Warning to Michigan parents and teachers about John Covington

An open message from a Kansas City teacher to the parents and  teachers of Michigan about John Covington’s reign of terror when he was superintendent of  her district’s schools. Covington drastically increased the class sizes of certain KC teachers following a model suggested by Bill Gates; this experiment ended, thankfully, when he left the district.

Covington was recently appointed the head of Michigan’s new Education Achievement Authority to run that state’s struggling schools, with the power to cancel union contracts and override duly elected school board members.

Covington is personable, charming, and a bully. He made our principals work 80 hours a week and allowed no vacation time, not even in the summer. They were expected to be in their buildings from 6 am to 6 pm and on weekends. He rarely came out to the buildings and instead had henchmen (assistant superintendents) who made surprise visits to schools nitpicking everything from bulletin boards to noisy lunchrooms. He tried to ban recess for elementary schools until parents called the media. He then said if he came by our school and saw children at recess, he would ask to see that class’s test scores. His henchmen also visited senior teachers in their schools, and told them if they didn’t retire or resign they would be fired. They were then placed on improvement plans for anything they could find that needed improvement. The union fought back for the union member teachers and saved their jobs. Teachers not in the union were either fired or resigned.

Last April, Covington talked the school board into pink slipping 80 non-tenured teachers. The majority of them would have been tenured this year. (In Missouri, you earn tenure on day one of your 6th year teaching.) He then persuaded the board to agree to hire 150 Teach for America interns.

In the two years Covington was here, there was zero growth in test scores. He closed half the schools, fired half the staff, wrote a fancy ‘Transformation Plan’ that the state and the local media loved – yet none of his work resulted in a growth in student achievement. So in essence, he failed.

But the community loved him. Like I said, he is charming.  He would stand up at school board meetings and flat out lie to the board – as in the lie that no research supports reducing class size having a positive impact on student achievement. The board would just nod their heads, as if they were in the presence of a wizard, and the local media never investigated any of his lies. Yes we would contact them and say ‘hey that’s not true’ but the media continued to promote this image of Covington as a wonder man who was going to save the district. Even the PAA wonderful blog and the follow up Education Week piece forwarded to the local media resulted in ZERO negative press.

Even when he resigned, leaving the district in a very bad situation, (more on that below), the media spun his surprise resignation into a conspiracy theory involving board members supposedly breaking the law, leaving Covington no choice but to resign. Nearly a month later, that has been completely debunked, but we have a new school board president and zero coverage in our media connecting Covington to the false rumor.

The entire time he was here, he got mainly positive press and nearly constant praise. He was a featured speaker at the local Chamber of Commerce, Jaycees, Shriners, etc. My family and friends were constantly asking me how thrilled I was to have such a great superintendent and I wanted to vomit.

The one good thing Covington did was clean up the finances. As in many school districts, we were paying people for work they weren’t doing or goods they weren’t providing. I will give Covington credit for cleaning all of that up. He brought n a finance person who spent months looking at the budget. And for the first time in years, every teacher in the district got a budget to buy classroom supplies and every teacher also got a laptop. But that is the only thing I will praise him for and his reign of terror was so bad it’s hard to praise him for anything. There was much rejoicing when he resigned.

Also in spite of the financial improvements, employees got NO RAISES the entire time he was here. Contract negotiations were insane. Covington wanted to give unprecedented powers to principals so they could be tyrants just like him.

He has left us in a very bad situation concerning our state accreditation. The state had agreed to give the district provisional accreditation because of Covington’s Transformation Plan and they liked him and praised his leadership. But as soon as he resigned, the state announced they are reconsidering our accreditation and on Tuesday this week, we are expecting the state to announce we are losing our accreditation. That could result in many scenarios, ranging from a state appointed board to the dissolution of the district. So on Wednesday, we could all be looking at the loss of our jobs. Whatever happens, Covington’s resignation caused it.

Yes, organize your teachers! The only thing that saved many of ours from losing their jobs was the union and its attorneys. The only group that ever spoke up to Covington was our union and our teachers. He was loved by everyone else. The principals hated him but were too scared to speak up. The parents were largely convinced he was a miracle worker. The few parents who attend board meetings regularly saw through his bullshit, but there are so few of them they have no impact. So a well organized union is probably the best way to fight back.

