On May 9, the Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD) announced that it had hired Dr. Warren Morgan as the district’s new CEO. Morgan will replace Eric Gordon, who has been at the district’s helm since 2011.
CMSD deserves plenty of kudos for involving a variety of stakeholders at several points throughout the hiring process. Such efforts include conducting a stakeholder survey aimed at identifying the primary priorities and concerns of the district’s families, students, and staff, as well as convening panels of students and parents to interview finalists.
Morgan will officially take over on July 24. The new CEO already has the support of the city's young mayor and an updated Cleveland Plan on the books, both of which are good news. But he’s also stepping into a district with persistently low student achievement and growth along with myriad other issues—many of which were highlighted by families and community members during the hiring process. Based on this stakeholder feedback, here’s a look at four things that Morgan should prioritize from day one.
1. Improving academic outcomes
The pandemic hit CMSD particularly hard. In fact, learning losses in Cleveland exceed those in many other cities. Up on the shores of Lake Erie, though, the urgent need for academic improvement is about more than just pandemic recovery. CMSD has a long history of troublingly low student achievement. That’s why the Cleveland Plan exists in the first place. It’s no surprise, then, that survey results identified improving the quality of the district’s academic programs as a top priority. Concerns about achievement disparities based on race also “loomed large” in survey results, and community members expressed interest in identifying the “resources and opportunities” students need to succeed.
Morgan has several options in that regard. One would be to double-down on the district’s commitment to high-dosage tutoring (HDT), which research shows can produce large learning gains for students. Thanks to federal Covid relief funds and a state grant program, CMSD has already partnered with several local colleges and universities to offer HDT to small groups of students. But there are thousands more who could benefit from additional offerings. The Ohio Department of Education has already done the work to create a list of high-quality tutoring providers and programs. If district leaders haven’t done so already, Morgan could contract with one (or several) of these providers and offer HDT to every CMSD student who scores at the lowest level on spring state assessments, or within the district’s lowest performing schools.
Another option would be to capitalize on the district’s existing summer school program (though Morgan would obviously need to wait until next summer to do so, as it’s far too late to overhaul this year’s program in any meaningful way). Over the last several years, CMSD has implemented a Summer Learning Experience that offers K–8 students systematic instruction in literacy and math during the morning, a variety of enrichment activities, and summer camp–like experiences in the afternoon. High schoolers, meanwhile, can sign up for credit recovery courses and enrichment activities geared toward older students.
The program has proved to be popular—nearly 7,000 students signed up last year—but there are still tens of thousands of students who would benefit immensely but aren’t attending. Morgan could make it his mission to bolster sign-up numbers, as well as daily attendance, and might even consider requiring any student who scored at the lowest level on spring state assessments to participate. It’s also unclear how rigorous the academic portion of the experience is, especially for high schoolers. Morgan could focus his efforts on ensuring that all students are provided with the evidence-based instruction and intervention they need to catch up.
2. Ensuring access to high-quality curricula
Ensuring that every student in Cleveland has equitable access to high-quality curricula and additional learning opportunities should be a priority for Morgan. In the district’s stakeholder survey, parents and community members expressed concerns that “resources were not fairly balanced between school buildings” and that higher-performing schools offered “more opportunities” for students. Survey results also indicate that increasing access to career and technical education (CTE) is a priority.
State leaders are poised to ratchet up their commitment to and investment in CTE, so Morgan could soon have increased state funding and support to address that particular concern. But his biggest opportunity will be in early literacy, as state leaders are aiming to revamp how Ohio schools teach reading by requiring them to use high-quality curricula and materials aligned to the science of reading. Right now, several CMSD elementary schools use curricula that aren’t grounded in reading science. In fact, the district’s K–3 Literacy Framework identifies several problematic curricula and materials, such as Fountas & Pinnell and Units of Study, as “recommended resources.” These programs call on teachers to use debunked instructional methods like three-cueing, which encourages students to guess at words rather than actually read them, even though the research is clear that it’s an ineffective way to teach kids how to read.
