INTERVIEW WITH ERIC SMITH, SUPERINTENDENT (1996-2002)
Hedrick Smith: Eric Smith, former superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools
and currently superintendent of Anne Arundel County Schools in Maryland. Take
me back to the period where you were about to become the superintendent of schools
in Charlotte and give me a little bit of the context in North Carolina. What was
North Carolina's reputation? Were you enthusiastic about going there? If so why?
Eric Smith: A great deal of excitement in coming to Charlotte. Charlotte is
a very vibrant city and community, and North Carolina had a very clear focus
on education and on achievement being led by Governor Jim Hunt. His focus on
accountability and student performance was just extraordinary. The business leadership,
the parent leadership, the leadership in the faith community in Charlotte had
high expectations. So there was a sense of excitement, but also a sense of accountability
that we had work to do here. And there were a lot of people that were expecting
the work to be done and done well.
Hedrick Smith: North Carolina among others was known as one of the leaders, back in
the mid' 90s, of the standards movement. Talk a little bit about North Carolina and
the standards movement.
Eric Smith: North Carolina did set the pace for the standards movement and
I attribute that to the work of Governor Hunt. He had a very clear vision and
a very great passion about standards, about achievement, about accountability.
And that very much was a part of the fabric when I arrived in Charlotte; that
gave me and others the data that we needed – the sense of how students were doing – school
by school and ultimately disaggregated by subgroup, by racial and economic and
gender groups… That foundation led to a lot of the great work in the school district.
Hedrick Smith: Was there a sense of urgency?
Eric Smith: The sense of urgency in Charlotte was huge. A sense of dissatisfaction
in Charlotte was huge. Before I started I got a list of names of about a hundred
people, not elected officials, just moms and dads and business leaders and people
that have had influence in the progress of Charlotte. I asked them basically
two questions: What are your hopes and dreams for the school district in Charlotte?
What do you see as the biggest problems that I, as superintendent, need to
And so I listened over a period of about a month and a half and I had a pretty
good sense of some of the issues and challenges that lay ahead. What was interesting
was that while there was a very clear sense of unrest, there was this huge optimism
about our ability to do something about it… This sense that we're going to take
care of it, get on with the game, let's get this thing moving. It's a “can do” attitude:
We're going to be there with you but we expect it to be done.
Hedrick Smith: And what was the state of schools that you found?
Eric Smith: Well, we started really looking at why there were discrepancies in achievement
in Charlotte. We went out to individual schools and looked at what teachers were doing,
at the nature of their work, what was being done in classrooms, the level of work that
was being expected of children and what tools and supports were being provided to teachers
to help them to be successful. What we discovered very early on was huge discrepancies.
Hedrick Smith: Between?
Eric Smith: Between every aspect of the business of teaching and learning.
And the obvious: discrepancies in facilities – older buildings, buildings that
needed major repair.
Hedrick Smith: The discrepancy you're talking about is between low-income inner city
and the suburban schools.
Eric Smith: I saw huge discrepancies in some of the inner city low-income densely
minority populated areas of inner city Charlotte, versus the high growth areas
of the suburb. Charlotte is a real mix. It has long standing communities, sections
of town that have been there for hundreds of years, and then you have high growth
areas that are new every day. And with that new growth comes new schools, bright
and shiny and everything is in place, and new equipment to stock that new school.
And then you have the older schools in the inner city. And so what you will find,
I think, in most school districts across America was accentuated in Charlotte
because of its rapid growth in the suburbs and it even underscored that difference.
But it was more than just the places that teachers work; that was almost secondary.
The real issue was the differences in what was being taught and how it was being
taught, and the expectations that that teachers carried to the classroom for
the performance of kids. That was the most startling and dramatic difference
between some of the suburban portions of Charlotte and the inner city of Charlotte.
Hedrick Smith: And what was the difference?
Eric Smith: Again it starts with expectation. If you could even be working
on the same type of concept – it could be a simple multiplication issue... But
it's what you ask students to do with multiplication. It's the depth of understanding
of multiplication and how complex a problem a child is given in demonstrating
their knowledge and understanding of the process of multiplication.
Hedrick Smith: So the expectations are different for inner city kids than suburban
Eric Smith: We found that the pace of instruction – the speed with which content
was being delivered – was different for the lower income, inner city areas and
the suburban areas. We found that the demand that was being placed on students,
the expectation that they will do the work today, they will have the homework
tonight, they will have the test on Friday. There is no excuse about this. Totally
Hedrick Smith: Why is that important?
Eric Smith: That's the whole game in education. It is what goes on in that
classroom between teacher and student that drives the work.
