By now, you’ve likely heard about the “Cleveland Plan” proposed jointly by Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson and the CEO of the Cleveland School District, Eric Gordon, here in Ohio.  The plan was submitted to Governor Kasich in February and received renewed press earlier this week when the Governor literally “begged” the State Board of Education to take a vote on the plan and implement it in the Cleveland area.

Here at Plunderbund, we’re tired of these plans simply popping up without proper vetting, so we’re looking to create our own reform plan.  To begin our process we intend to follow the advice of the iconic Woody Hayes, who famously said, “You win with people.”

So we are looking to identify the right person to craft what will soon be referred to as the Plunderbund Education Reform for Kids and Youth (PERKY) plan. Throughout this past year we have been studying reform efforts across the nation with a laser-like focus in order to isolate the key traits of leading reformers.  With our database in hand we are able to now confine our search to individuals who have the perfect set of characteristics to craft a successful plan for a large urban district like Cleveland.

Quite obviously this has been an arduous task, but we’d be ludicrous to simply leave the future of the second largest district in Ohio to just anyone.  To begin to assemble our job description, we first needed to identify some key components about the Cleveland Municipal School District.  Here are some of those key components:

Cleveland Municipal School District:

  • Residents rank in the bottom 3% statewide in average and median income
  • Student enrollment has dropped 40% over the past ten years
  • Designated by Ohio Department of Education as Academic Watch (‘D’) or Academic Emergency (‘F’) in 11 of previous 13 years.
  • Student population is 85% minority
  • 6% of students have limited proficiency in English
  • 23% of student population are categorized as having a disability
  • All students – 100% – are considered Economically Disadvantaged (poverty level)
  • Last year, the district met only 1 of Ohio’s 27 performance indicators
  • Cleveland’s graduation rate is at a 15-year high of 62.8%, but is still a full five percent below the rate of any other of Ohio’s Big 8 urban districts
  • Over 1,000 HS “official” dropouts annually (according to ODE reporting requirements)

Turning around this district is a formidable task, to be sure, which means that the identification of the appropriate leader to craft a transformation plan worthy of implementation is of the utmost importance.  The characteristics we’ve deduced are most important are detailed below (along with CEO and Cleveland Plan author Eric Gordon).

Proven experience in turning around a large urban school district

In a project of this magnitude that could ultimately affect every public school student in Ohio if John Kasich has his way, it stands to reason that we would want someone with a proven track record.  Anyone can throw out theoretical ideas about schools and see if anything works, but Cleveland can’t continue to sit around and wait on random, unproven ideas.  Cleveland needs an individual with experience in improving student learning in a comparable large, urban school district; someone who can bring both personal experience and  empirical evidence of past success.

Eric Gordon, the architect of the current plan, has not yet finished his first year as a district superintendent/CEO after being hired for the job in June 2011.  Prior to the CEO job, Gordon served as Chief Academic Officer (CAO) since 2007.  His resume details his job responsibilities as CAO:

Senior leader responsible for academic programming, including curriculum and instruction, leadership and growth, intervention services….full accountability for the progress and academic standing of each CMSD school. Responsible for evaluating all academic programs, tracking student progress and keeping instruction aligned with state standards…Promotes district-wide accountability for all instructional leaders and staff.

How did that work out for him (aside from his promotion to CEO)?

  • In the year prior to Gordon’s hiring as CAO, CMSD had a Performance Index Score of 76.2 which fell dramatically before rebounding to just 75.7 last year.
  • CMSD met 13.3% of ODE’s performance indicators before Gordon came on board, dropping to 3.8% last year.
  • CMSD’s state rating was Continuous Improvement (‘C’) in the year prior to Gordon’s arrival, and were labeled in Academic Watch (‘D’) in three of Gordon’s four years as CAO.

Not exactly the proven track record we would have expected.  But what about the seven other positions Gordon had in the previous sixteen years?

