Super-hero Superintendents and Classroom Teaching

OK, Chancellor Michelle Rhee will probably leave D.C. “I will be fine … and Adrian Fenty will be fine,” she says.

And she is correct. Both are smart and ambitious but with a political deafness that is debilitating. Nonetheless, they will go on to high-paying jobs. They will also create explanations for the fiery years they served in the nation’s capital, years that offered so much promise but ended with a thud. Like Hugh Scott, the first African American superintendent in D.C., who served in the early 1970s, Rhee will be a footnote in a doctoral dissertation on the D.C. schools a generation from now. No more Wonder Woman. No more super-hero to rescue the D.C. schools. Thousands of teachers will continue to teach their daily lessons as she exits. And the new mayor will scramble to advertise another vacancy to be filled by the next “hero.”

Will Fenty’s loss in the Democratic primary diminish faith in mayoral control turning around failing schools?  Hardly. Michael Bloomberg and Joel Klein continue to run the New York City schools. Boston and Chicago mayors will still have their appointees overseeing schools. Business and civic leaders’ faith that mayoral control is the key to “real” reform may be tarnished somewhat by D.C., Detroit, and Baltimore but it continues to entrance venture fund entrepreneurs and policy wonks inside the Beltway. Other mayors will learn from Fenty’s loss that voters can turn on you if you fail to heed your community and give your superintendent too long a leash.

Will Rhee’s departure lessen policymakers’ embrace of the business model of schooling that includes charters, pay-for-performance, accountability through testing, more technology, and national standards? Nope. The D.C. episode is a mere road bump that will fade in the rear- view mirror. Endorsed by both political parties, these market-inspired reforms will continue to ride high for the next few years regardless of what happens in classrooms.

When it comes to classroom teaching, however, super-hero superintendents–beyond their amazing energy, drive, and  commitment–are myopic. They, like dozens of policy wonks see charters, pay-for-performance, testing, etc. etc. altering  what teachers do daily in their classrooms and magically leading to higher test scores.

The logic behind these reforms is that you adopt, fund, and implement them in schools and Presto! teaching practices change in the right direction. And because of these changes in teaching practices, kids will learn more and better. The logic is flawed, of course, because no one can tell the public (much less teachers) how this transformation in classrooms will happen. Moreover, not all policies are fully implemented. And even when they are, few super-hero superintendents (or their policy analysts) take the time to find out systematically whether what teachers do is the same-old, same-old or has shifted. Yes, Chancellor Rhee did put into practice an evaluation system that identified high- and- low-performing teachers through classroom visits and test scores. The Rhee agenda, however, was to reward and punish both, not determine whether teaching practices had changed and students learned more and better.

And that is weak link in the chain of logic behind all of these grand policies delivered from the federal, state, or district leaders. Those top decision-makers should know what occurs routinely in classrooms. They do not. They hear scattered stories told by administrators, journalists, and relatives of friends who teach. And they are stories. Without systematically collected evidence, attributing a rise, plateau, or decline in annual test scores to a reform policy is, at best, a guessing game and, at worst, foolish. When test scores rose in New York City the past few years, the mayor and Chancellor took credit saying that their reforms (new curricula, small high schools, charters, entrepreneurial initiatives) caused the improvement. Yet this past year when the state changed tests and scores dipped, not a word about what caused what to occur. And so it goes.

There is so much chatter in an urban district when undertaking major reforms such as pay-for-performance, charters, new reading curricula, and professional development that determining whether daily teaching has changed to mirror the reform designs gets ignored. And without reliable information, little can be said about whether students are learning (and not learning)  or whether changes have occurred that might (or might not) be picked up by existing state tests.

Super-hero superintendents, even ones who have had some teaching experience as did Michelle Rhee, are too caught up mandating changes and basking in media attention to spend the time and resources to find out what goes on routinely in classrooms. Without that knowledge, without a commitment to strengthen the teacher corps, and without staying on the job for more than a few years, reform success remains a mirage.