Hedrick Smith: But are you saying all the kids could do it?
Eric Smith: I knew from day one that all the kids could do the same level of
work. They could accomplish it in the same time frame. In terms of calendar days
they would respond to the expectation to work at an extraordinarily high level.
I knew that Charlotte had the capacity to make that happen.
Hedrick Smith: But there are a lot of people in this country who say public education
can't work and it specifically can't work for kids who come from minority families and
high poverty areas.
Eric Smith: People who say that low-income children, minority children can't
excel at extraordinary levels are flat out wrong. They just haven't seen the
evidence. And the evidence has to be seen with children that are given the kind
of instruction that is required to allow children to excel at that level.
What I saw was two different games being played out in Charlotte. I saw a
game of low expectations being played out… And I saw a low level of performance.
Kids will perform at the level at which they are taught. And if you teach at
a low level you're going to get performance at a low level and you shouldn't
expect any different outcome.
Our challenge was to help. The thing I did not do was to blame the teacher.
I didn't see it as a teacher problem. What we saw was a central office
problem. It was an administrative problem from central office in Charlotte that
didn't support that classroom teacher in understanding clearly what needed to
be taught and at what level. Those teachers work hard, struggling, often frustrated
by lack of performance and an absolute lack of clarity that needed to be placed
on the performance of students. The teachers did not have a sense
of what level of work children had to be exposed to in order to be competitive
at the end of first grade or at the end of 12th grade.
To me that is the job of central administration, that is the job of the superintendent
of schools to bring that kind of clarity to the classroom and give the teachers
the strategies that will help them to be successful.
Hedrick Smith: What was the challenge?
Eric Smith: Well, the challenge in Charlotte was to change the nature of the work,
the core business of the school district. And to change the core nature of the work
that goes on in classrooms.
Hedrick Smith: What does that mean?
Eric Smith: We needed to change what teachers did, day in and day out. We started
to pose the questions to ourselves. There wasn't a roadmap for us. We started
to ask the question: What aspect of the work of teachers do we control? Can we
help to drive a different outcome?
It starts with the simple things and these things had to be discovered in Charlotte.
We analyzed the fundamentals: Do we have a consistent countywide strategy for
teaching children how to read? And a layperson might say, “How in the world could
a school system of 100,000 kids not have a clear definition of how children should
read?” But this nation doesn't always have a clear definition of how children
We decided to draw the line in the sand and say, “This is the way it's going
to be done here, thank you very much”. And let the debate rage outside the borders
of our district. So we came to a decision about how we were going to teach kids
how to read and how kids were going to be taught mathematics. Then we asked the
question: If a teacher is to be successful in that strategy, what kind of materials
do they need to do that? What does the textbook look like? What supporting materials
do they need?
We asked the fundamental questions of the business and unfortunately those
fundamental questions aren't asked enough and aren't researched enough in America.
Over the course of a 180 day school year, do they need an hour? 90 minutes?
two hours? Should they get it twice a day? With most kids you know how much time
you need to allocate for that. Do we let individual schools make those decisions
on their own? We chose to make decisions countywide…
Hedrick Smith: It sounds like a very district driven reform plan. What did
you do about local site management which, after all, during the late' 80s and
early '90 s local site control was the rage. Everybody thought that was the way
Eric Smith: It was the rage. The local site control was the rage in Charlotte.
It mirrored what was going on across the country. We got criticized a bit in
Charlotte for being more centrally controlled and I openly admitted to the fact
that we were very much centrally controlled. We did decide we were going to teach
reading collectively. And I wouldn't say centrally. We all agreed we're going
to do it this way.
And went so far as to design model lessons that could be used in classrooms,
again written by master teachers in Charlotte…
Hedrick Smith: So the district is driving a lot of this process.
Eric Smith: The district drove these changes. The difference is that we didn't abandon
site based control. We redefined the definition of site based control. We redefined
what teachers and administrators at the local level had an obligation to wrestle with.
We were going to remove the more trivial decisions, like the textbook they're going
to use. And we're going to use the process of bringing people together and deciding
how much time would be appropriate for a teacher to be successful.
The tough decisions, though, were still left at the local level.
Hedrick Smith: Meaning?
Eric Smith: The tough decisions like, “Okay, I know what I'm going to teach
and I'm going to give an assessment at the end of seven days. And five of my
kids didn't get it, what do we do about that?” As a team of teachers, third grade
teachers trying to teach reading or math, what do we do with administrative support?
How do we intervene? How do we make sure the kids that didn't get it the first
time are given an opportunity to be re-taught?'