  • Gordon’s first teaching position was teaching math at the troubled Francis T. Nicholls (side note — school name is misspelled on Gordon’s resume) High School in New Orleans.  By the end of his three years there, ACT scores had not improved (and dropped significantly in subsequent years), only 34% of the students were passing Louisiana’s Graduate Exit Examination in Math (up from 32% two years earlier), the number of dropouts had increased from 24% to 26%, and finally, the number of graduates taking remedial courses was at 94%.  Not exactly a model school.
  • From New Orleans, Gordon moved back home to Ohio and took a HS math teaching position in Toledo at Calvin M. Woodward High School.  He spent three years as a teacher before spending one year as assistant principal and one year as head principal.  During Gordon’s tenure at Woodward, the Graduation increased from 57.3% up to 60.7%, while the Toledo district was not only a full six percentage points greater, but was also growing at a faster (+3.4% vs. +4.1%).  And what about Gordon’s impact on the math program in his five years at Woodward?  In 2000 – his final year at the school – and compared to the traditional high school programs in Toledo City, Woodward had the lowest percentage of tenth-graders passing the math proficiency test despite the fact that their student population was more stable than 5 of the other 8 high schools and better than the overall district figure.
  • Gordon then jumped to the much wealthier Oregon City Schools (181st ranked income vs. Toledo’s 562nd) and spent two years as principal of Clay High School.  Two years is much too short of a timeframe to realistically expect any demonstration of long-term impact, but at the same time, Oregon didn’t need much help.  Even so, Gordon made his mark on the district.  In last fourteen years, including four prior to his arrival and eight after he left, Gordon’s term produce the two lowest graduation rates for Clay High School.  Both years still had graduation rates of over 85%, but the school graduated students at even higher rates in the other twelve years.  It is also important to point out (for the purpose of comparing to Cleveland) that Clay High School’s student population was reported as 95% white with only 6.8% living in poverty (Ohio’s figures are 78.8% and 17%, respectively).  Needless to say, Oregon wasn’t in competition with local charter schools.
  • Migrating to an even wealthier district, Gordon moved to the Olentangy School District in 2002, spending four years as Liberty HS principal before being promoted to Executive Director for his fifth and final year in the district.  Olentangy’s enrollment issues are the exact opposite of Cleveland’s as they have been the fastest growing district in the state for many years.  Gordon was tapped to open Liberty as the district’s second high school at that time (now have three), so we have no prior school data to directly compare his impact to and will instead offer comparisons to the district overall.  In terms of economics, Olentangy has the 13th highest average income in the entire state (highest median income), so like Oregon, losing students to charters is not a major area of concern.  Liberty didn’t produce a graduating class until Gordon’s final two years, and those resulted in rates of 97.7% and 97.3%, which fared favorably with Olentangy’s other high school’s figures of 97.6% and 98.6%.  Liberty’s rates have improved every year since Gordon was moved to his first central office job.  One other point of comparison — when Olentangy opened their third high school recently, the first graduating class consisted of 99.2% of the students.  Liberty High School’s population was approximately 91% white with a mere 2.5% of students living in poverty.
  • Gordon’s ascension through districts with increasing wealth ended when he became the Chief Academic Officer (CAO) of Cleveland in 2007.  In his four years at the high-poverty district, his negative effect on student achievement was detailed above, but we shouldn’t be surprised by his lack of demonstrable impact based on his prior career path and lack of preparation for work in a large, poverty-stricken, declining, urban district.

Actually, that’s the most significant characteristic we could think of to require of our applicant.  For Gordon, he doesn’t have proven experience in improving student achievement in ANY district let alone a large urban.  His lack of successful practical experience on its own would disqualify him from responding to our call, but he actually has other “qualifications” that should also help dissuade his Cleveland Plan from being taken seriously.

While CAO, Gordon is credited with being the lead author on Cleveland’s previous Transformation Plan, enacted less than two years ago in the fall of 2010.  He takes great pride in that role on his resume:

  • He is the senior cabinet level member responsible for the design and implementation of CMSD programs and policies related to instruction, and was a significant contributor to the development of the district’s Academic Transformation Plan in 2010.
  • Key strategist in the creation, development and execution of the CMSD Academic Transformation Plan.
  • Designs and develops concrete strategies for implementing the Academic Transformation Plan…
  • Responsible for evaluating all academic programs, tracking student progress and keeping instruction aligned with state standards and the goals of the Academic Transformation Plan.

Others in the press also gave him credit for creating the two-year old plan, even if slightly critical of the district as a whole, and reiterated his assertion that the plan is of his design.

  • I think it’s OK for people to be healthy skeptics. So I think the evidence should be the answer. They should be waiting for evidence that this is indeed different and meaningful. . . . So I don’t have a problem when people say, “Well, we’ve heard this before.” . . . (Plain Dealer, 3/28/10; while still CAO)
  • As a principal architect of this plan, I come to the CEO’s position both with a deep understanding of the promises made to the Cleveland community and also the intricate challenges the district will need to work through in order to make good on these promises… I am ready to lead the implementation of the Academic Transformation Plan and to be held accountable for doing so.” – Eric Gordon (Plain Dealer, 6/7/11)
  • He was the main author of the district’s academic “transformation plan,” a building-by-building blueprint for reform that is rounding out its first year. (Plain Dealer, 6/7/11)
  • He has a chance to actually play the leading role in the show he has written: the “transformation plan” on which his boss and predecessor, Eugene Sanders, abruptly bailed this year. (Plain Dealer, 6/9/11)

