Wrecking Crew

Gov. John Kitzhaber hired Rudy Crew to smash the status quo in Oregon schools. What comes after that?

Anybody who thinks there are no second acts in American life should consider Rudolph Franklin Crew.

Crew is a leading figure in the national education reform movement. Over the past 30 years, he's jumped from one big-city school district to another, shattering the old way of doing things and demanding that adults do more for kids who are failing.

He landed some of the biggest jobs in public education—and then lost them. 

Crew was a hero in Tacoma, Wash., until the school board demanded his resignation. He wowed New York City and then got summarily fired. He was the first outsider to run Miami schools in 50 years, but after making big changes got booted there, too. 

In each case, Crew drove bold educational shifts but got the politics wrong.

"I've learned that if you disturb a system," Crew says, "it will ultimately disturb you back."

So where is he today? 

Sitting at Gov. John Kitzhaber's elbow as Oregon's first-ever chief education officer.

Kitzhaber wants to blaze a seamless educational trail from cradle through college, rescuing the one-third of Oregon students who currently fail to finish high school and energizing our feeble economy. 

To achieve that vision, Kitzhaber must demolish the status quo.

Crew is his bulldozer. 

When Oregon's 77th Legislature convenes Feb. 4, no actor will be closer to the spotlight than Crew. No one but Crew—who has also been a classroom teacher, an author and a college professor—will be more central to figuring out what Oregon needs to do to save its public schools.

"He's really good at improving outcomes without additional resources," says Matt Donegan, who serves on the Oregon Education Investment Board. "In Oregon, that's really important."

Donegan says Crew also brings a much-needed sense of urgency to a state that Education Week says ranks 43rd in the country for educational results.

"He speaks with moral indignation about how we treat our children," Donegan says.

Heavyset with an unlined, moon-shaped face, Crew, 62, is polished but also blunt. In a process-loving state where passive-aggressiveness poses as politeness, Crew, who's accustomed to fast action and the rough-and-tumble of big cities, will be challenged.

"Everybody wants to be liked," he says. "But that's not what I'm here for."

Not everybody is sure Crew is the savior Oregon needs. Skeptics say he's been vague about when and how change will happen. And judging from Crew's history, he's unlikely to be the long-term solution.

"He has this philosophy he calls 'disruptive change,'" says Debbie Winskill, president of the school board in Tacoma, where Crew ran the school district for two and a half years.

"He's good at breaking things but incapable of putting them back together."

There's no plaque commemorating his 2008 National Superintendent of the Year award, no celebrity wall photos. 

The furniture is government-issue basic and the building a plain storefront next to Salem's First Presbyterian Church. 

In Crew's office, with its ground-level view of Court Street, there's smooth jazz on the radio, a photograph of Crew's four kids on the desk, a picture of horses behind it (he owns three trail horses—Mabel, Lady and Roxy), and a framed print of a motto: 

"Any sort of change requires courage."

The utilitarian feel extends to Crew's Ford F-150 pickup truck—he's a modern-day gunslinger whose weapons are his words. 

In a stylish loden-green suit, he is the opposite of the typical cautious bureaucrat. Between sips of tea, he assesses the risks of trying to transform the state's largest and costliest institution—public education.

His view of Oregon so far is succinct.

“There’s been too much conversation about why things can’t be done,” Crew says. “We need to apply more rigor to the work.” 

And he understands his mission. “You have to be willing to fail, to lose a job, to step into the breech,” he says. 

When he signed a three-year contract last June, he became, at $280,000 a year, the highest-profile African-American on Oregon's public payroll. (See below.) 

Crew says some Oregonians are unsure what to make of him.

"It might have given people a little bit of a pause when they saw me eating in a little breakfast place in John Day," he says in the New York accent he's never lost.

"Sometimes people might hold a point of view about what a black man is. People are surprised I have horses. They're surprised a city guy like me likes to fish.” 

Crew went fishing with Kitzhaber in late September near Tillamook.

“Didn’t catch a thing,” he says. 

Nonetheless, he bought himself a fly rod as a holiday gift. 