Hedrick Smith: Essentially you're talking about the school making decisions
about implementing the curriculum and the general strategy that you're laying
out at the district level.
Eric Smith: I would equate it to having a master plan for any major function. We had
the master plan. We did it with the best thinking we could find in Charlotte, the best
teachers, the best infusion of ideas from outside on how the teaching of reading and
math and biology and algebra ought to be done at the school level.
But on the ground, in the classroom, we expected the principal and the team
of teachers to get control of that situation and develop answers, to be more
hyper responsive to students' failure or need for acceleration.
Hedrick Smith: Let me step back a moment and ask you a couple of framework
questions. After you had done this reconnoiter – looked at the schools, found
this disparity between the inner city schools and the suburban schools, in terms
of standards, resources, buildings, teachers – what were your goals?
Eric Smith: I really credit the board with having a vision of an accountability
program. The school board had an expectation that we would develop clearly defined
goals and that at least a portion of my compensation and certainly my performance
evaluation and future employment would be based on my ability to move student
achievement to a higher level.
I knew very clearly coming into Charlotte what I wanted from our kids. I wanted
to see the cross section of children from all backgrounds perform at an extraordinarily
high level as defined by some outside body. And so I looked at advanced placement,
I looked at international baccalaureate, I looked at the SAT as three ways that
we could measure our performance. If we're doing our job then we should be able
to get kids to play in the big game before they leave us. And be competitive
academically as defined by some outside national or international measure.
Hedrick Smith: Tell us a little bit about the benchmarking and the accountability.
Eric Smith: I first drafted out where I wanted kids to be at the end. And specifically
by what time frame and what measure of performance. I wanted kids to be able
to achieve within the AP, the IB and the SAT.
And then I didn't want to be in a position where the district had to measure
everything that moved. I wanted a kind of dipstick. I wanted to have
points of measure over the course of a child's kindergarten through 12th grade
experience. And I wanted to see whether or not we were on target. So I moved
from SAT, IB and AP performance then I wrote specific goals for algebra one performance
in middle school, for third grade reading and third grade mathematics. And I
defined that in terms of percent of children performing at what level – be it
state accountability or advanced placement exams or whatever. And by the year
2001, we would have this level of performance in Charlotte.
Hedrick Smith: And 70% of the children in third grade are going to be performing at
grade level by four years from now or whatever…
Eric Smith: Exactly. For example 75%, 85% of the kids were performing at grade
level by the end of grade three as measured by the state accountability test
by the year 2001.
Hedrick Smith: So it's very specific, very targeted, very clear.
Eric Smith: Exactly. We had very specific goals developed. As a new superintendent
it was a little bit risky to roll these out. I tried to establish goals for the
district that would be really hard work to accomplish but still doable. I thought
that we could come real close. I thought at the end of the day if I ended up
being fired for failure to meet these goals I'd still be okay with everything
because I'd know that we'd be a lot better off than we had if we had no goals
I had the good fortune of working with just incredible corporate leaders and
community leaders like Hugh McCall and Ed Crutchfield that looked over my proposed
goals before I went public with them and they gave them their blessing and critique.
The goals gave us the substance to shape our strategies. It gave us the rationale
to build budgets. It gave us the rationale for how we organized schools and how
we deployed personnel. It gave us the basis for driving staff development.
Hedrick Smith: All right, now you have those goals. What are the key strategies?
Eric Smith: The first thing we had to do was to make sure we had clarity around
the nature of the teachers' work in every school. This discrepancy in the quality
of teaching between inner city and suburban had to change.
We established the clarity of our purpose by writing specific documents. Very
clear concise documents that would tell every teacher that you had to be covering
these kind of materials in this time frame and these were the ways that other
good teachers recommended getting the job done. We set the agenda right down
to the last detail.
The second piece we found was that we had to have equity in terms of strategies.
First define the work. Second, make sure there is equity, which we didn't have
and which wasn't in place. We had to bring equity to all classrooms. We couldn't
expect teachers to teach physics at the same level, using the same pacing guides
and model lessons, if they don't have the physics equipment to teach with, or
the labs. And so we went through the equity effort.
Hedrick Smith: Why was equity so important to you in Charlotte and what were the key
components of equity?
Eric Smith: We spent a great deal of time trying to define the term equity.
What do you mean by equity? And we had to give it definition before we could
apply it throughout the district. We understood that equity wasn't making sure
that everybody had the same number of test tubes in every chemistry lab.