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12 Comments

Filed under leadership, Reforming schools

12 responses to “Super-hero Superintendents and Classroom Teaching

  1. Larry, this post is tops. Again….thanks for the clarity about the business model in schools, the highlighting of the punish and reward system, and the almost total ignorance of schooling and school culture in the Beltway and other policy making venues.
    Bingo!

  2. Larry, I’ve read you most recent book, “As Good as It Gets….” and I liked it. I’d like to summarize your viewpoint and can you correct me where needed? It seems, as an elevator line, you rarely see evidence of how top level leadership, starting at the district level and moving up to the feds, affects classroom teaching.

    Is this fair?

    • larrycuban

      Carmen,
      You are correct that I “rarely see evidence of how top level leadership … affects classroom teaching.” Two reasons why. First, most superintendents do not collect evidence of routine teaching behavior across the grades. Without such evidence being collected systematically and periodically, when test scores go up, down, or plateau then it is guesswork whether board/superintendent policies affected teaching practices which, in turn, influenced student learning as measured by state tests. Second, with tenure of urban superintendents around five years that may not be sufficient time for reform-driven policies and professional development to influence a critical mass of teachers. In “As Good As It Gets,” I was very impressed with the decade-long tenure of Pat Forgione in Austin and his strong influence on creating and reshaping key structures of schooling, including the growth of an instructional infrastructure that was impressive. However, little evidence of teaching practices (including classroom observations) across the system was collected systematically. So the gains that Austin schools made in test scores under Forgione could not be necessarily attributed to changes in teacher lessons.

  3. Bob Calder

    DC’s example is not particularly useful because the structure is so different from states. Actual leadership is fragmented among various entities in the states. You can’t really call them stakeholders, and that’s go to be an indictment too.

    Measuring improvement is not likely to be effective as nobody has a good idea what metrics can actually change outcomes in every case.

  4. Liberation5

    Wow, who are you Mr. Cuban? I am not familiar with your work, but I can say this is one of the best articles I have read regarding the DCPS/Fenty/Rhee Situation. Guess I have to google you from now on to read more of your insightful work!

  5. Fascinating as ever. About ten years ago when I was leaving the classroom for business, I told myself a little analogy about why. When I started teaching, the whole process was rather like showing a child the hurdle one day they would need to get over. In reality it was usually an exam. You did everything you could to teach them the skills required, instilled them with confidence and assured them that when the day came, it would be easy.

    As my teaching career developed, schools started to expect you to not just do all this, but to run with and hold the child’s hand too on the day.

    By the time I reached the end of my career (the situation you describe in the States Larry) you were actually having to jump it for them!

    When will policy wonks and others grasp that it is always ultimately, the child’s responsibility? We used to call it freedom.

  6. Larry,
    What you write is important and makes sense. I am glad Valerie Strauss picked it up at WaPo.

    I would like to respectfully suggest an addition to your explanation about why these hero superintendents fail to understand teachers’ work. It is because they can’t understand it. It is not possible for one person to understand the complex work of thousands of people in their system. Rather than recognize this fact and then empower principals to know the work of teachers — and then to focus upon knowing the work of principals — superintendents believe that they can either sample a few teachers’ work through isolated classroom visits/videos or that they can know all teachers’ work through the superficial information from test scores. Neither solution is acceptable.

    What do you think?

    • larrycuban

      I think you are right, Cathy, in the sense that superintendents have to focus on the work of principals–even those superintendents in the largest cities–but still superintendents cannot forfeit the task of understanding the work of teachers. The superintendent, distant as he or she is from daily classroom routines, still remains the district leader who lays out a direction for the entire staff, especially principals, and must convince teachers that he or she understand the complexity of teaching and learning and will work toward improving the conditions under which they work. Once a superintendent has the confidence and respect of both principals and, especially, teachers the direction toward which the district moves has a much greater chance of being reached.

  7. Your description of superintendent as hero fits well with our culture and fascination with larger than life figures who wave magic wands and provide us with a happy ending. We are a movie culture after all and we Americans love our heroes and happy endings.