As a matter of fact, Gordon’s work on the plan was thought of so highly in Cleveland that he didn’t actually make the final three during the interview process and he was only given a one-year contract.  We can only guess that the plan’s lack of measurable success combined with Gordon’s sudden surprise at being promoted into the spotlight and the realization of the promises he actually included in the plan must have caused him to plead with Mayor Frank Jackson to join in and bail him out.  Some highlights of 2010’s 117-page Academic Transformation Plan by principal architect and then-Chief Academic Officer, but now CEO, Eric Gordon:

  • CMSD’s Academic Transformation represents the most comprehensive and ambitious plan in the history of the district
  • Comprehensive approach leaves no school unexamined
  • System-wide reforms improve how central office and schools operate and create foundation for successful and sustainable transformation
  • By 2014-15 the CMSD community should expect every school to be rated Continuous Improvement or above—and 50% rated Excellent or Effective on the Ohio report card.
  • Our leadership team has spent months researching the “what”: proven school models and well-tested district reform strategies. A well-designed plan is an important first step.
  • Emphasize objectivity, minimize politics, and strive to consistently apply these guiding principles
  • Be courageous – seek transformational change, demonstrate a sense of urgency, and be willing to stay the course in a long, difficult journey
  • If these necessary conditions do not materialize, CMSD will continue to implement the plan at a slower, more measured pace of change.

And the plan continues on to expand on all of these points.  So why would the architect of this “proven, well-tested, comprehensive, ambitious, sustainable, well-designed” fail to “be courageous, be willing to stay the course and continue to implement the plan?”

Perhaps it was easy to make these statements when he wasn’t going to be held accountable.  But now that he’s in the position that his plan makes most accountable he’s not so comfortable.  Again, a chart showing responsibility for the quality of implementation from page 39 of Gordon’s plan:

Notice how the architect of the plan, then-Chief Academic Officer Gordon, was nonexistent on this particular chart despite the fact that it was titled “Academic Transformation Plan.”  Meanwhile, the CEO was charged with ensuring adherence to the plan and maintaining focus and urgency.  Again, it was easy for Gordon to assign these academic roles of accountability to someone else when he was creating the plan, but now that he’s in the hot seat, he wants Cleveland to adopt a new plan ASAP.  In the process of trying to cover up his inexperience, Gordon has inadvertently equipped Ohio’s uniformed and desperate-to-kill-public-education Governor with an ill-conceived “new” plan for Cleveland that Kasich has taken to the State Board of Education and the State Legislature for adoption.

So even worse than his lack of practical work experience in a large urban district is that Gordon has already crafted a transformation plan that he is abandoning due to its projected failure after less than two years!

And yet HE is the expert that Ohio is relying on to turn things around in the second-largest district in the state?  And Governor Kasich is pleading that this plan can be implemented statewide?


Oh, and did we mention anything about our reform expert needing to work with a sidekick that never left the town he grew up in, obtained his law degree at the local university, and then worked for a few years as a public attorney before becoming a local career politician (22 years) with absolutely no experience as an educator of any sort while failing to improve the very school district they are tasked with improving in the prior six years despite having the legal to appoint the entire school board and concur on any CEO hiring?

No? Good, because that would be even more ignorant than hiring an under-experienced educator to craft a massive transformation plan in the first place.


On a final note, what would you say if we paid the architect of our plan an annual salary of $230,000 plus benefits.  Benefits would include the standard health insurance, retirement (STRS), sick leave, personal leave, and life insurance as has been awarded to other administrators and was negotiated by the teachers’ union?  You know, the union benefits that the newly created “Cleveland Plan” seeks to destroy?  We should probably continue to follow the lead of Gordon’s contract and provide some non-standard benefits such as travel, mileage, cell phone, laptop, and….how about six weeks of vacation that can be accrued and paid out when he quits?

The Chief Executive Officer shall be provided with thirty (30) days of annual vacation.  Such vacation time may be used immediately and in full without the necessity of any accrual period prior to use, and may be carried over if unused at the end of the fifty-two (52) week work without limit.  The Chief Executive Officer shall be eligible for payment for accrued unused vacation leave, if any, at the Chief Executive Officer’s then current rate of compensation upon separation from employment, subject to any limits established by State law or Board policy.

For those who are wondering – YES, that vacation is in addition to sick and personal leave days.

For those not wanting to calculate that out, his daily rate is $884.62, meaning those six weeks add an additional value of $26,538.60 to his compensation package, unless he opts to settle for the $230,000 and still “take his summers off” like all the other teachers do (yes, that’s a joke).


To sum this up, if you can put together a legible plan that contains a lot of educational jargon unfamiliar to the ordinary voter or run-of-the-mill legislator, you too can earn a compensation package of over $320,000.

No experience necessary.