We had to make sure that equity was more defined around outcome. If we expected
children that perhaps didn't have the same kind of world experiences that brought
a wealth of understanding, of good reading and language and literature to the
first grade, second grade, third grade classroom, then we had to find a way to
compensate for that. And that's what we meant by equity. So that equity at one
school versus another might mean that it had more teachers. It might mean that
it had a mandatory program for pre kindergarten for four year olds before the
kids ever came to us in kindergarten, to make sure that they had the readiness
skills of language and so forth that others were advantaged with before they
ever came in the door. If children didn't have the experiences at the high school
level around the sciences and so forth and didn't have that home life experience
that would enlighten that kind of a discussion in classrooms, then we had to
find ways to supplement that and so we would make strategic adjustments, looking
at staffing, looking at support classes.
Hedrick Smith: Put simply, does equity mean that you had to put more resources
into inner city high poverty schools, more teaching, more materials, and so forth?
Eric Smith: We had to. We had to in order to achieve equity. We put a significant amount
of resources into these schools, into low-income schools that wouldn't have been there
normally. We had to increase the funding level. We had to increase the staffing level.
We invested in their performance.
The question is asked often about whether that means you're giving more money
to the low-income schools than you would to a suburban school and isn't that
inherently unfair with the suburban schools… that you're actually kind of robbing
Peter to pay Paul.
Well, we were actually engaged in federal court, so I ran some numbers on that.
I found that in fact even with the supplemental support we were giving low-income
schools, we still weren't at the same rate of cost to the taxpayers. And the
difference was that the leading cost in running a school is personnel. We found
that the inner city schools would churn first and second year teachers. They'd
be in there for one or two years at the very lowest, lowest end of the pay scale,
versus the suburban that would have teachers with 20, 25 years experience in
the same building. And so when we looked at our total operating costs, even with
the supplement – the additional teachers, the additional materials, the supplies,
perhaps the summer enrichment programs, the Saturday schools, the after school
programs, all these things to bring about equity – we still found that we were
not running at a higher rate of cost to the district than the cost factor at
the suburban schools.
Hedrick Smith: You have alluded indirectly to issues of race and you have suggested
that the court environment, the whole question of legal suits and court decisions,
add a special urgency to what you were doing.
Eric Smith: Charlotte quickly moved into federal court after my arrival. And
it did bring an extraordinary sense of urgency to the question of student achievement
and performance. We knew that there was the likelihood that Charlotte would be
declared unitary before we finished up with the federal court.
Hedrick Smith: The unitary system.
Eric Smith: Yes, a unitary school district. Meaning that the mandates of the
federal courts, the directives of the federal courts, had been achieved.
Hedrick Smith: So, what pressure is that putting on you as a school superintendent.
Eric Smith: Knowing that the district would end up being declared unitary pressured
us to try and deal with the gap in achievement … once and for all. The fact that
we ended up in federal court in Charlotte increased the pressure on and the time
schedule for us to achieve success from an ethical standpoint and from a social
standpoint. It wasn't as if the federal courts were mandating something that
they hadn't been mandating for the last 30 years. The fact of the matter was
that we had to dignify the work that had gone on before in Charlotte to bring
about equity. And we had to make it a lasting success for children that lived
We knew that we had to get it done. We had to bring closure to this chapter
in a successful way. We had to bring equity in performance. We had to have definable
evidence that African American low-income children were performing at a competitive
level, at a strong level of achievement in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Hedrick Smith: How about shared teaching?
Eric Smith: The focus was what went on in the classrooms. We would observe
what teachers were doing and try to analyze the difficulties they were having.
And quite often I would jump in with teachers, engage with teachers, lead the
class in an exchange and so forth.
Hedrick Smith: Jump in with teachers. What does that mean?
Eric Smith: I would kind of take over a little. I never tried to do it in a way that
would be disrespectful to a teacher because I know the challenges that they face. It
was in an effort to underscore the kind of work the teacher was doing and to engage
the kids in the importance of the work they were doing. I wouldn't call what I did teaching
as much as having a pretty lively interchange with kids and teachers… The purpose being
to emphasize the importance of the work, to celebrate the business of the teacher. To
celebrate kids speaking up and having answers and being bold about their response.
Hedrick Smith: Now what was this A+ Program that you instituted? What is A+
and where did you get it?
Eric Smith: The A+ Program started with our study of work out of Brazosport Texas and
the A+ Program was again designed to bring greater clarity around the work of our teachers.
The pacing guides drill down to focus lessons, to mini assessments that would be given
every seven or eight days. Rolling that data back up immediately so the teachers got
access to that data.
Hedrick Smith: It's a program geared to what kind of school and for what purpose?
