Friday, October 30, 2009

Superintendents and reform: predicting the pain.

People want to see test scores rise, fast. Well, guess what? The kind of change required for that to happen causes pain. Lots. ALWAYS. Superintendents are brought in with the hope and expectation they’ll wipe away problems, and then, invariably, the community freaks out at the collateral damage.

Michelle Rhee is the latest to have her feet held to the fire in this regard, but it’s been happening to superintendents at districts large and small for years. J.H. Snider nailed it in this EdWeek commentary from 2006. I’m really big on the idea that journalists should be out in front on these kinds of issues. Well before the accusations and fury—before the appointments, even, if possible—they should do analytical reporting on what forms the pain of achieving new, high goals might take, and to what degree the community is prepared for it.


  1. As a teacher and a principal, I worked under three superintendents for a total of 25 years. As a superintendent myself (albeit, of a very small, rural, K-8 district), I held the job for ten years and lost it only when all K-8 districts wered forced by the state legislature to merge with their high school districts.

    From my experience I learned that there are serious problems inherent in being a superintendent. First, you are physically, intellectually, and emotionally isolated from the students, parents, and teachers you serve. Second, your education and job experience are often far different from those of the teachers you are expected to lead. Finally, the goals set for you by your school board--because they are even more isolated from the realities of school-- are either unrealistic or wrong-headed.

    As individuals, most superintendents have a further problem: they choose to work against their principals, teachers and board members instead of with them. (Michelle Rhee, for example)

    The true mission of a superintendents is to make the schools under his/her authority better places to be-- educationally, physically, socially, and emotionally. That does not mean just raising test scores. It also means making sure that all school buildings are safe, clean, well-equipped and attractive. It means guiding the adoption of sensible, inspiring curricula, and high quality materials. It means listening to the concerns of students, teachers, and parents, and tryingto do something about them. It means giving representatives of all those groups seats at the decision-making table on a regular basis. And it means educating your Board about the variety and depth of student needs, beyond good grades and high test scores.

    Although, what I am suggesting is a super-human job--even in a small school district-- a god superintendent will still try to do as much of it as possible. For example, one long-term superintendent in a medium-size district I know, teaches one high school course every year to help him remember what it is like to be a student and a teacher. His Board, students, and community notice and respect him for his efforts on their behalf.

  2. In Jonathan Kozol's "The Shame of the Nation," he decries "the high set of expectations that attach themselves to changes in the topmost personnel" in school leadership. The reception and attitude shift as the individual reveals him- or herself to be human. It's kind of amazing that this scenario is repeated over and over, and education reporters seem oblivious to the fact that they're participating in the same old script.

    Kozol describes Joseph Fernandez, New York City schools chancellor from about 1990-'93, who arrived "greeted with ... extravagance of praise." The New York Times, in a story headlined "New Chancellor, New Hope for Schools," enthused: "It's a thrill to hear Joseph Fernandez talk about his plans..."

    "A month later, Newsday noted that some critics were complaining that Fernandez was "beginning to behave less like a city schools chancellor and more like a city schools czar." At the time, Newsday defended Fernandez. But, Kozol continues:

    "Three years after he arrived, Dr. Fernandez was dismissed, his manner of leadership now retroactively described as "arrogant, abrasive or aloof," according to the Times. "He made too many enemies," said Newsday. "His greatest strength — a sometimes imperious distaste for compromise — became his fatal flaw."

    Kozol tells the sadder story of Fernandez' predecessor, Richard Greene, who "was received with high praise from the New York media and from the city's private-sector leaders. Soon enough, he started to incur the criticism that he was too cautious, too methodical, and not sufficiently aggressive. He began to have the stricken look of someone who could barely breathe; and this, it turned out, was literally so." Greene, still in the job, died suddenly of an asthma attack in 1989.

    Fernandez successor Rudy Crew talked to Kozol about being "greeted with a chorus of applause" on arriving, and later fired after a "bludgeoning" that gave him a "sense of visceral insult" and that he views as "tinged with racial condescension." Since the book was written, Crew was hired in Miami with similar acclaim and left under a similar cloud.

    Kozol writes: "James Baldwin had written of black leaders who were given a limited degree of power to control and, if they could, relieve some of the miseries of Harlem 50 years ago. Speaking of "the nicely refined torture a man can experience from having been created and defeated by the same circumstances," Baldwin wrote, "the best that one can say is that they are in an impossible position" and that those "who are motivated by genuine concern maintain this position with heartbreaking dignity." That precarious sense of dignity, often protected by reliance upon hyperbolic claims and a progressively more glazed and fragile smile, may be noted among good black and Hispanic school officials to the present day. Too much is expected of them when they come; too little is accorded to them when they leave. The structures of apartheid and inequity that have defeated them remain unchanged."

    That's Jonathan Kozol's "race card," not mine.

  3. School superintendents today are largely itinerant politicians. The instructional buck starts and stops with teachers but teachers are hamstrung by mandates emanating from the federal government but reverberating through state, county, and local administratas. The best a school supt can do is "keep peace" among the various interests that have a finger in the district pie.

    A school district today is the same as a one-school district of yesteryear writ large. Ironically, the only weak element of the el-hi enterprise is instruction, which is the only function the public expects the institution to provide. Public schools do many thing for the public for which they get no credit, and they getting bashed due to tests that are insensitive to instructional differences. Sooner or later, someone with some clout either inside or outside the enterprise will figure this out. But the best we have at the present time is variability and a lot of noise.