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Rudy Crew is Breaking the Mold

From New York City to Miami, he is one of the most highly regarded--and highly paid--superintendents

The summer of 2004 saw two high-profile and highly anticipated arrivals in Miami--Shaquille O'Neal to the struggling Miami Heat basketball team and Rudy Crew to the beleaguered Miami-Dade school district. While Shaq did his part in restoring the Heat to basketball prominence, Crew--who occupies a ninth-floor office in downtown Miami not far from the American Airlines Arena--has hit the ground running as well, promptly taking over 39 failing schools and pursuing a multi-billion dollar capital expansion that would build another 47 over the next five years.

Crew made a name for himself as the "other" Rudy in New York City, where he served under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani from 1995-1999 as chancellor of the nation's largest public school system. After coming into well-publicized conflict with his boss, Crew left his post and school administration for two think tanks--first as executive director of the Institute of K-12 Leadership and then as director of district reform initiatives for the Stupski Foundation.

Crew's return to the urban superintendent's office set off a competition among St. Louis, Washington, D.C., and Miami, and when all the negotiations had finished, Crew had broken new ground--and stirred up some controversy--with a six-year contract, which, including home, car, and bonus considerations, could average almost $500,000 annually.

He has also remained in the national spotlight, and this summer was featured at the Fordham Principals' Institute in New York City and the Harvard Principals' Center Summer Institute in Cambridge, Mass., as well as the National Academies Foundation in San Diego.

District Administration sat down with Rudy Crew in his Miami office and found that his focus is as much on the big picture in education as on the details of his new position.

Why did you decide to return to a superintendency at this point in your career, and how did you choose Miami?

I came back into the superintendency largely because it's the best match, challenge, and satisfaction I can find in my career. The only other thing that probably rivals that would be my stint as a high school principal. I truly enjoy being in an environment where the energy and the tensions of raising children and educating them are what you work through.

Crew on his salary:
" I think people are really hungry for leadership. We shouldn't underestimate the value of this kind of leadership. This is public servancy with highly developed skills."

The challenge here was particularly interesting, largely because the system is much along the lines of a New York City in terms of size. It is in many respects, as people euphemistically refer to it, "New York South." So I knew I would be in a culture of issues and people that would resonate with the kinds of things that I was about in New York City. And the kind of work that was needed here instructionally, the issues related to low-performing schools, and the need for building an infrastructure matched very much the work that I was doing in New York City.

How much do you think you were regarded as an educational star as these major school districts were competing for your services?

I don't think of myself or of that time frame as being driven by any stardom. I think people are really hungry for leadership. That leadership need is pushing communities into a more frenzied look at the skills and the skill sets that various people bring to the table. There aren't that many people who have made their market niche large urban school systems, from their days of being a teacher all the way up to being a superintendent.

Still, that competition resulted in an unprecedented salary and benefits, and you've talked in the past about "breaking the mold" of what administrators get paid. Are you leading by example?

We shouldn't underestimate that value of this kind of leadership. This is public servancy with highly developed skills. This is as critical a job and it requires some of the same skill sets as it takes to run a multi-national corporation.

The profit and loss is great. The size of these entities rivals every bit the size of Fortune 500 companies, and the salaries therefore have to be commensurate. I just don't see any place where the productivity requirements and the salary requirements should be out of alignment. There's an enormous amount that is going to be asked of me and of this team by this community.

So now that you've gotten to know the culture in Miami-Dade for more than a year, what's stood out for you?

This is a community of very, very high wealth on one hand and dense poverty on the other. It's what I think of almost as "a tale of two cities." And the challenge becomes, "Is there a way to use education as the great equalizer that everyone has touted it to be?"

Crew on his new job:
 " There's a very high set of expectations, partly borne out of the fact that I got a big salary, partly borne out of the fact that I'm from New York, partly borne out of the fact that I came with a national reputation."

I find that the community is very anxious to develop its public school system, as it is to develop its economic engines. The growth factors here are enormous. The housing starts are going through the roof. The emergence of new people coming into Miami is unparalleled.

I also think this is a really fascinating environment. It's the gateway to Latin America. It offers a tremendous perch from which to both see and engage in the lives of people who are largely immigrant populations of families and children from every place in the Caribbean, Central and South America. You find that that mix is particularly enriching.

And there are so many opportunities to foreshadow how the country as a whole begins to deals with these issues of families and children; communities being built; languages being enriched; and people's lives being added to as a function of going to the public school system.

On a more concrete level, how can your district become a model for others around the country?