Eric Smith: It specifically targeted low-income schools. Schools that had struggled
with performance and achievement, schools that had a hard time getting traction
on getting kids to a higher level.
Hedrick Smith: Didn't you get a lot of resistance from teachers when you came
in with this common curriculum and the pacing guides?
Eric Smith: We had a lot of tension, a lot of resistance to what we were trying
to do. The resistance was more around a lack of belief and confidence that this
was going to make a difference. There was a lack of confidence in the teacher's
ability to do what we were asking them to do. And there was a difference in philosophy
about the fundamentals. Certain principals and teachers were just die-hard whole
language advocates and didn't want to give that up. They were sure that was the
best thing for kids and as a result they resisted the move to a phonics based
Hedrick Smith: “Teacher knows best” attitude.
Eric Smith: Yes. “What's central office here messing around for? The teacher
knows best, the school knows best. These are the people down on the ground, they're
with the kids every day. They ought to know how to do this…”
Hedrick Smith: And what was your answer to that?
Eric Smith: The data doesn't show that. The data tells me that your kids are
not performing at a level that they need… What I observe when I go in your classrooms
does not show me that there's going to be a different outcome in the future.
We didn't spend a lot of time debating it. We moved on. There was this incredible
sense of urgency. We didn't wait for a group vote, we just we moved.
Hedrick Smith: Did you have a union you had to confront?
Eric Smith: North Carolina isn't unionized but we did have a teacher association. It
was generally very supportive. I had good relationship with the president of the teachers
association. She and I met frequently.
Our work, although it did meet with pretty significant opposition to begin
with, was really designed to help and aid teachers, not to get in the way.
Hedrick Smith: You mentioned data before. People talk of you as sort of a data freak.
A data wonk. Talk about the importance of data.
Eric Smith: Data is the most important aspect of what we did in Charlotte.
We were driven by data. We insisted that every decision we made was based on
data. The way we identified success was around the data points. And so we were
able to develop a fairly sophisticated system of data tracking.
The data around student achievement and so forth was disaggregated by classroom
and by school within a feeder system. It started out with end-of-the-year data
and we needed incremental data over the course of the year. We had to develop
that sequence of achievement data.
You tell me that all the schools have the materials they need? Show me the
numbers. You say the staffing is correct? Well show me the numbers. And what's
the actual numbers school by school? Where are we over? Where are we under? There's
a problem with teacher turnover rate? Show me the numbers. All aspects of our
operation were driven by numbers. One of the key issues that we collected data
on was enrollment patterns.
We were driven on a number of key factors: one was clarity; second was equity
in educational opportunity; the third was the ability to provide students with
rigorous, demanding course work; and fourth that they had opportunity.
When we started to run the numbers, we found that some schools weren't having
kids taking AP courses, because there wasn't any AP offered.
Hedrick Smith: What kind of tool is data at the school level and what's it used for?
Eric Smith: Data at the school level in Charlotte was really used to make very fluid
and rapid decisions about teaching and learning. I would expect principals to reschedule
kids within a 24-hour period, so that the next day they'd be doing something different
to compensate if kids weren't learning the way they should learn.
We had a lot of testing going on in Charlotte, testing to see whether they
were achieving at the level that we needed them to. If not, we'd make adjustments
with the instructional program. We were assured that the level of instruction
was comparable throughout the district.
Through a process of assessment, teachers could see the kind of questions and
complexity that would be demanded of children.
Hedrick Smith: Is there a danger that teachers will teach to test, kids will
learn to test?
Eric Smith: Matter of fact, there is not a problem with teachers teaching to
the test. When we first got into it, particularly in some of our lowest performing
schools, the sense of urgency at the schoolhouse led to some pretty bad practices… We
had principals or teachers think they could find a way around this by simply
focusing on the demands of the test. They learned very quickly that it simply
failed. It does not work. And it doesn't move students to the level of performance
that we demanded.
Hedrick Smith: The data that you get from all this testing you're doing, is that for
report cards for kids or is it placement of kids. I mean what is all that data being
Eric Smith: The data that we would gather at the central office would be used to provide
some technical assistance or support.
The data would first come to my office directly and I would get a scan of performance
of the schools. But it also comes to our regional assistant superintendents and
they would be part of a rapid response team to deal with instructional problems.
And we would be on the phone to principals to ask them what was the status, what
was the issue, what were the contributing factors and so forth…
So the data was used to provide support, but also to learn and to see what
we needed to do differently.
We never would go in looking to figure out who to blame, but what the underlying
problem was. We learned that there was teacher turnover, or the materials were
lacking in quality. In terms of defining the work, the staff developer that had
been provided was weak and needed to be reinforced…
Hedrick Smith: And now back to the schoolhouse. What's the school or what is
the principal doing?
