisions. Determine instructional outcomes first, and then plan for facilities that support the best learning environment.

Hire great principals and pay them well. Good principals who are instructional leaders and managers are the key to school success. They will hold teachers and support staff accountable for good instruction and will be able to retain outstanding staff.

DC Edu Blog: In your experience other than simply voting at school board elections / joining the PTA what can residents do to help improve their neighborhood schools?

Dr. Massie: Residents should display a sense of ownership and commitment by visiting their neighborhood schools. Talk to principals and teachers about what’s happening in the classrooms. Be a mentor to students in the building. Become involved in efforts to assure the safety of students in the neighborhood. Volunteer in the school. Attend student performances. If you possess a unique talent or skill, offer to share it with the students. Remember, a school is reflective of the community and it is said that a community is as good as its schools.


Thanks again to Dr. Massie for her time.


Mark Lerner said...

Great interview!


Anonymous said...

After reading this interview, it is very apparent why Dr. Massie is considered a leader in contemporary education. She exhibits the wisdom, courage, and commitment so essential to education today. D.C. was indeed fortunate to have her for a time. All the best to her and to the children and parents of Washington D.C.

Anonymous said...

I have known Dr. Massie for a number of years. She not only is, but has proven herself to be one of the most competent educators on the national scene. this interview clearly shows that she is a true leader with insight and vision that would benefit any local system that would be lucky enough to obtain her services. she is working now in the corporate arena. Some may not be aware that, in addition to her local system work, when Dr. Massie was in Maryland, she help drive initiatives at the statewide level to enhance the achievement of minority, poor, and disabled students. Many of us hope that returns to the main source of her passion -- directly impacting the lives of children.