My guest is Larry Cuban. He is a former high school social studies teacher (14 years, including seven at Cardozo and Roosevelt high schools in the District), district superintendent (seven years in Arlington, Virginia) and professor emeritus of education at Stanford University, where he has taught for 20 years. His latest book, "As Good As It Gets: What School Reform Brought to Austin" was published in February.
By Larry Cuban
Even before Tuesday's primary, the obits on Michelle Rhee and the future of the D.C. schools are being written. I have no crystal ball. I do not know whether Mayor Adrian Fenty will defeat D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray or whether Michelle Rhee will continue as D.C. schools chancellor.
What I do know is that the heroic view of superintendents (Wonder Woman, Batman, Superman—take your pick) breaking china in order to build a better district for students—an image loved by media and the public—is a sure-fire recipe for disappointment and cynicism over turning around failing schools.
How do I know?
In less than 18 months, Bersin had given electro-shock treatment to a district of 146,000 students in an effort to improve student achievement: He fired administrators, altered the district central office dramatically, and installed a plan to improve achievement by realigning the bureaucracy. National media made him a rock star.
The teachers union and school board, however, fought Bersin every step of the way (after recovering from the initial jolt). He left in 2005. Since then, San Diego has had three superintendents each dismantling the Bersin reforms and in their own ways trying to heal the conflicts of those years. Disappointment and cynicism about school reform are at peak levels in the city.
Most policymakers have heard of Alan Bersin but few remember Mark Shedd in Philadelphia.
The president of the school board of this 285,000-student district, an ex-mayor of the city, wanted a superintendent who could deal with chronic low performance of the largely minority district, inspire teachers and principals to raise student achievement, and make Philadelphia a national lighthouse for school reform. He brought Harvard-trained Shedd from Englewood, N.J., where he had eased racial tensions over desegregation in a multiracial community.
The 41 year-old Shedd came, saw, and conquered Philadelphia with a deluge of lively ideas. At least, for a short time.
He decentralized the system to give principals more freedom to make decisions; he brought in new reading programs, encouraged the open classroom and service learning; established Black Studies at high schools and alternative schools such as the first "school without walls"; he gave students a "bill of rights."
But he encountered a deeply resistant bureaucracy in his district office and members of the white community who resented his focus on black students and their problems. He also clashed with then Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo.
A rally of 3,500 black students demanding better schools turned violent after police intervened. More than 50 people were arrested and nearly 30 treated for injuries. Rizzo met with Shedd and the commissioner vowed that he would get rid of the superintendent. He did after he was elected Mayor in 1971.
Rizzo maneuvered the appointment of two "insider" superintendents during the 1970s who quickly dismantled Shedd's reforms. A statue of Rizzo sits outside the Municipal Building. No statue honors Mark Shedd.
What's the alternative to heroes entering and exiting leaving broken china scattered behind? Yes, some china must be broken. That's the easy part. The hard part is building a strong political consensus among teachers, students, parents, and larger community that the job can be done, will take a lot of time, and the folks who can do the job are right here in River City.
Where has this occurred?
They wore no capes and donned no tights. They slogged through a decade or more of battles, some of which they lost, to accumulate small victories. They helped create a generation of civic and district leaders and a teacher corps who shared their vision.
They built brick-by-brick the capacities among hundreds and thousands of teachers, principals, parents, and community members to continue the work. Yes, they angered many and, yes, they fought to win but they persevered. They left legacies that teachers, principals, and parents can, indeed, improve schools by working together.
These superintendents were non-heroic marathoners who finished the race, not sprinters going for the gold that faded well before the finish line.
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