Eric Smith: What happened at the school level marked a radical shift in the whole definition
of teaching and the level of schoolwork. The teachers would analyze the data in a team
and would make group decisions about how to make adjustments. What that did for teachers
was empower teachers with a deep understanding of what needed to be taught and it moved
them away from working in isolation in trying to solve these problems on their own without
If you were to visit a school in Charlotte, I would have expected you to see
weekly meetings around this instructional performance... And a very fluid, dynamic
instructional environment that wasn't trapped within the confines of a school
classroom but was really being dealt with in the school as a whole.
Hedrick Smith: You recruited a computer whiz, a data expert. Talk about recruiting
Susan Agruso. Why was Susan Agruso so important to you?
Eric Smith: Susan Agruso was a critical member of our team. She was a great recruit
for us. She came in from South Carolina. She had previous classroom experience as a
calculus or physics teacher… She understood what level of achievement we wanted out
of kids. She also understood the data that I had a demand for.
She had a good sense of how to develop assessment tools to monitor student
progress. She was instrumental in designing the kind of work that we did. She
and her team helped bring about the dramatic increase in advanced placement performance
by our students, the use of the PSAT as a tool to identify kids…
Hedrick Smith: Were you chafing to get at the numbers every quarter?
Eric Smith: Oh every week. It wouldn't be every quarter. Every week I would
be looking for the numbers. Gail Davis on Friday afternoon would be down there
with a summary report on where schools were. We'd meet together. We'd huddle
up as a SWAT team and we'd have conversations around the performance of our schools.
Hedrick Smith: What about speed? I mean all the people bringing down their
data to the headquarters and getting it processed and going back three hours
later. Speed, speed, speed…
Eric Smith: Speed… It's the old model of education in America versus the new model. In
the old way we'd wait a year and we'd retain a child, give him another year at it and
we might then retain him again. I mean things went in increments of a year. Now, if we
know we're not doing the job in week one, we have an obligation, I think, to move immediately
and correct that. That was the sense – that we had to take immediate action on issues.
And we did so.
We would make mid-year corrections if we thought a building had inappropriate
leadership. We'd move principals, we'd move assistant principals, we'd supplement
with additional staff. We'd make the critical adjustments that we needed to get
the job done.
It's often inconvenient, often expensive, but kids can't keep waiting for a
convenient time to make these kinds of adjustments.
And it wasn't a blame game, it was a business about getting the job done. End
of the day it was about getting the job done and we had to have everybody focused
in the same direction.
Hedrick Smith: Talk about Highland Elementary school when you first arrived…
Eric Smith: Highland was the definition of a mess. The facility was terrible.
It had had a string of building principals, each one bringing in their own special
intervention to solve the world's problems. It had every intervention ever thought
of in America. Teachers that had been there forever were confused, as could
be expected. Others were just turning over, year after year. Teachers really
didn't believe they could make a difference. Parents had given up hope.
That school turned around and really turned out to be one of the very best
in Charlotte and been one of the best in the state of North Carolina. It didn't
change population. It served the same kids as it always served. And I think again
it speaks to the issue of success and not looking for blame.
The principal that we brought in to manage the change at Highland didn't ask
for a single teacher to be transferred out, didn't ask for any reassignments.
She took the teachers that she had when she got there and she changed what she
asked teachers to do.
She did the things that we have prescribed. Once the teachers started to feel
success and knew that they could do the job that was being asked of them and
felt confident about that, once the kids started feeling confident in their ability
to do it, there was no holding that school back.
Hedrick Smith: What do you think turned Highland around?
Eric Smith: It goes back to the science of teaching and providing the opportunity to
do rigorous and demanding coursework. It's good leadership and making sure they had
the things that they needed…
Hedrick Smith: What about Spaugh Middle School? Spaugh is sitting there as
a magnet school – all kinds of bright kids coming in doing math and science from
the suburbs. Overnight, a court decision, and it becomes a neighborhood school,
virtually 100% African American, maybe there are a couple of other Hispanics
and whites. Talk about that challenge in the first place. To what extent were
court decisions disruptive as in the case of Spaugh?
Eric Smith: Extraordinarily disruptive. They changed the whole nature of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg
school system. When the court decisions came down, I can't tell you how many thousands
of children moved to different locations. We packed up entire school operations and
moved them to different schoolhouses. A total change in the way we were structured as
a school district. And it left Spaugh with a different demographic, with different challenges
and demands. But, again, I think the success of a school isn't dependent on the children
we serve. We can compensate for any deficiencies or additional needs children bring
Our job is to educate children to a comparable level, to a competitive level.
