Former Brigadier General Anthony Tata (pronounced TAY-ta) will take on his new role as superintendent for Wake County schools on January 31. He went on the record recently with reporter Will Huntsberry.
Record: When did you know that you wanted to work in education?
AT: I knew when I was a teenager that I either wanted to go into the military or teach and coach. And when I went to West Point, I didn’t really plan on staying beyond the five-year mark. But what I learned in a very short period of time in the active duty Army as a young lieutenant is that I was both coach and teacher. The thing about the United States military is that it is one of the great teaching and learning institutions in our country. We have life-long learning. We have life-long education. We are constantly assessing new recruits and new officers and constantly training and tutoring and mentoring them. And it is core curricula that is developed centrally and executed locally. So it is very much akin to our education system. The local education authority is a far more independent authority than a more centralized Army or military way of doing business… That’s how I ended up doing military and then education. My father is the chairman of the House education committee in the Virginia General Assembly. My mother is a 40-year educator and counselor and was a school board member in Virginia Beach. My sister is a 25-year teacher. So, yeah, it runs in the family. Teaching is a noble profession and I absolutely come down on the side of teachers and principals every single time, because not only genetically that’s in my DNA… but because it makes sense. They’re the ones who are in the classrooms everyday doing the hard work.
Record:: How has the transition been from the military to education? What similarities have you found and what differences?
AT: When I think about traveling around and making sure every soldier had what he or she needed on the front lines in Afghanistan, you know, it’s no different in a school district to make sure that you are a visible, present leader in the schools and you’re talking to teachers, talking to principals, trying to understand what they need and what their demands are. There’s a lot of political noise happening right now. And change is hard. The direction that Wake County Public Schools take is one that has to be guided by student achievement. It can’t be guided by external forces that have nothing to do with student achievement.
Record:: Are you saying that socio-economic status isn’t related to student achievement?
AT: No, I’m not saying that… There’s data and surveys out there that tell you that children with low socio-economic status may not be coming to the school with the same kind of prior training, education, intervention that other more affluent children may have. So, that’s just the facts and the question then becomes, “How do you best do early intervention to find out how to bring not just the poor children, but the children who aren’t learning all across the district up to grade level?” There’s all kind of data that tells you that if you’re not at grade level one year and then you’re not at it the next year, then you’re going to have a real hard time catching back up.
Record: Because of the extremely divisive debate that has been going on here for the past year I have to ask you this. Are you a supporter of the former diversity and socio-economic busing policy or neighborhood schools?
AT: Again, I come back to the data. Right now, there is no real plan. There’s a policy that the school board made and the school district needs to develop a plan that is feasible, suitable and acceptable to the entire community of Wake County and so as I come in I’m listening and learning. I’m hearing people from every angle on the issue. The one irrefutable constant for me is “What is the best thing for student achievement? How do we make sure that all students- east, west, north and south- how do we ensure that they learn the best?” The data that I’m looking tells me that we’ve got to pull this thing apart a little bit. Meaning, I’ve got to get into the data a little bit to really understand what we’ve been doing because I don’t know that as a community we understand what we’ve been doing. I’ll just tell you right off the bat that the whole economically disadvantaged plan is based upon whether or a child is listed as free or reduced [lunch}… There’s 143,000 students in Wake County and of those 143,000 only 28 percent submitted a form to be labelled free and reduced… There is a national debate right now that is hinging on a number that is 28 percent of the total population… You know how many free and reduced kids you’ve got but you don’t know how many you’re supposed to have.
I think the way you come to the middle ground is that you have zones of choice for parents. Those zones of choice include magnet schools, year-round schools, community-based schools. You get away from the fear factor of “that school down the road is not so hot.” You give parents choice. At the same time what you do is that you make sure the school right down the road has the best teachers, you provide incentives for teachers to come to those schools, you get strong principals in there and you hold them accountable for student achievement. I’m not saying this is easy. I don’t want anybody to think, “Tata thinks that you can just wave a magic wand or turn a magic key and all of sudden everything is running on high rpms.” This is hard work. This is sleeves-rolled-up, 24/7 kind of work.
Record: What would you say to the people, seemingly mostly diversity supporters, who are disappointed that the choice for superintendent was not a lifelong educator?
AT: I’ve been coaching, teaching, mentoring all my life. A school system… is a complex organization. I have been training all my life to do this and leading similar organizations for the last ten or fifteen years of my career. Understanding the complexity of the organization is crucial. Again, I come back to this core mission. In every organization you have to understand what the main thing is and if you lose sight of that you’re going to lose your way as an institution… For Wake County the main thing is student achievement starting January 31… When somebody gets concerned that, okay, I’m not a career educator, I would take issue with that. I’ve been educating and educated all my life. I went to Harvard. I went to CAPA University. I went to the military’s premier master’s degree program called the School of Advanced Military Studies. I went to the Broad Superintendent’s Academy. I feel like I am qualified, highly qualified, for this position.
Record: Two other famous military commanders- I believe in Washington D.C. and Los Angeles- did not do so well making the transition from to education. How would you compare yourself to them and what gives you this strong inner-confidence that you can succeed?
AT: You’ve got skewed data. What you’re repeating is what Dr. Morrison said. I respect Dr. Morrison and I respected what she had to say about me. She spoke from the heart and from her conscience. If you do the research you’ve got retired Air Force General Barry in Aurora, Colorado who is that state’s superintendent of the year. You have Colonel Tom Brady- not the quarterback- who is the superintendent of Providence, Rhode Island. He’s doing an exceptional job. You had another one down in Duval County, Florida. You can cherry pick if you want. It was unfortunate to me that Dr. Morrison threw under the bus two lifelong public servants… It was skewed data. It served a purpose. But anyone who wants to dig around will find otherwise. What I found unusual was that she didn’t highlight the career educators who have failed miserably leading large school districts.
Record: One last question. Once you become Wake County schools superintendent do you plan to continue to be vocal in the public arena as a conservative political blogger? If so, how does that reconcile with taking on the post as superintendent, which most people view as completely non-partisan and apolitical?
AT: I am the superintendent of Wake County come January 31. I represent every child in that district and every parent in that district. I am a registered independent in Washington, D.C. The student achievement of the children in Wake County is far larger than any political issue. I am their superintendent 24/7, 365 days a year.
Record: Yes, but it is my understanding that your contract will explicitly allow you to continue blogging. Do you plan on continuing to be a politically vocal blogger?
AT: I am going to be the superintendent 365 days a year. I think that the media wondering about an American citizen and whether or not he or she will amend his or her first amendment rights is just a very curious question.