Crew says his race and background allow him to make demands that could sound hypocritical coming from a white man.

"There's no guile or hoodwinking when the message and the messenger align," Crew says.

In his 2007 book, Only Connect: The Way to Save Our Schools, and in speeches, he tells of his upbringing in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., about 70 miles north of Manhattan.

His mother died when he was 2, and his father, Eugene, a jazz trumpeter and night watchman, raised him.

An indifferent middle-school student, Crew was headed to vocational school. But his father balked.

"He was a guy who wanted his son to go to college but didn't know how to do it," Crew says in a YouTube video his office produced. "He didn't have the slightest clue. All he knew was, from where we lived to the college front door, there had to be a road."

Crew says his father refused to take no for an answer. He recalls his father telling a school counselor, "You just need to put him in the same class as everybody else who's going to college. I don't know what those courses are called, but I want him in them. I'll take care of the rest."

His father's actions formed the foundation of his educational philosophy—that poverty need not be a disqualifier.

"My father," Crew says in the video, "is almost single-handedly responsible for everything I understand about parent engagement."

Crew earned a business degree from Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., and later, a Doctor of Education from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. 

He started out teaching English in Southern California. His principal, Ramon C. Cortines—later superintendent of the New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco school districts—observed Crew's class one day and gave him advice that stuck with him.

"Did you think about teaching that lesson a different way?" Cortines asked Crew afterward.

"Why would I?' Crew replied.

"Because somebody just might get it," Cortines said.

Cortines' message was that everybody can learn, just not necessarily the same way. Crew focused on the minority achievement gap as the superintendent in Sacramento, Calif., from 1988 to 1993. He left Sacramento after five years—citing frustration at chronic funding shortfalls—for the Tacoma district.

In Tacoma, test scores jumped during Crew's tenure, attracting the attention of the New York City Board of  Education,  which had burned through six chancellors in 10 years. 

Crew's candidacy for the New York job played out on the pages of newspapers in both cities. After being courted by New York, he at first decided to stay put.

"I really feel an obligation to getting on with business here," he told The News Tribune in Tacoma on Sept. 21, 1995. "I don't think you can do it and walk away from it in two years. I've really opted to see this one through."

But then Crew vanished and holed up in Sacramento, where Tacoma board members couldn't find him, let alone reach him.  Meanwhile, he was negotiating with New York, and three weeks later he accepted the New York job.

Feelings about Crew remain raw in Tacoma.

"Up here, it was a messy ending to what had been a good marriage," says Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy, then a member of the Tacoma Public Schools Board. "The good that he did, he was undermined by the way he left."

Crew says the opportunity to go home to New York and to lead a 1.1 million-student district was too compelling to pass up. But he acknowledges former supporters feel "jilted."

"I don't think the work in Tacoma was complete," he says.

In New York, Crew made an immediate splash. He took personal responsibility for 10 failing schools, forming a "Chancellor's District." He fired principals, transferred teachers and beefed up course offerings.

Crew would later expand that effort, announce the end of "social promotion" and wrest control of elementary and middle schools from community boards.

In New York City, the public schools ultimately answer to the mayor. Initially, Crew says, he and then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani got along well.

"I had a really good relationship with Rudy Giuliani," he says. "Doing all kinds of things from horseback riding to wine and cigars."

Crew says he always knew he was swimming in dangerous waters.

"In New York, there are so many forces at play you have to pick your way through to stay as whole as you can for as long as you can," he says. "But I was aware there would be a D-Day. There's a D-Day in every system.” 

In 1999, Giuliani, a Republican preparing to run for the U.S. Senate, wanted to spend $12 million on vouchers for private education. That would burnish his conservative credentials.

Crew balked.

"He said, 'Do this,'" Crew recalls. "I wouldn't do it."

After that, no more horses and cigars—Giuliani successfully lobbied the board to fire Crew.

“I didn’t want to leave New York,” Crew says. “But there can only be one king.” 

Supporters, such as Judith Chin, Crew's director of professional development in New York, say he excelled at the educational part of the job.

"People remember him here for the work he did with the Chancellor's District," Chin says. "He put a lot of focus on improvement and accountability. But he left before his work was finished.” 

