July 29, 2008

Meet Unified's next Superintendent candidate

Dr. James Shaw at open forum Tuesday night

It was about halfway through the 45-minute question-and-answer session, after Dr. James Shaw's 45-minute presentation about the achievement gap in schools, and what to do about it, when someone asked the key question of the only candidate to become Racine Unified School District's next superintendent, the only hope the district has of avoiding another school year with an interim in charge:

"If you didn't apply the first time around, why now?"

It was a great question, clearly on everyone's mind after the district's disastrous first attempt at finding a superintendent. The search firm-produced finalists all came with -- what's the accepted term: baggage -- and yet the district picked one of them anyway, only to be dumped at the altar. In fact, it had been in this very same hall -- the Golden Rondelle Theater -- that many in the audience had been exposed to that first round of three candidates. It had not been a night to remember fondly. And yet, here we were again, at another meet-the-candidate night. Why Shaw; why now? What are we getting into?

He handled it very well, a modest, soft-spoken, engaging candidate seemingly as surprised by his current position as much as we are. "I wanted to work on closing the achievement gap at the university. I had the sense good things were happening in Racine, and then I read the paper. And the Public Policy Report described Racine as the worst of 10 districts it was compared to. After Racine went through the search and didn't have a candidate, I made an innocent inquiry: 'How can I help?' "

And here we are today, with Shaw as the only candidate on Unified's radar. He's just come through two days of community meetings, culminating in last night's public forum at the Rondelle, attended by about 150 people. "I had three wonderful days here... well, two days but it seemed like three. I have met parents and teachers who are very proud of Racine Unified, but they want improvement. Racine is poised to make major improvements in closing the achievement gap."

Well, it had better be -- because the gap in reading and math skills between black and white students, rich and poor, is considerable, as the Public Policy Report and WKCE test results show, year after year. "We have huge achievement gaps," he said. "I know what your reaction is to these numbers: You want to change them. That's my reaction, too." Shaw was asked by the school board to tell how he'd address that gap, and he spoke for 45 minutes, finally winding up with, "I sound too much like a professor. I'm trying to sound like a superintendent."

In Shaw's educational universe, "It's the teachers who are important." His goal -- doubling the number of kids in the "advanced:" category in five years -- focuses on teachers. "Most of the variable is teachers so you focus on teaching. You try to use techniques that are effective with different kinds of kids." And he also would use a pay-for-performance plan to reward the best teachers.

Although he's been a professor at UW-Madison for five years, he had a key criticism: "At the University of Wisconsin, the best teachers get the best kids. That system is not working. We need to share the best teachers with the kids who are struggling." And he wants to improve teaching at Unified first by speeding up the hiring process, cutting through the delays that let the best new grads commit early to other districts, and by developing our existing teachers through active coaching. "Teachers working with other teachers, not just lectures. Professional development must be embedded in the schedule," he said.

"The most common reason teachers become teachers is to make a difference. I know Racine teachers want this. When people are so focused on closing the achievement gap, that creates a different environment."

Shaw said he produced a five-year plan aimed at doubling performance at the request of the School Board, but he insisted it was just preliminary; any real plan would be developed with input from teachers, administrators, parents, the community. And, he set out an ambitious first 90 days for himself, if he gets the job: reviewing data, picking the brain of Interim Supt. Jack Parker, joining three local organizations, visiting all the schools and meeting with teachers, followed in each case by a forum with parents, 50 interviews with business leaders, meeting REA leaders and forging a relationship, meeting with all the administrators, and on and on.

Shaw also handled questions from the audience. After the break, some of the Q&A:

How do you feel about classroom sizes? "Madison spends $2,500-$2,700 more per student than Racine, and there's a big difference in class sizes. I saw 35 in one middle school here. It really makes the task of engaging much more difficult. It's a major challenge. I would like to see smaller class sizes. I don't know how to achieve it here -- maybe through reallocation of resources."

How do we get black reading scores up? "Kids who are read to at home do better; we've got to engage parents. We've got to be more explicit about what parents can do at home."

