Brigadier General Anthony "Tony" Tata of the U.S. Army had one of those "ah-ha" moments in April 2006 when, on the eve of an operation he was heading in Afghanistan, an Al Qaeda rocket shattered a nearby school. The attack killed a teacher and seven students and wounded dozens more. "It occurred to me then that our enemy really sees education of the population as their enemy," says Tata (pronounced TAY-tuh). "They know that once young men and women have access and can think on their own, they will seek liberty and freedom and more opportunities."
The rocket incident eventually nudged Tata toward a new mission: improving public education in America. After retiring from the military in 2009, Tata became the chief operating officer of the District of Columbia Public Schools.
A year and a half later, in December 2010, his reputation as a direct communicator and level-headed leader earned him the top job at the nation's 18th-largest district, the Wake County (N.C.) Public School System. He started the job in January. Tata says he hadn't planned to leave D.C. so abruptly, even after D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, who had hired him, stepped down, but he couldn't pass up the opportunity.
The 51-year-old Tata is calm, candid and confident about his latest charge— improving student learning during tight financial times in a fast-growing, increasingly diverse school district led by a politically charged board. "Our focus here is on raising student achievement and using every ounce of central office's energy to do that," Tata says.
The son of retired teachers, Tata says his transition from Army officer to superintendent came naturally. "Leadership is a very transferrable skill set from one industry to the next," says Tata, whose skills no doubt will be tested as Wake County faces a myriad of challenges. On the student performance front, about 60 percent of the district's schools failed to meet Adequate Yearly Progress last year under No Child Left Behind.
On the political front, the district's high schools are at risk of losing accreditation if Tata can't help unite a fractured board and community. And on the diversity front, the National Women's Law Center and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People have filed different federal complaints, alleging sexism in athletics and racism in the district's system for assigning students to schools.
Tata arrived, in a sense, in the middle of combat, but he seems undaunted. With the district's problems comes an extremely engaged community of parents and business leaders. Tata spent his first few months on a "listening tour," meeting at schools, churches and chambers of commerce, before crafting a strategic plan. "He's a real straight shooter," says Tim Simmons, a vice president of the nonprofit Wake Education Partnership. "He was able to clearly articulate what he felt his challenges were, and we were able to clearly tell him where we stood."
In an Elite Club
Tata is one of a handful of former military leaders who have become superintendents. Perhaps the best known, David Brewer III, a retired U.S. Navy vice admiral with no education experience, had a rocky two years at the helm of the Los Angeles Unified School District before the board of education bought out his contract two years early in 2008.
Along with Tata, at least four other ex-military officers are running U.S. school districts: John Barry of the Aurora (Colo.) Public Schools, Thomas Brady of the Providence (R.I.) Public Schools, Edmond Heatley of the Clayton County (Ga.) Public Schools, and Alan Ingram of the Springfield (Mass.) Public Schools, according to the Broad Superintendents Academy, which trained them.
The Los Angeles-based academy, founded by philanthropist Eli Broad, recruits and prepares business executives,military officers and traditional educators for administration roles in urban districts. Tata graduated from the academy in 2009. Meanwhile, Broad has funneled nearly $400 million since 1999 into programs designed for urban districts.
Tata plans to seek millions in donations from Broad. His budget proposal for next year involves cutting 46 central-office positions and starting pilot pay-for-performance projects. His plan may possibly include year-round calendar options for students, and will likely have a school assignment plan that will please most people and make the most of taxpayers' money.
Marc Terry, Broad's director of recruitment, says veteran military leaders bring experience in managing budgets and personnel that a school administrator will need. He had particular praise for Tata's communication skills. "That's really important as a leader—to not just have confidence but to communicate that confidence and your vision to your organization," Terry says, adding that Tata also brings sincerity and strength. "He's courageous. And that's very helpful, particularly in leading large organizations through change."
In His Genes
Tata, who grew up in Virginia, likes to say education is his family's business. After all, his parents met while teaching at a local high school, and his sister is a teacher and an athletic coach in Virginia. His mother taught business, became a guidance counselor, and later served two terms on the Virginia Beach City Public Schools' board of education. His father, a former football coach, history teacher and counselor, is now a representative in the Virginia General Assembly, where he serves as chairman of the House Education Committee.
As a child, Tata says, he too wanted to be a teacher. But his father lovingly advised, "You've got to put food on the plate."
With their background as school counselors, Tata's parents steered him to the United States Military Academy at West Point in New York. He graduated in 1981 and served for 28 years in the Army, his skills earning him promotions through the ranks as well as the Combat Action Badge and Bronze Star.
"My desire to be a teacher was really fulfilled when I got into the Army and saw that in being a leader of young men, I was coaching and teaching and mentoring all at once," Tata says, adding that his work with the mostly public school graduates gave him insight into the U.S. educational system.
In the Trenches
Once on the job as COO in DCPS, Tata says he was struck by the similarities between the military and education. The school district's central office was like Army headquarters, he says, and principals were the equivalent of colonels. "Those principals want autonomy, and they also want vision and leadership and guidance," he says. "So often I would see a military organization where the troops on the front line felt like they were just there to provide information to the headquarters. How many times have we heard principals say, 'We have to feed the beast at the central office?'"
To improve communication between principals and central office staff, Tata organized hour-long voluntary meetings every Wednesday. At the first session, a dozen principals showed up, Tata says. Two months later, attendance had grown sixfold, as administrators had come to appreciate the access to top-level staff.