Everybody's got to try to figure out the conundrum of low-performing schools. Everybody's got to try to figure out how to get children who are in all corners of the city and the community to higher levels of literacy. I think we've got an opportunity to do these things here largely because we have large numbers of children who have this need.

Another issue is the whole business of the infrastructure of the city and the infrastructure of the school system. Both of these things are emerging, the city faster and with greater planned growth, so we had to catch up. Our engine of development for school space, student stations, new schools, and new construction had to literally be put together very quickly to try to catch up to the market of this growing metropolitan community.

You say you can't afford not to make a major capital expansion of schools, but how much does a plan like this cost, and how do you pay for it?

I don't want to put a number on it because it always changes, but it will cost several billion dollars. We have about two years worth of that money as a part of the state's capital facilities budget, but what we need to do is talk about some sort of financing mechanism for the rest of those years.

The way to think about this is the building of a city. This is just not about the building of some schools. And I think that what we're doing in Miami is simply making ourselves part of the campaign for the rebuilding of Miami, and that is a different frame of reference. What we've done here is to add the dimension of education to that conversation so that it's not an afterthought and so that people get the sense that this is about the vibrancy of all of the community, the children in the community, adults in the community, and adult learning in the community.

You also sought--and received--permission this year to take over 39 underperforming schools right away. What's been the upshot so far?

The results have been compelling. All 39 schools except one made substantial academic gains over the course of the year. The state of Florida designates schools "A" through "F." We started with nine "F" schools and reduced that to three. We ended up with 10 percent more students in these 39 schools scoring "Level 3" (which represents reading at grade level) and above. That's the highest gain in the state. Third grade is the grade in Florida where if you have not mastered the state's FCAT, you are retained. In the previous year, the number at these schools was close to 9,000 third graders being retained, and that number is now down to a little bit over 5,000.

It's dangerous to suggest that this is exactly because of this one intervention. But by our taking on these 39 schools, the clarion call went out for effective schools and effective leadership and focused, effective teaching and really examining whether children are learning. The school system was declaring itself and what it does in a very bold, aggressive statement of goals. It put a lot of risk into the game, which ultimately has the effect of either galvanizing people or scaring them to death. Nobody knew what the data would reveal.

What have been the pros and cons of coming to town as an outsider?

There's a very high set of expectations, partly borne out of the fact that I got a big salary, partly borne out of the fact that I'm from New York, partly borne out of the fact that I came with a national reputation.

So everybody tries to figure out: What are we going to get this guy to demonstrate that he can do? How many home runs do we count before we say he's a bona fide home run hitter?

Crew on NYC:
" You know, I got fired. Rudy [Giuliani] and I ran afoul of each other. In a very strong mayoral city like New York, the mayor rules, period. Punto. End of story."

I don't know how that works here, and I don't preoccupy myself with it. I do my very best here. I know why I came. I know what I think I can do, and I'm just going to go about the business of doing it.

There's also a degree of cynicism toward people coming from the outside and coming from another major urban center. One of the tensions in coming from a big city like New York is: "Do you know it all? Do you have the Holy Grail, or are you willing to learn from us as well as contribute what we are trying to do here?"

I think I've done a fairly decent job of hitting the ground running and trying to learn where people have been. My critics would say I'm harsh, I'm too pushy--maybe that some of that New York pushiness that everyone always talks about is in evidence too much of the time. But this is a time to test. I don't think you get a long period of time to be new, to learn the culture, or to know enough about what to change and how to change it.

Speaking of New York, what do you think you did well--and not so well--during your time there, and how does your record translate to your job here?

I think that there were a fair number of initiatives in New York that bore fruit. We were growing New York City, as we are Miami. Similarly, we were behind the eight ball in having to develop the necessary seats to keep up with that growth. We were behind in New York City by about 20,000 seats. In Miami, we were behind as well, and the only way to hurry and catch up was to add 18,000 seats to schools.

The relationship I had with Rudy Giuliani in New York City for the most part, with the exception of those latter years, was a very good one, and it actually ended up stabilizing the school system at a time when frankly it had been highly, highly destabilized.

There were clearly some downsides. You know, I got fired. Rudy and I ran afoul of each other. In a very strong mayoral city like New York, the mayor rules, period. Punto. End of story. So if you don't get along with the mayor, you're done.

It's different here in Miami, because first of all, you're not answering to the mayor, but second of all, it's a different governance structure here. The local municipalities here each have a mayor. I share with them, we can communicate together, and we're all equals in many respects. We're all public servants who are trying to advance the cause of a county.

So what insights from your experience in New York have you brought with you?

