Superintendent heroes don’t save schools

The superintendent hero who swoops in and saves the schools is a “sure=fire recipe for disappointment and cynicism,” writes Larry Cuban, a former superintendent and emeritus education professor, on The Answer Sheet. Of course, he’s thinking about Michelle Rhee, who may soon swoop out of Washington, D.C.

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.

Cuban’s examples are Tom Payzant in Boston (1996-2006), Carl Cohn in Long Beach, CA (1992-2002), Pat Forgione in Austin, TX (1999-2009), and Laura Schwalm (1999- ) in Garden Grove, CA.

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.

Switching metaphors, Cuban says school leaders should be marathon runners, not sprinters.

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  1. Richard Aubrey says:

    Cuban’s description of how it must be done implicitly–perhaps explicitly–tells us there is great resistance to improving schools.
    Noooo. I have heard that educrats and teachers exist solely to improve schools, will leap gladly like frighted deer at the slightest suggestion of a method of improvement.
    So who are Cuban’s exemplars having to fiight, anyway?

  2. Perhaps they’re having to fight people who want to change things every five years, all the while avoiding the classroom. Teachers are cynical about change because “reformers” (many of whom take a tone as hostile and vicious and frankly stupid as Richard Aubrey does) act as if they and they alone know what’s best for everyone, and take no advice from and show no respect for those who’ve been actually trying to make things work. Michelle Rhee’s evident glee in firing teachers was as self-defeating and stupid a display as I’ve ever seen.

    Let’s put it simply: unless you’re willing to work long and hard at reform and are willing to listen and show respect for people, most teachers won’t believe you’re interested in reform: you’re just interested in self-aggrandizement at the expense of teachers and students.

  3. This sounds similar to the arguments against high paid CEOs in the book Good to Great. The high paid, celebrity CEOs would come in and attempt change rapidly but typically would end up causing problems and be out quickly. The CEOs no one heard about — the level 5’s — were the ones who could enact real, lasting change. But the public wants results — quickly and visibly — whether it is a failing business or a school. Too bad the quick fix doesn’t work.

  4. Roger Sweeny says:

    The Boston school system is definitely better than it was before Tom Payzant was superintendent. But is it a good system? Not really.

    To use a sports analogy, Payzant took over a system which had gone 3-13 the previous season. Now, they consistently go 7-9.

    Cuban may be right that a “superintendent hero” can’t save a school system. Alas, there is no evidence that a “brick-by-brick” superintendent can make a bad system good, at least if we measure “good” by student achievement.

    I fear Robert Samuelson is right:

  5. We had a charismatic superintendent for a couple years. He sold his vision to a credulous board of education and faculty. He excelled at motivational speeches and got everyone hopeful and excited for a while with his promises of transformative change. He had no patience –he seemed unfamiliar with the maxim “Haste makes waste”. . He reshuffled many teachers’ teaching assignments. He decided that the middle school needed to be more like an elementary school –i.e. students should do less moving from teacher to teacher and less rigor; less discipline, more nurturing (he canned the VP and substituted a counselor). He turned history, language arts and literature into a epic three-period block. He made everyone join one of several committees charged with revamping the curriculum, increasing cultural sensitivity, making the schools more nurturing, etc. He pretended to give teachers autonomy but when the committees failed to move in the direction he wanted, or he realized that he didn’t know what to do with what they had produced, he pulled the plug on them –thousands of person-hours of labor down the drain. It soon became clear that he didn’t have a cogent vision for reform, but that his ideas were a half-baked mishmash of what he’d gleaned from what every other superintendent in American was doing, and from his guru Rick Du Four, whose own ideas sound great but lack cogency. In short, he was a classic American type: a guy who’s great at self-promotion and duping his audience into believing he knows what he’s talking about, a sophist, a charlatan. Fortunately a bigger district recruited him and took him away from us. I guess charlatans deceive recruiters too. Or the recruiters themselves are charlatans who deceive the boards of ed who hire them. Arne Duncan reminds me of our ex-supe: he’s cultivated the image of one who knows something about true reform, but he doesn’t. His resume-building Chicago reforms have all turned out to be illusory.

    Our current superintendent stays in his office and worries about finances. What a pleasant change.

    Superintendents should have to take this oath: “First, do no harm.”

  6. The way to a problem that’s too big and too intractable to be solved is to break it up into smaller, more manageable-sized problems. Yet that idea isn’t even in the cards for most people when it comes to dealing with public education.

    Of course that’s just a matter of time though. Sooner or later the idea’s going to take root and start to spread the public education and school districts aren’t inseparable as charter schools prove on a daily basis. Then someone will notice that charter schools get by quite nicely on significantly less tax revenue then district schools and gosh, are there any uses for tax money that obviously isn’t needed?

    After that it’s Katy bar the door.

  7. Richard Aubrey says:

    Your point would make more sense if teachers were unable to tell good reform from dumb faddishness.
    If teachers are fighting change, under your point, they can’t tell good reform from dumb faddishness and so they fight both.

    If teachers can tell the difference, who are Cuban’s exemplars fighting, since it’s not teachers?

    So, can teachers tell the difference or not? If they can, who are Cuban’s exemplars fighting? If teachers are resisting change in general, then implicitly they can’t tell the good from the bad.

    Pick the one you like.

  8. Allen-
    Your point about the inadequacy of large-scale solutions to complex problems does not only apply to education, but most of our nation’s fiscal problems. Our nation is awash in debt because so many believe that the only solution to complex problems is a singular complex solution.

  9. Perhaps I wasn’t clear enough, Supersub.

    One solution to the handling of a big, complex and intractable problem is to break the problem up into smaller, more manageable pieces. Districts are obviously large, intractable problems since with a supportive school board and a forceful, capable and energetic superintendent we still end up with lousy school districts.

    If a school district’s to big, complex and intractable an organization to move toward education efficacy as one might infer from the difficulty of getting them to produce good schools maybe the solution’s to get rid of school districts. Replace them with individual schools that stand or fall on their merit. A big, intractable, complex problem is converted into a bunch of much simpler, more solvable problems.

    After all, districts obviously serve no educational purpose so why not?


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