What we did at Spaugh and many other schools was through good school leadership
and through the work of the teachers.
Hedrick Smith: Why are you such a bear on getting middle school kids in eighth
grade to learn algebra one? Why was that so important to you?
Eric Smith: The middle school math piece was the gatekeeper and it is the gatekeeper.
It's the definition of what the rest of the child's life is going to look like
academically, not just through high school but into college and beyond.
If they make it into algebra one, the likelihood of getting into the AP class
and being successful on the SAT and having a vision of going on to college is
dramatically enhanced. And so our pressure to make sure that kids were given
that kind of access to upper level math in middle school was a critical component
of our overall district strategy.
Hedrick Smith: How did No Child Left Behind affect you?
Eric Smith: I'm a huge advocate of No Child Left Behind. I think it's the only
answer for America. I think that there is some fine-tuning that obviously needs
to be done but in general it is absolutely right on target.
I think one of the greatest assets of No Child Left Behind is that it's added
to the nature of the work that we're already doing in Charlotte, the issue of
special education, of special needs children. And I think that the work that's
going on in America now around how you bring quality education to special needs
children, how do you intervene in a way to avoid children ever being stuffed
into special ed. is going to prove to be one of the greatest legacies of No Child
Hedrick Smith: Looking back on your Charlotte experience was there a moment or a time
when you could kind of sense the tide changing? When did you start to feel that you
were getting traction?
Eric Smith: There was a lot of controversy, a lot of opposition in the early
years. It was probably my third or fourth year when I would go to principal meetings
and meetings with teachers and I'd leave with a sense that we were crossing over
the bridge. We had made the transition as a district organization, that it was
no longer schoolhouse by schoolhouse, and we were moving as a district at a new
level. By then there was a very strong sense that we could, in fact, do the job.
Hedrick Smith: What were the straws in the wind, the indicators?
Eric Smith: It was a difference between going into a principal meeting and not seeing
fatigue, and going in and seeing a spark in the eye. It wasn't anybody's spoken words,
it was felt through body language, through a sense of enthusiasm. It was felt through
the kind of response that you'd get from teachers when you walked in the classroom,
that this job was being done. You could feel the same sense of accomplishment in the
suburbs and in the inner city. It was it was noticeable throughout the district and
it was a wonderful feeling. I can almost tell you the day that it was a crossing over
Hedrick Smith: What was the day?
Eric Smith: I could picture it right now, a nice sunny spring day in Charlotte, North Carolina.
We came out of the principal's meeting where we would meet
monthly. And the sense that I got back from the school level administration was
one of success and victory that hadn't been there before.
Hedrick Smith: Just came together.
Eric Smith: Yeah
Hedrick Smith: You had tough standards; you set tough goals and benchmarks.
Looking back on your seven, eight years in Charlotte, what were your achievements?
What was the track record?
Eric Smith: We were extremely successful in Charlotte, in my view. We saw
the kind of gains that we expected from our foundation years, the early years – pre-K
through grade three. We saw dramatic increases in achievement by all students
from all backgrounds in our middle school. We saw dramatic growth in the performance
of kids from all backgrounds in advance placement and international baccalaureate…
Given the academic measures and the goals we set out for ourselves, we got
a little bit of criticism when I left Charlotte that we hadn't achieved
all the goals. But it's the journey that we went on. It's the path we took that
was so critical and I am very proud of the work of teachers, of principals and
central office, and of parents and the leadership in Charlotte that allowed that
work to take place. It made a difference in the lives of children.
Hedrick Smith: You mentioned the risk of rolling out a bold strategy. Is it
inherently risky to undertake a bold district-wide school reform?
Eric Smith: It's extraordinarily risky to take a bold strategy in a school
district and very difficult. You have to have some political backing with you.
You've got to have people that are willing to go through the tough fight before
you see the results. It's very challenging. The more political a school district
is the more difficult it is for superintendents to lead with the expectation
of dramatic progress. In Charlotte, I was very fortunate to have the support
of the business community, the support of the faith community and the support
of some key parents in Charlotte, too, to allow the district really enough time
to make the progress we needed.
Hedrick Smith: Is political consensus behind reform crucial to the success
Eric Smith: I don't think you're going to get political consensus behind reform. There
has to be a willingness of some key stakeholders to take the risk with you. We're still
early enough in this process of how to fix schools and how to fix school districts that
it takes courage on the part of a community. There are no guarantees. You have to build
the best design you can. There has to be people that are willing to go the journey with
you and give you the support you need to really roll it out.