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4 Responses to Warning to Michigan parents and teachers about John Covington

  1. Christi Hoffman

    As a parent–my daughter spent one year in the district before I pulled her out–who was very involved and attended many meetings, I agree with everything you wrote except for one thing. There WERE parents, many parents, who knew Covington for what he was. Trying to work with him or with our principal was impossible. Parents can do very little without principal support, unfortunately. Apparently the Broad Foundation teaches its superintendents to create this type of atmosphere wherein no one can actually participate in the process.

  2. Ms king

    Yes I agree Covington smiled in our face as he asked for support . Then he acted like he wanted parents involved in the process
    He gutted what was left of the good teachers and admin staff many were forced to retire . We lost alot of good teachers and alot of students did not do better they have done worse.

  3. Harrietinthecity

    Ditto,

    First – test scores fell under Covington and weeks before he took the job in Michigan the state confirmed that test scores were lower and that we met FEWER benchmarks towards accreditation than when he started.

    Second, the district had successfully stemmed the loss of students prior to hiring Covington. The local paper praised Covington and ran an article entitled “Saving 17,000 students.” Six months later, the district enrollment fell below 16,000 and was falling.

    Covington’s new “graduation” requirements were lower than what was there previously. Parents following the minimal standards would find their students shut out of most competitive colleges. Math requirements were low, foreign language requirements were negligible, etc. He set up a dual college program at the local Community College that included no foreign language component and would leave one student interested in attending Yale, with no options but to attend a local college.

    Worse, Covington shut down half the space allocated for our nationally recognized college prep program. He also destroyed a newly developed college prep program in the southern part of the city by bullying the principal (who was successful and had community support). The principal quit and Covington replaced him. That replacement quit and Covington then installed a third principal with only elementary school experience. Repeat – he put a principal in charge of an early college prep program who had no experience.

    Covington also flooded the newer college prep program with over a thousand (not a typo) students from a troubled high school. As a result, 25% of the original college prep students fled the school. The local paper reported there were 1400 suspensions in the first semester. There were only 1200 students in the school. By January the fire department had been called to the school 51 times. Crime in the neighborhood increased. Covington, rather than fix the problem or hire social workers, increased the number of guards. The unqualified principal then quit. That made three principals and three resignations in a single school year.

    http://www.pitch.com/kansascity/a-promising-magnet-school-gets-burned-by-right-sizing/Content?oid=2447688

    and destroyed the districts planetarium after telling the community he wanted to keep it open:

    Covington also cut the debate partnership with the local university. He claimed he couldn’t afford the cost to train 250 students (across multiple schools) even though several were going on to National debates and reading scores for that subset were climbing. The university cut the price in half and pointed out they provide free tuition and scholarship money for college to students who also attend their summer program. Covington refused to pay it claiming budget cuts.

    He did, however, pay $28,000 to commission a large trophy to showcase the district’s progress. It was premature since performance fell during his tenure and best practice teachers with proven test results retired or took Covington’s buy-out.

    Covington then fired teachers without tenure and replaced them with 150 unproven Teach for America teachers at a $3,000 finders fee per head. If we didn’t have money for a debate program how do we have $450,000 for TFA fees.

    Let’s repeat – no money for a widely successful debate program that trained inner city youth to research and articulate arguments. No money for debate teams when research suggests debate students have a hire college entrance and graduation rate.

    But he had money to spend on an enormous trophy – a monument to his ego. When asked how he managed to get the expense past the board, a staff member said he used his “discretionary budget” so he wouldn’t have to get board approval.

    Yep – Michigan is about to get a rude awakening. Especially if the “private institute” that is partially funding his salary is Broad Institute. We here in KC got snookered by the same offer of a Broad Olive branch and resources. We soon found out we got a pig in a poke. He cleaned up finances, but only because we finally threw out the old school board and installed one that would stop interfering with the superintendent. Otherwise his predecessors would have done the same thing.

    But when it came time to prove he knew what to do with academics other than slam teachers with class sizes well norms – he bolted for another clueless district hoping for a savior and not realizing that what they’re getting is smoke and mirrors instead.

    We are celebrating now that he’s gone.

  4. Jk

    Thank you for posting. I’m in Michigan and will definitely spread this word.