He also streamlined operations, improving textbook delivery and purchasing practices, according to published reports. He allowed school business managers to make simple supply orders on their own, for example, instead of waiting for a delivery from central office. Rhee stated he had the know-how to take the helm. "He's not a touchy-feely guy who will hold people's hands," she told Raleigh's News & Observer newspaper. "He was a general, so he knows about leadership. He knows how to get the job done."
Called to the Challenge
Tata was hired for the top Wake County schools job at an abruptly called board of education meeting in late December 2010. Four Republican board members voted for him, two Democrats voted no—worried about Tata's lack of education experience— and two members didn't attend.
Board Chairman Ron Margiotta, who supported the board majority but didn't vote because no tiebreaker was needed, says Tata's leadership experience in the military and his stint in one of the nation's toughest school systems made him well qualified to take the helm of North Carolina's largest district. "From my viewpoint as a retired businessman, I look through our system and we have so many educators," Margiotta says. "Our lead CEO doesn't have to be a lifetime educator. The CEO of Budweiser doesn't necessarily know how to make beer."
Thomas Payzant, a former superintendent and assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Education, says that Tata's willingness to accept the Wake County job on a split vote proves his commitment. Payzant, who once led the Boston and San Diego school districts and now is a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, was one of Tata's instructors at the Broad Academy. "He knows going in that he's got a challenge with his board," Payzant says, "and he's willing to take that risk because he thinks there's a need there for major improvement in that school district and for the kids."
For his part, Tata says he was drawn to the challenge, and his father praised its innovations, such as nationally recognized magnet schools, which sealed the deal.
Tata says he didn't come to Wake County with a blueprint for reform but started with a 90-day "plan of entry," which included asking principals for anonymous advice, holding one-on-one conversations with board members, and sponsoring department audits conducted by the Broad Academy. Within five weeks, he formed a committee to study perhaps the most heated issue: the policy for assigning and busing students to schools.
Wake County, since 2000, had tried to ensure diversity in the schools by assigning students based on their socioeconomic status. Last year, controversy over the policy peaked, and a newly elected board scrapped it, arguing that shuffling students hadn't led to enough progress in student performance. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan blasted the change, arguing it would lead back to racially segregated schools. "I respectfully urge school boards across America to fully consider the consequences before taking such action," Duncan wrote in a newspaper commentary. "This is no time to go backward."
Wake County, for the first time, became a majority-minority school district this year. Of its 143,000 students, just under 50 percent are white and the rest are minorities. The district's enrollment has skyrocketed over the last decade, as 50,000 new students have been added. "The real issue here in Wake County is high growth," Tata says. "We have the opposite problem of a lot of school districts. How do we turn this into a positive instead of a negative, which it has become?"
The student assignment issue and the school board's handling of it sparked both a complaint from the NAACP, which argued minority students would be hurt by the policy change, and an investigation by the accreditation agency AdvancED. In March, the agency sent a harshly worded report to the district, putting its high schools on "accredited warned" status because it questioned the board's ability to lead, noting that some board members had rushed to change the student assignment policy without sufficient data.
"Since December 1, 2009, the actions and decisions of the Wake County Board of Education have resulted in creating a climate of uncertainty, suspicion, and mistrust throughout the community," the report states.
AdvancED gave Wake County eight months to develop a fair student assignment system and to improve school board governance such as how agendas are set and policies are adopted. The report accused the new board majority of adding significant items to the agenda at the last minute and without public comment. Tata didn't flinch at the report. "I welcome this input as I continue my listening tour of Wake County," he said in a news release. "We are already attacking many of these recommendations and intend to aggressively implement all of them."
He noted that the board recently voted unanimously on a new vision expressing their belief that all children, regardless of their circumstances, can be high achieving. Another problem for the district, along with 11 others across the country, is its alleged violation of the Title IX federal discrimination law. The complaint alleges Wake County doesn't provide enough athletic opportunities for girls. Citing 2006 data as evidence, it says, the percentage of girls in athletics was 12 points lower in 2006 than the percentage of girls enrolled.
As of late March, Tata hadn't unveiled what, if any, changes he planned to make to the athletic program. The athletic director has defended the girls' program, and a district spokesman said officials were cooperating with investigators from the federal Office for Civil Rights.
Despite some academic problems, Wake County boasts higher-than-average scores on college entrance exams. On the SAT, the district's average score of 1571 was 62 points higher than the U.S. average and 86 points higher than the North Carolina average. The district's average ACT score of 23 beat the national average by two points and the state by one. Still, last school year, 61 of the district's 159 campuses met Adequate Yearly Progress under No Child Left Behind; 54 schools missed by only one or two AYP targets.
The achievement gap, while improving, remains a trouble spot, according to district data. Last year on the state reading exam, for example, 90 percent of white students in grades 3-8 scored proficient, compared with 56 percent of African-Americans and 53 percent of Hispanics. To boost the performance of minority students, Tata says one of his goals is to recruit more African-American and Hispanic teachers and administrators to Wake County, where the staff now is about 80 percent white.
Donna Hargens, the district's chief academic officer who had served as interim superintendent, applauds Tata's intense focus on ensuring that all central office functions are geared to help teaching and learning. "The thing that stands out is, he asks very insightful, relevant questions and then expects us to respond with datadriven answers," she says.
With his hectic schedule, Tata says he hasn't had much time to devote to his other passion: writing. He's authored three Tom Clancy-like military novels and been a regular commentator on TV networks such as Fox and CBS (angering some who oppose his views, including his support for former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin). "I've always used writing as an outlet," Tata says, before veering off to talk about Wake County's perks: a growing student population and engaged parents. "As far as the writing stuff goes, I'll get back to it."
Ericka Mellon is a K12 education reporter for the Houston Chronicle.