Hedrick Smith: Talk about the teachers for a moment. How important is teacher
training and staff development to the reform you did? What kind of teacher training
do you need?
Eric Smith: Teacher training is critical. It was critical in Charlotte for
the kinds of things we did. Teacher training would be embedded in the work that
goes on every day. I think one of the challenges in America is that we always
are looking for someone to blame. And quite often because the teachers are the
ones that deliver every day, the teachers are to blame for not getting the job
done. But it's the kind of support we give those teachers that we need to worry
If there's blame to be had, it needs to be directed at people like myself and
other institutions that should be producing the kind of support materials for
teachers to increase their ability to be successful.
Hedrick Smith: You've talked about speed and simplicity and you talked about
quite a scripted elementary reading program and so forth. There are other folks
who have taken a more complicated route. Tony Alvarado is one of them. He has
invested enormous amounts of time, effort and resources in very complicated professional
development. And you took a different route in Charlotte. You worked on professional
development but you did it differently and you picked a different kind of curriculum.
What I mean is, if you listen to Alvarado and you watch his teachers and the
ones who do it well, they're trying to get the method down, there is an element
of art. You talk about teaching almost in another way, as if it is a science.
Eric Smith: Well, we did approach the redesign of Charlotte as a science. We viewed
it as a science. There are elements that we know are going to be more successful than
others. And we needed to build that in as part of the design. So we tried to define
much of the business of teaching as a science. And then, through staff development and
training, bring the artistry out of our classroom teachers… Allow our teachers to use
that science and build great strength.
Hedrick Smith: I think there are a lot of teachers who would be offended to
hear you say teaching is a science. So, in what sense is teaching a science?
Eric Smith: There are preferred ways of teaching kids how to read, there are
preferred ways of teaching children mathematics that work better than others.
This isn't just a free flowing art form that takes on any shape you'd like. It
isn't as if any way to teach a child math is as good as another. It just isn't
I've seen that in Charlotte. I've seen that as you go from one end of the
hallway to another, where one teacher is using whole language, another is some
blended approach and another some phonics approach. And they all don't have equal
results. There is a science to this. We need to spend more time in our districts
looking at the science and helping our teachers to be masters at that.
You're going to find some heart surgeons that are ‘artists' that go well beyond
the expectation of routine heart surgery … but there is a best way to perform
heart surgery and you're going to find heart surgeons that are just surgeons.
And the same is with teaching. There are the fundamentals of teaching and how
to teach. We need to have teachers well grounded in that. But then we need to
allow them to go beyond that, into the artistry of teaching. But I see it as
being sequential. You start with a solid foundation around the science of teaching.
The obligation of central administration in a school district is to make sure
that fundamental – the science of teaching – is well understood and well in place
before you would take a 22 year old graduate and throw them into the game and
expect them to do well.
The difference is that while that teacher is learning to hone their skills,
the child is depending on that teacher to build his or her life. The child doesn't
have time to wait for that teacher to become a success. The child is depending
on each and every school district in America to deliver today. That's where we
have to get the definition of the science down right so that kids don't lose
out while teachers become stronger and stronger and more capable over time.
In Charlotte we were under the urgency of court action. But it certainly goes
well beyond that. We're building every child's opportunities each and every day.
They are counting on us to get the job done, and done now, not at some future
point when it's convenient.
There is an urgency about this work. There is an urgency to get the job done
right. There is an urgency in making sure that opportunity is available to kids.
Those are the kinds of opportunities and experiences that allow kids to flourish
and build their opportunities in life. We don't have time to waste on the process
of progressively getting better. We have to really search aggressively to find
those answers today, now, and implement them as quickly as possible.
Hedrick Smith: Do we need to do it district by district? There was a period
in our history not too long ago when basically we were doing it school by school.
Part of that was site based management, part of that was models of schools, High
Schools that Work, Success for All, The Comer Process… Some of them have had
a very positive impact. But are we at the point now, as a nation, where the task
is so urgent and so large that we've got to go district by district?
Eric Smith: The unit of change is the school district. Over the course of my
career, I have paid a lot of attention to the work of Ron Edmonds and others
that defined the unit of change as being the schoolhouse.
I think that we've moved beyond that. Our understanding of how to improve school
operations is really a school district issue. For a school to independently reform
itself and radically change the outcome for children is very unlikely in a district
that's not willing to move forward with policies and procedures and support to
make that happen. And so I firmly believe that the point of accountability needs
to be at the school district level, with a subset of accountability around individual
school performance. But it needs to be driven and led by central administration.