To address this, Morgan and his staff could establish a high-quality, district-wide curriculum that’s firmly rooted in the science of reading. However, doing so would run counter to CMSD’s commitment to empowering principals to make decisions—a commitment that’s at least partially responsible for upticks in student growth prior to the pandemic. A compromise would be to allow schools to opt out of the district’s chosen curriculum as long as they select high-quality, scientifically-based options instead. Curricula and materials that don’t align with the science of reading should be prohibited.
3. Improving security and school safety
Based on survey results, improving safety both inside and outside of district buildings is the number one concern of parents. Even a quick perusal of local headlines shows why they’re concerned. Several teenagers were shot and killed near school buildings during the 2022–23 school year, including a CMSD student who was waiting for a bus after school.
Morgan told the stakeholder panel that he had experience with school safety issues during his time as a principal in Chicago. As a former teacher, I can vouch that his experience as both a teacher and administrator in big cities like Cleveland—he was a secondary science teacher in St. Louis—is important. It’s difficult to replicate the firsthand experience of working daily in a classroom and school building and understanding the ins and outs of what it takes to keep students safe. Morgan also told the panel that, should he be hired by the district, he would do a “safety audit” of buildings and walk students’ routes to school, presumably to pinpoint areas for concern that need to be addressed.
These ideas are a good start. Morgan will likely find that seeking out the opinions of students and families, as well as teachers and administrators, will bring more good ideas to the fore. In fact, he’s already indicated that he’s open to doing so, having mentioned working with a student advisory group in Chicago and taking their concerns to the city’s mayor and police chief. What will truly matter, though, is what Morgan does with those ideas. Paying lip service to school safety and security is one thing—politicians do it all the time—but actually addressing safety and security issues in an effective and fair manner is another.
It’s also worth noting that, aside from the obvious importance of keeping children safe and ensuring that they feel secure enough to learn, addressing safety issues could improve other weak spots in the district, as well. For example, it’s possible that security concerns are driving some of the attendance issues the district is facing, and addressing truancy was one of the priorities highlighted by the stakeholder survey. Cleveland’s student attendance issues predate the pandemic, and it goes without saying that school closures and Covid have played an outsized role in kids’ likelihood of missing school. But safety matters, too. If students—and their parents—don’t feel safe traveling to school or being in district buildings, then they might be less likely to attend.
4. Maintaining what’s worked
In an analysis of a 2021 study which found that Cleveland was making gains on NAEP, I identified three critical areas that could explain the district’s improvement. Two of the three are areas that Morgan should continue to prioritize.
First is school choice, which the stakeholder survey identified as a “positive” that community members wanted their new CEO to embrace. CMSD is unique in Ohio because it’s a portfolio district. Families use the district’s school choice portal to select a school for their child rather than being required to enroll at the closest building. They can choose up to five schools, ranking them in order of preference. Charter schools have also contributed to the city’s success. Research shows that a higher charter market share in urban areas is associated with significant achievement gains for Black and Hispanic students, and that the existence of charters doesn’t have a negative effect on district schools. That’s playing out in Cleveland, where CMSD sponsors nine charters and has partnered with an additional eight. Cleveland is also home to Breakthrough Public Schools, one of Ohio’s best charter networks.
Second is transparency and accountability. Each year, the Cleveland Transformation Alliance (CTA), a nonprofit responsible for supporting implementation of the Cleveland Plan, releases a report that measures the district’s progress against a broad set of goals. The CTA website is also home to a school finder that allows parents to examine data profiles on each school and compare several schools at once. This information is crucial for families. It also demonstrates the district’s commitment to being transparent about results, and empowers stakeholders and advocates to hold the district accountable for a variety of metrics.
All things considered, CMSD staff and families should feel hopeful about their new CEO. Morgan has a history with the district, as he worked for CMSD during early implementation of the Cleveland Plan. His most recent hiring was the result of a comprehensive process that actively sought out stakeholder feedback. And his experience in other large, midwestern districts aligns with Cleveland and its most significant needs—improving student outcomes in the wake of the pandemic, upgrading curricula and ensuring equitable access, and addressing urgent student safety needs. If Morgan can prioritize these critical areas while also maintaining the things CMSD already did well—like championing school choice and being transparent with the community—then the district has nowhere to go but up.