RUSD is a unique animal: urban and suburban. It represents itself as an urban district, but 2/3 of its tax revenue is from the suburbs and 40% of the kids don't attend Unified and the 60% who do are unhappy. How are you going to work for the 2/3 that pay the tax bill? "It's important for the schools to serve all of the kids. If there's a sense that's not happening, it's regrettable. If these kids are not enrolling in Unified, we need to ask the parents why. I trust parents as the most reliable advocates for their kids."

I'm a school social worker and our ranks, and despite the growing need, our ranks and guidance staffs are declining. What would you do? "I think that is a loss," Shaw said, blaming declining resources. "Our support has to be the classroom teacher. That inevitably leads to cuts in music, athletic programs and the important work that social workers and psychologists do. I don't know that we can restore past cuts, but I hope we can avoid future cuts."

We're urban, suburban and rural, but the focus is on urban. How can you bridge that gap? "We've got to create a culture of excellence for all populations."

You've avoided any mention of No Child Left Behind. Why? "I like No Child Left Behind; it makes us look at data. What I don't like about it is that it's unrealistic. Over time, every school will fail; it's kind of meaningless. And I know many teachers, many professors really dislike it. But that law has made the achievement gaps more recognizable."

So what happens next?

The school board collected feedback from those at Tuesday's Golden Rondelle session, and those who met with Shaw over the past two days. Then it will have to decide whether to make him -- their White Knight -- an offer, or start the whole process over once again.

My money is on the board hiring Shaw. As school board member Julie McKenna told me -- remember, she's one of only two board members who voted against the hiring of Dr. Barbara Pulliam, who stiffed us without even a personal phone call after more than a month of salary negotiations -- anyway, as McKenna said: "You don't always get exactly what you want." She listed Dr. Shaw's negatives as his age -- 62 -- and the fact that he has not had big-district superintendent experience. Even she realizes these are minor negatives in the great scheme of things (especially when you consider the ones brought by Unified's previous candidates).

Dr. Shaw's CV is HERE.


  1. This is an excellent article, well written and laid out. WOW.

  2. Thank you Pete. It is very informative. Looks to me like Unified better get out the paperwork and the pens and get this guy signed up. We desperately need someone with sensible ideas in here now. This ship is sinking too fast.

  3. I hope Mr. Shaw realizes there is more to RUSD than teachers/administrators. It is that mentality that brings down moral.

    There are other hard working groups of people that he needs to recognize...food service people, building service people and clerical people.

    RUSD does not need the mentality of teachers/administrators only.

  4. I was there and this is an excellent description of the event. Well done Pete! I was impressed with Dr. Shaw and his enthusiasm about RUSD and our problems. I'm not an educator so I don't know if his ideas will work or not, but he is really interested in coming here and trying to make our schools better.

  5. Sounds like a keeper. As long as he has no criminal record hire him. He seems to be the only one we can find.

  6. I've been a teacher in Menomonee Falls for over a decade(and a former West Ridge, Starbuck, Case High, and UW-Parkside Grad!) After subbing for a year in Racine out of college, I was hired by Dr. Shaw, and he was superintendent for my first five years here in the Falls.

    I can't begin to describe to you how fortunate Racine is to have fallen into this opportunity to hire him. He left Menomonee Falls in excellent shape in 2001. Our teacher mentoring program (nationally recognized by the Saturn Corp.) was designed under his tenure, and he was one of the first superitendents in the area to put a focus on content area standards to close gaps in learning. He's a hard working, intelligent, and practical individual. And from my quick research on his work in Madison since he left MF in 2001, he is very much on top of the educational reforms necessary (and other tops districts are using) to improve test scores, teacher instructional methods, and to close the achivement gaps in Racine.

    Hire him!... and embrace this as an opportunity for the community to make effective changes to a once great district. Parents and community leaders need to get involved. I've followed Racine schools a bit since I left. I know frustration leads many to just complain, and figure things wont change so why get involved. This may be the best chance you've had in many, many years. Good luck!