One of the lessons I learned is that you need to reflect while you're in the job, not so much after you're out of the job. This is a piece of artwork that you need to step back from and constantly assess. Are you comfortable with the coloration? Are you comfortable with the gauge? Does it still resonate with you? Does the picture in your mind still have value?

I don't always like what I see, but when I take the step back, I actually feel refreshed in the process. And I didn't do that in New York.

A second lesson for me is that there's enormous value in really tapping into the existing culture. There's smarts there. There's a genius that's there. It's in our Haitian parents. It's in our Hispanic immigrant parents. It's in our poor parents. It's in our rich parents. But you have to tap that genius. You have to go in and unlock that conversation that they're willing to have with you.

If you really listen, you'll find that the innovation will grow out of that. It won't be something that you read in a textbook or get out of a trade journal. Frankly, you'll get it out of listening to the journey that these people have been taking. I think you really come away with a very different understanding of what it means to redesign schools.

I feel wiser in this job now, more comfortable in knowing what I know and equally comfortable in seeking answers to the things that I don't know.

You have a unique vantage point. When you were chancellor in New York City, there was no NCLB. When you returned to the superintendent's office here, NCLB was in place for almost three years. How much have you noticed the difference?

Slightly, but not in a major way because the conversation about assessment--which is really what No Child Left Behind is all about--has been going on in this country for the last decade-and-a-half. It wasn't until NCLB came out that it solidified a particular policy viewpoint that assessment should become implementable nationwide. Up until that time, people were doing statewide assessments, local assessments, and a hodgepodge of a lot of things. What No Child Left Behind did was bring centrality to the conversation, which has been enormously helpful.

The problem has been that NCLB has never really clarified--and people are still very hungry for--what's really the meat and potatoes of this conversation. That is, even if we do assessments and find a school that has not made Adequate Yearly Progress, the question still is, "Then what?" That's where the field has really been abandoned by NCLB. The conversation has never turned the corner past assessment to instruction.

You've been opposed to school vouchers for a long time, and you came to a job in a state where these vouchers are a matter of law. What advice would you give when the rules of the game do not match your convictions?

You're always going to find places in the landscape of urban schools particularly where the value structure that's embedded in law does not meet your own. I came to Miami, and I told everyone that as an instructional strategy and as a policy matter, vouchers--for me--were not an option. And I wanted them to know that going in the door. The governor knows who I was before I came here. He and I had a conversation about vouchers. He's very understanding of my views and I'm understanding of his views. That then gave me enough bandwidth to start talking about my instructional strategy and what I would do differently.

In Florida, I knew that I was coming into a place that was--for lack of a better term--a red state. But I also understood that there were children here who had a need for high-level instruction, for good literacy instruction, for a school-wide plan on how to improve instruction. So regardless of what the policies of the macro-system look like, the need on the ground dictates what most generals will have to do day-to-day. And as long as you can be true to yourself on the ground, you can negotiate.

Finally, from what you can see, what does the future hold in this country for urban school systems, both in terms of their possibilities and potential pitfalls?

Let me talk about the possibilities first. I think that the next generation of work around urban schools is to become integrated into the agenda of cities, as I spoke about earlier. In the same sense as any major company in a town, if it shuts its doors, if it changes its policy, if it goes offshore to get its labor, it changes the chemistry and character of the city that it resides in. And schools are a big part of the industry of a city, and urban schools particularly have to become more integral, so we have to work at really establishing the sort of linkages and protocols around the design and--in many cases--the redesign of schools to meet the services of the city.

That's a different concept. What are the learning and service needs of a city, and how do schools factor into those needs in terms of technology, the labor force, immigration, and so on? We are not necessarily in the business of waiting for people to come in to educate them. We're in the business of learning, which has a greater impact in a city than just who comes in our doors. It's much as the railroad half a century ago had to start shifting to become more in the transportation business, as opposed to just the railroad business.

In terms of the pitfalls, if we don't figure out this other platform, some other enterprise will figure it out for us. Sylvan is in the learning business, for example. People will scale that model up and eat our lunch.

Also, our dilemma in public education is not that we don't have good pedagogy or that we don't know good instruction. Our dilemma is that we do not implement well. We don't scale things up well. So I think we have to have a higher acumen around that, and if we don't, I think we'll literally become a sort of dinosaur.

In communities that have long used the public school system in urban America as the one harbor that they could count on and where they would have their issues taken seriously, I think there's a danger that people will say, "It's just too doggone hard to do, and it's too complicated, and too costly." So potentially you'll end up with a greater divide than you have now.

Ron Schachter is a contributing editor.

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