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Newsome and Dixon on evals, improving student performance and more

Two of the superintendent candidates met with reporters last week. I hit the highlights in a recent story about Edward Newsome, assistant superintendent in Baltimore County, and Amber Dixon, interim superintendent in Buffalo.

There was a bunch more from each of those half-hour interviews that we couldn't fit in that story, though. Here's some of it:

Newsome candidate- Newsome mentioned more than once that Buffalo is the only district where he's applied for the superintendency, and said the city is a "good fit" for his skill set.

When asked why, he referred to what he sees as "potential for great hope" here, but did not elaborate on why that's the case in Buffalo moreso than any other district.

- When I asked for evidence of his ability to improve student achievement, Newsome cited the graduation rate in the district he's in now and the last one he worked in -- both over 80 percent.

That's absolutely true.

It's also true that both the Montgomery and Baltimore County school districts contain urban areas -- but are not entirely urban districts. Each has a poverty rate about half of Buffalo's. So, while the graduation rates sound impressive, they're not directly comparable to Buffalo's graduation rate.

- Those graduation rates reflect results in entire districts. I asked Newsome to talk about results that he has personally been responsible for.

He said that in his role as director of school performance in Montgomery County, he oversaw the development of monitoring tools to track student data. One of the results, he said, was that in one year, suspensions in middle schools declined significantly.

"Suspensions at the middle school level decreased overall 30 percent," he said. "We expect the change in student suspensions, time on task, to really make a difference. When kids are suspended, they're not available for learning."

- Improving student performance in Buffalo would involve a K-12 strategy involving setting benchmarks in specific subjects at certain grade levels, he said.

- If Newsome is hired, the first thing he would work on, he said, is "building a climate of hope and high expectations. That is a very important piece. I believe there is great hope."

- Newsome's resume lists him as president and CEO of Flight to Excellence Educational Consultants, from 1995 to present. I asked him about that, wondering how a sitting school administrator could have a private consulting firm without any conflicts of interest.

"I started that as potential for when I actually stop (working in) public education," he said. "But I haven't done anything with it because of potential of conflict of interest."

- I asked Newsome whether he thinks the performance of all students, regardless of attendance, should be counted toward a teacher's evaluation.

Three times.

Each time, he talked at length about why he felt he shouldn't give a direct answer to that question. And each time, he found a different reason why he shouldn't.

In the end, he never gave a clear answer on whether he thought all students should be counted.

Amber Dixon candidate- Dixon actually did give a clear answer to that one. Which is rather surprising, seeing as any other time over the past few months that I've asked her that question, she has made a point of not answering it.

In the past, she has told me that it's not an interim superintendent's place to be making their personal opinions known about such things -- but that it's her job to follow the law.

This time, she decided to give her opinion.

“I think the performance of all students should be counted toward a teacher’s evaluation. Absolutely. Unequivocally,” she said.

- I asked Dixon the same thing I asked Newsome: What evidence does she have of her ability to improve student achievement?

She said she had been a successful junior high math teacher, then worked with other teachers to create the first assessments in the district. As executive director of evaluation, accountability and project initiatives, she said, she oversaw the implementation of an extended school day and extended school year at several low-performing schools.

"Most of those schools came off the list they were on," she said.

- Dixon has for more than a decade been an administrator in the district that now has a 47 percent graduation rate, I noted.

"We all own a part of where we've let our school system come to," she said. "We all have a role in where we are, as do the federal and state governments. At the same time, we've all helped build a school system where 34,000 kids arrive safe, every day, on buses, into newly rebuilt schools. We have all built the system we are. We don't control everything. I certainly don't point the finger at the administration past. We as a society own these children. We as a society have to look at everything we do.

"Do I own pieces of it? Sure. Do I own other pieces of it? Sure. We did extend the school day. We did get schools off the (schools under registration review) list. It's not as simple as there's a graduation rate near failing. We all own a piece of that, for better or for worse."

- Within her half-hour interview with local reporters, Dixon opened by referring to her frustration with federal requirements under Race to the Top, and toward the end of the interview, declared herself a fan of No Child Left Behind.

"We have to work our way through these perilous times of Race to the Top, where I'm not sure every decision being made is in the best interest of the children," she said.

And then later, she recalled her days as a math teacher, more than a decade ago. At that time, she said, if a student with disabilities did not show up for a test, nobody took much notice. But now, in the era of No Child Left Behind, she said, testing requirements ensure that the data can help schools identify students who are not being adequately served.

"There aren't a lot of supporters of No Child Left Behind, but I'm one of them when it comes to data," she said.

- Mary Pasciak

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