Ken Hare In Depth: Thompson tenure only a symptom of MPS problems

MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - Superintendent Barbara Thompson's four-year tenure with Montgomery Public Schools appears as of this writing to be coming to an end. Her time at the helm of the state's third-largest school district has been marred by controversy since its inception in 2009, but it also has been marked by some significant successes as well.

In the end, those successes appear not to be enough to get her through a controversy over students being improperly given passing grades and -- I believe more importantly -- an obvious lack of confidence in the MPS administrative hierarchy by the State Department of Education.

However, as the Montgomery County Board of Education tries to push Thompson out the door, no one should assume that her ouster would solve the problems facing Montgomery Public Schools. Most of those problems existed prior to her becoming superintendent, and most of them would remain in place when she is gone.

Some of those problems are quantifiable:  Graduation rates at the system's traditional high schools that are unacceptably low, with one of every three high school students failing to graduate. Questionable academic achievement even among those who graduate, with more than half of the graduates of the county's four traditional high schools who attend a state public college having to take one or more remedial courses. Large gaps in academic achievement as measured by standardized tests.

Other problems defy quantification, but are no less real and no less intractable: There appears to be a sense on the part of many teachers and lower-level administrators that those who point out failings of the system will face retaliation. There is a tradition of merely shuffling poorly performing principals and other administrators from position to position or school to school rather than pushing them out the door. There are too many excuses made for low academic performance.

And there is the overriding issue raised by the state superintendent of education in a recent letter to the system: An "institutional mindset" that places more importance on advancing non-magnet students than in actually teaching them.

Not a single one of these issues would go away just because Barbara Thompson goes away.

To her credit, early in her tenure as superintendent Thompson appeared to be trying to address these issues in a meaningful way. She talked of the need to attract new blood into the system. She pushed for an analysis of academic problems by the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama. When  the PARCA research showed the need to close learning gaps and to hold all students to a higher academic standard, she appeared to embrace those goals.

There were some successes. Under Thompson, the system expanded its Advanced Placement offerings dramatically.  She pushed to introduce the International Baccalaureate program into several schools. The magnet programs, especially LAMP, continued to be bright spots. The system began to address in a systematic way its outdated and far too numerous facilities.   Several elementary schools achieved Torchbearer status, showing that it is possible for students with low socioeconomic status to learn at high levels.

But she has not been able to replicate the successes of the magnet programs and the Torchbearer schools in enough other schools.

Thompson got off to a bad start from the beginning of her time as superintendent. On her application for the post, she indicated that she would have her doctorate by the time she took office here. She didn't, and it appeared there was never a realistic chance of that happening. The controversy was compounded when she allowed staff members and the public to use the title of "doctor" in addressing her after she took office. The resulting firestorm  caused her to lose the confidence of many in the public, and while the issue died down it never completely went away.

But a case can be made that the biggest hurdles faced by Thompson come from directly above her in the system's organizational chart and from below her as well.

The Montgomery Board of Education never was united and enthusiastic about insisting on high academic standards for all students. Early in Thompson's tenure, the board was constantly publicly bickering and fighting. More recently the open bickering has died down, but there still is no public sense of a vision from the overall board that includes an emphasis on academic integrity and a mindset that all students can learn at a high level.

Thompson also faced a bureaucracy below her that was difficult to move forward. In my years of writing about Montgomery public schools, I have encountered far too many administrators who either tried to bury the failings of the system or made excuses for them. There was too much of a sense of "we're doing all we can."

In fairness, there are lots of good administrators as well -- certainly more good ones than bad ones. But any bureaucracy can be stymied by even a handful of administrators in key positions intent on protecting the status quo.

A change in superintendents would give Montgomery schools an opportunity to change the culture of Montgomery Public Schools. But the public must realize that changing superintendents would not by itself solve any of the problems faced by the system.

Ken Hare was a longtime Alabama newspaper editorial writer and editorial page editor who now writes a regular column for WSFA's web site. Email him at

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