One Man’s Mission: Saving Underperforming Schools with the Future of Minorities in Mind

It’s no secret that many U.S. urban school districts are underperforming due to many social, economic and political factors. I spoke with Dr. Carlton Carter of AASA and Howard University Urban Superintendents Academy about dealing with the many challenges urban superintendents face that might not exist in suburban or rural districts.

I was surprised to learn that the average superintendent in an urban school district lasts only two-and-a-half years on the job. Carlton says the biggest surprise for newcomers are the political aspects of the superintendency. The complexities of accountability, pressures to close the achievement gap and facing underfunded schools means that superintendents need to get creative and create a strong brand for their urban districts to get political buy-in from their community.

Only 2% of all superintendents in the U.S. are African American males. Carlton is doing his part to increase that number as an act of personal service to the education community. Carter wants to make a difference and is doing a fantastic job of being a role model.


Dr. Rod Berger: Carlton, I think what's fascinating is the cohort that you're a part of in building up the next crop of district leaders. Tell me about what that's like from your perspective. You've said that you've worked in so many different roles within districts. And to finally say, “I want to take this leap. I want to not only learn for myself but learn what that next step looks like,” what is that decision process like for you?

Dr. Carlton Carter: This is sort of a feel-out process. They bring on former superintendents, current superintendents, school board members, and school board directors and they talk about the rigors of being a superintendent and “Do you want to make that leap?”

They bring the statistic out that the average superintendent in an urban school district lasts less than 2.5 years. And so, you want to make sure that you're not one and done and that you're able to serve the needs of our children.

What brought me into that decision is an act of service. I'm in this to make a difference. And there are many other opportunities out there to do other work that's less challenging but our youth in our urban districts really need our help and support.

RB: What has surprised you along the way in your learning as a part of that cohort? When you think about the challenge, the 2.5 years, and these sorts of things, have there been times where you've sat there and just thought . . . you knew going in that it was complex, right?

CC: Right.

RB: But maybe it opened your eyes to different things that speak to the daily challenges of running an urban school district.

CC: The politics. The politics of it because it's a vicious cycle of failure; and until someone breaks that vicious cycle of failure it will continue.

When they talk about closing the achievement gap and they talk about equity, actually, if you really measure up equity and you go along the same paradigm as saying, “I'm going to dedicate these resources to this person; I'm going to dedicate these resources to another,” actually the underserved needs more resources.

However, you have less money because it's tax-based. Not only do you have to do a job as an urban superintendent and as a leader in guiding the school system, but you have to go and lobby and advocate for your school system.

What I've found surprising is that you have to build your own brand and you have to change the narrative and perception of that district.

The politics and “going for the extra mile” and championing for that district and also serving the needs of our underserved parents so that the children can get into school to learn because if their basic needs are not met ─ as you know in Maslow’s hierarchy of learning ─ there's no way that they can learn.

What you're facing is reputation. You're facing dysfunctions from the school board. You're facing less money from the state. These are the challenges of being an urban superintendent.

The burnout is tremendous.

RB: I don't think we've spent enough time thinking about the challenges and the opportunities and communicating to an urban school environment community that changes the narrative, which is that there is opportunity in the school in your community. There are ways that we can help divert and change that vicious cycle that you spoke of.

That's has to be part of everyday communicating with the school environment, does it not?

CC: There has to be reaching to the parents. These are constituent services. Also, the media plays a big part in it, because you have some people who are for you and those who are against you.

And some other media is feasting off the dysfunction of the school system; and, sometimes, you have some news outlets who want to celebrate the successes.

You also have to change public perception along with your constituent services ─ building strong PTAs, going out there and building strong business partnerships to invest in “Why should we be here? Why should we believe in you? Are you going to be here long enough?”

And then, here's the other problem: When they make the changes that you need to make, of course, not everybody is going to be happy. Somebody is benefiting off of the chaos of an underperforming school system.

And so, when the elections come and you have your school board members, you may have the school board members who generally support you and hire you.

But in the next election, you could have a brand new set of school board members and they totally have a different agenda in their minds and they decide, “This is not the direction we want to go so we would like to try someone new.”

RB: Carlton, we'll touch on a sensitive topic, one I think that's important in education and in society, and that's around the potential responsibility that you might feel as an African-American in going towards the superintendent position because we know that we're trying to see more diversity that is reflective of our communities because if we want young people to aspire to not only succeed in education but, then, to also work and give back, having role models is a key piece to that.

CC: Correct.

RB: So what is that like for you just to know that there are young people who are, I would imagine, looking up to you in your own community who are not only are cheering you on ─ but it just changes the dynamic, does it not?

CC: Yes, it does. It does change the paradigm. But I also want to bring on a staggering statistic to you that there are less than 2% African-American male superintendents in this country. However, if you read the statistics, by 2044, the minority will be the majority of the United States

RB: So are we planning accordingly?

CC: We are not. The dynamic shifts have not adjusted. So you may have career educators who have been teaching for 20 to 25 years but the dynamics of the Latino population, the African-American population has risen. Therefore, the game has changed. Some people are wanting for the days that “I wish the students would be able to sit in rows and just listen to what I'm saying.”

My son is operating a laptop; he's operating his tablet; and he's watching TV at the same time. All those neurons are firing. If all those neurons are firing, why are we having our children sitting in rows in a non-engaging atmosphere?

And so, that is what is happening to our youth. They are being stimulated and their attention spans are a lot shorter; and it's also a cultural difference in the way they learn.

RB: Do you find that they are having more conversations around the cultural component that we're talking about now? Are there active conversations around that where we're saying, “Wait a minute, why don't we have more diversity at a district-leadership level?” Are these active conversations that you're hearing outside of your cohort

CC: Yes. Those are active conversations that are going around to make sure that there's proper representation for the district that you're serving. And so, that seems to be a great disparity. But nothing really has changed yet because we're still at around two percent. However, that does not reflect what our children out there ─ that we are serving ─ represents.

It should all be about diversity but not a low rate of two percent.

RB: No, because messages whether they're verbal or not are still impacting those around us; and if young people don't see representation, we are playing a part in that vicious cycle.

CC: Absolutely.

About Dr. Carlton Carter

Dr. Carlton Carter has more than 20 years of comprehensive experience in directing all aspects of middle and high school operations, including oversight of educational strategies and initiatives, policy and program developments, and educational services. With a proven track record in educational administration, he successfully transformed two secondary underperforming schools to make AYP within two years. Carlton is skilled in instructional leadership, climate and culture, master scheduling, budgeting, operating cost reduction, and community relations.

Carlton currently works at the American Institutes for Research (AIR) as a Senior Turnaround Consultant and leadership coach. He has worked at Bloom and Morton High School in Chicago and Waterfront and Bilingual K-8 Middle School in Buffalo and Utica Public Schools. Previously, he worked at the Center for Collaborative Education in the capacity as a Senior Associate for Redesign.

Visit website of Dr. Carlton Carter

Further Reading:

Additional Reading:

Promoting professional development and certification for teachers

Scaling personalized learning for school districts

A look at culturally responsive school educators

About Rod Berger, PsyD.

Dr. Rod Berger is President and CEO of MindRocket Media Group. Berger is a global education media personality and strategic influencer featured in The Huffington Post, Scholastic, AmericanEdTV, edCircuit, EdTechReview India and Forbes

Audiences have enjoyed education interviews with the likes of Sir Ken Robinson, Arne Duncan, Randi Weingarten, Sal Khan along with leading edtech investors, award-winning educators, and state and federal education leaders. Berger’s latest project boasts a collaboration with AmericanEdTV and CBS’s Jack Ford.

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