    I am trying to picture a system that values all the worker bees who collaborate toward an understanding of the teaching process. A group effort to understand the value (or lack thereof) of the work in the classroom. This isn’t some corporate high school (though the money would help) full of nice furniture and computers but a place where teachers and administrators have time to observe and discuss the teaching process. Where accountability is grassroots. The conversation needs to be rigorous; focused on the learning objectives, the needs of the students and the pedagogy in play. Where is this place?

  8. Bill Plitt

    “Waiting for Superman”

    While the time for superheroes is over, as evidenced by the huge disappointment in Obama for many of us, (we left out the part that he said none of the challenges facing him could be addressed by him alone) and the clay feet of others, I believe there are elements of levity that are required to lift us out of the failure of our schools. There is a role for responsible leadership. The film, “Waiting for Superman” provides much grist for the mill. I think Guggenheim’s message is another “inconvenient truth” facing our society, and for that reason, I think he gets it right.

    By “getting it right”, I mean the film’s exposure to the notions that entrenched self-interests hamstring innovation, and that the absence of a guarantee of a space to all of our children, (not a chance at the lottery, as the film illustrates), are part of the tragedy, I think he gets it right. The film is a must see, not only for those of us in education, but for all Americans. It portrays so well the heart of the issue- immediate investment in the dreams of young people for a better life. We need to have the conversation about the tragedy, and a response.

    What I found missing in the film was much mention of the alternative within the public school system, to the charter school option. There was no exploration into “transformational” models for failed schools.

    One such model is the movement to small learning communities of which I am actively supporting through work with the Institute for Student Achievement in collaboration with Columbia Teachers College and several large urban systems. While such small learning communities are not a panacea for all the ills, as some small charter schools have failed also, it is a healthy alternative for some of our urban schools, in particular. There is also a need to focus on effective instruction, and formative evaluation and reflective practices. That is not an end either, but a beginning. There are other critical elements too.

    I was working yesterday in a nearby school system which is small, and has abundant funding and a highly professional staff. There, many members of the larger community want to make success an option for all their students in a systematic fashion. The beliefs that all students can learn; that all students ought to be provided with an equal chance, and that it is the job of everyone in the school community to make that happen, are critical beliefs for success. Hiring leaders with that kind of vision, not necessarily superheroes, is essential. More Mischelle Rhees are needed with caring and courage, not necessarily superhuman qualities to face self-interested opposition.

    Until we truly believe and support the American Ideal of an equal education for all students, the “failure factories” will continue to grow, and more more students will feel there are no spaces for them. We cannot afford another day to disappoint the Daisey’s in the documentary. BP

    • Jeff

      “Hiring leaders with that kind of vision, not necessarily superheroes, is essential.” I could not agree more. Leaders (principals and those that actually run the schools) are a most essentail piece. Superintendents are required to play politics more that anyone else in a school district — it’s part of their job — and, even though they need to stay abreast of what’s happening in classrooms, it’s more the charge of the principals to lead the way, by example, by inspiration, by motivation, by communication, by being the instructional leader for all to follow. To often, I see principals as managers, mostly dealing with “law and order” issues and not on classroom practice. A visionary, forward thinking superintendent will ideally hire like-minded principals and make sure they “get it.” I’ve only seen this situation rarely but there are school (districts) like this. It is the principal’s job to create and maintain a culture that focuses on those key principles by which everyone must believe and adhere. Cultures of success exist, as do cultures of failure. Schools can be changed but it takes committed school leaders to do it. They need unambiguous support from the top as well as a teaching staff that has clear, well-defined expectations for students.

  9. Bob Calder

    I think we need to address the twin concepts of “rockstar” and “superhero”.

    It doesn’t matter how rockstars and superheros function to their admirers and I think that’s caused by a failure to think critically.

    Rockstars and superheros have a mythos attached to them that presupposes authority. The fact is that everything we look at today is affected by entropy. All kinds of economies are moving in the direction of democratization. Rockstars and superheros by definition represent authority.

    Probably the most difficult thing for the reform movement to do will be to arrange their understanding of the various options in a hierarchy that moves from local control to central control.

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