After New York, Crew took charge of a principal leadership program at the University of Washington. He left after 15 months to head the Stupski Foundation, a Bay Area education-reform group.

In 2004, Crew took over in Miami, the nation's fourth-largest school district. Media reports said his $400,000 paycheck made him the highest-paid superintendent in the country.

If New York was stormy, Miami was a cyclone.

Crew followed his New York playbook: He identified the city's 30 worst-performing schools and placed them in a "School Improvement District," giving them longer days and paying teachers 20 percent more to work in them.

On the eve of those schools opening, recalls Joseph Garcia, Crew's Miami spokesman, Crew learned there would be 100 substitute teachers, a number he deemed unacceptable.

"Rudy reassigned 100 administrators on the spot to teach in those schools," Garcia says. "The teachers' union wasn't happy and the administrators weren't happy, and some school boards weren't happy, but it was the right thing to do."

Miami politics were harder to solve. A board member sued Crew for refusing to turn over public records. Crew filed an ethics complaint against a state senator for racial epithets that led the lawmaker to resign. Cuban-Americans raised a furor over a school library book they found sympathetic to Fidel Castro.

In 2008, after two years of massive budget overruns, the board fired Crew. 

"New York is complicated, but the politics were out in the open," Crew says. "Miami was a strange confluence of complex geopolitical realities—and you can't see them."

Karen Aronowitz, president of the United Teachers of Dade, gives Crew mixed grades. 

"I would give him an A in terms of education policy," she says. "He had an understanding of children all the way from early childhood through college. But I'd give him a D for community outreach."

Crew left Miami toting a severance check for $368,000.

In 2010, Kitzhaber campaigned for governor promising to cure the ills of Oregon's schools in a measurable way. The former emergency-room physician tied Oregon's lousy graduation rate—currently 67 percent—to the state's per-capita income being nearly 10 percent below the national average.

After winning election, he set ambitious goals. By 2025, Kitzhaber wants to eliminate dropouts and have 80 percent of Oregonians earning an associate degree or higher.

Currently, state figures show that only about 36 percent of 25-to-34-year-old Oregonians have that level of education.

In 2011, Kitzhaber rammed a reform package through the Legislature.

The governor convinced lawmakers to abolish the 148-year-old elected office of state superintendent of education, institute teacher evaluations, expand charter schools and create a 12-member Oregon Education Investment Board, whose job is to break down the walls that separate early childhood from higher education.

Corporate Oregon has a loud voice on the OEIB. In addition to Donegan, two key members are Julia Brim-Edwards, director of government and public affairs at Nike, and Ron Saxton, a two-time Republican gubernatorial candidate and now executive vice president of Jeld-Wen, the Klamath Falls window maker.

"One thing Ron and I brought is a 'no excuses' philosophy and a dissatisfaction with the status quo," Brim-Edwards says. (Saxton was traveling abroad and could not be reached.)

Brim-Edwards led the team that selected Crew from a pool of in-state and out-of-state applicants. She says the committee talked extensively with Crew about his roller-coaster work history and found it a plus.

"If you are doing hard work and holding people responsible and have your elbows out to get results for students, you are not going to make everybody happy," Brim-Edwards says. "We weren't interested in somebody who did not make waves."

Kitzhaber wants to end the practice of funding education on a per-capita, per-day basis, preferring to invest in approaches proven to work.

Kitzhaber says when voters see the educational system is operating at maximum efficiency, they will pay for smaller class sizes and richer course offerings.

Such efficiency may come at teachers' expense, putting Kitzhaber and Crew crosswise with the 47,000-member Oregon Education Association.

OEA Vice President Hanna Vaandering serves on the OEIB and has positive words about Crew.

"I think what's made an impression is when he shares stories about personal interaction with students," she says. "You can hear the passion in his voice."

But Vaandering is skeptical how much can change without substantial additional funding.

"We need to provide the resources to meet the outcomes we've set," she says. "If you look at the investments that we've made in the past decade, they've declined."

Kitzhaber says pension costs must be trimmed first. "No amount of revenue will be adequate to meet our education goals unless we get a handle on major cost drivers that divert resources from the classroom," the governor told the Oregon School Boards Association in November.

Crew has challenged teachers' unions before. In Miami, doing so accelerated his ouster. "We had negotiated a pay increase and didn't get it," Aronowitz says. "So we worked very hard to make a change."

Crew says his interactions with Oregon's teachers so far have been positive.

"I don't see any signs I should assume OEA is my nemesis," he says. "My nemesis is stillness and inertia."

In previous jobs, Crew addressed inertia by firing people and seizing failing schools. He lacks such authority here.

But Crew will use the megaphone Kitzhaber gave him. Every school district, community college and college in Oregon now must complete an "education compact" annually, creating a road map for improvement.

Last August, Crew blasted many of Oregon's 197 school districts, saying their compact goals were "completely unacceptable."

The education board's members applaud his candor. "What I see so far is a guy who is very focused on kids and on taking the courageous steps," Donegan says. "Sometimes it takes an outsider to come in and drive that change."


For example, he chose a strange way to introduce himself to Portland's rabid K-12 activists.

In October, Crew and the OEIB scheduled one of seven statewide listening sessions in Portland. The forum was held at Marshall High School, which Portland Public Schools closed in 2011.

They were ostensibly seeking input on Kitzhaber's reforms.

Yet only one of the 12 OEIB members—Vaandering, the OEA representative—showed up, sitting onstage alone with a line of empty chairs.

Crew only appeared via video. He says he was ill. "Although my intention was to attend, by late afternoon it just wasn't possible," Crew says.

"I found it incredibly disrespectful," says Susan Barrett, a founder of the parent group Oregon Save Our Schools. "There was a real sense of anger in the room."

Crew will also need strong backing from lawmakers. But on a recent visit to the Capitol, Crew came up short on details.

He presented four strategic investments—in early childhood education, literacy, mentoring and professional development—that would require $150 million from the 2013-15 budget.

Most of that sum would pay for four to six regional teacher-training facilities, and come out of the budgets of existing Education Service Districts.

When lawmakers quizzed Crew on specifics, he had few answers. Almost a month later, Rep. Sara Gelser (D-Corvallis), who chairs the House Education Committee, says she is still waiting for an explanation.

"I have not seen any details and don't know anybody who has," she says.

Crew promises those details are coming soon. "We have been working with members and will have a draft legislative concept that provides detail on the strategic initiatives this week," he says.

Kitzhaber wants Crew to show business leaders and the public that Oregon can produce better educational outcomes without raising taxes. That means aligning a Balkanized system, cutting pension costs and jacking up graduation rates.

Critics think it will be tough for the new education czar to deliver.

"Crew is highly articulate and is an effective cheerleader for the governor's reform program," says Tom Olson, a retired teacher and educational researcher who co-founded Save Our Schools.

"But there's nothing in the so-called reform package that will directly impact large numbers of kids."

Others are more hopeful. Rep. Betty Komp (D-Woodburn), a former teacher and principal who sits on the House Education Committee, says for the first time since she entered the Legislature in 2004 she sees a commitment to transformation.

Komp says it matters less how long Crew stays in Oregon than whether he can chart a new path. "He is a change agent," Komp says. "A change agent is in a position three to five years and moves on."

Crew agrees there is a sense of urgency.

"It's like a timed test," he says. "This window of opportunity for change will close, and I don’t want to be outside when it does.” 

Rudy's Numbers

By Oregon stanRdards, Rudy Crew is well paid. His $280,000 salary is nearly four times what the former superintendent of public instruction, Susan Castillo, made. The 2011 Oregon Legislature abolished Castillo's job and created Crew's position. He earns more than the governor, state treasurer and secretary of state—combined.

Crew signed a three-year contract, which calls for him to get a year's severance should Gov. John Kitzhaber fire him early. He also got a $30,000 moving allowance, $1,000-per-month car allowance and the opportunity to continue his various consulting and for-profit education ventures provided they don't "conflict with the loyalty or energy" expected of him. –NIGEL JAQUISS.

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