Fixing Urban Schools: Sprinters or Marathoners?



Fixing urban schools takes superintendents who are marathoners, not sprinters. Too many school chiefs, however, see sprinting as the best way to improve districts. In her third year as Washington,D.C. Chancellor, Michelle Rhee looks like a sprinter. In three years, with the full support of the Mayor who appointed her, she has already cut central office administrators, fired principals, closed schools, and challenged the teacher union’s seniority transfer rights and tenure. A sprinter in D.C., however, may not last to change how nearly 4,000 teachers teach and 55,000 students learn.

Or look at San Diego Superintendent Alan Bersin who ran out of gas in 2005. Determined to lift student learning rather than preserve the adult status quo, he swiftly reorganized and fired administrators. He went after collective bargaining rules protecting seniority rights and incompetent teachers. A split school board and union leaders fought him every month. He exited well before finishing his reform agenda.

There are and have been a few long distance runners among big city superintendents.


Atlanta’s Beverly Hall, Boston’s Tom Payzant, and Austin’s Pat Forgione, each served a decade or more patiently building academic standards, creating strong principal cadres, strengthening teachers’ knowledge and skills, and developing portfolios of school choices for students to grow intellectually. Strong gains in students’ academic achievement steadily accumulated, especially in elementary schools but less so in high schools. Schools that had been low achieving moved into upper quartiles. Graduation rates ticked upward. Yes, to be sure, problems of chronic low achievement persisted in some schools but, nonetheless, over a decade or more in cities where marathoner superintendents presided, there were decided improvements in student test scores and state accountability ratings—the current gold standards. But sprinters are seldom around long enough to see the results.

In many instances, sprinter superintendents follow a recipe: reorganize district administrators, take on teacher unions, and create new schools in their rush for better student achievement. They want dramatic and swift actions that will attract high media attention. But they also believe—here is where ideological myopia enters the picture—that low test scores and achievement gaps between whites and minorities are due in large part to reluctant (or inept) district bureaucrats, recalcitrant principals, and knuckle-dragging union leaders defending contracts that protect lousy teachers from pay-for-performance incentives.

Such beliefs, however, seriously misread why urban district students fail to reach proficiency levels and graduate high school. As important as it is to reorganize district offices, alter salary schedules, get rid of incompetent teachers and intractable principals, such actions in of themselves will not turn around a broken district. While there is both research and experiential evidence to support each of these beliefs as factors in hindering students’ academic performance, what undercuts sprinter-driven reforms in these arenas is the simple fact that fast-moving CEOs fast-track their solutions to these problems, get spent from there exertions or create too much turmoil, and soon exit leaving the debris of their reforms next to the skid marks in the parking lot.

Remember that Rhee is the seventh D.C. superintendent within a decade—each one arriving with a reform agenda and exiting shortly afterwards. After Alan Bersin left San Diego in 2005, two more superintendents arrived and departed by 2009. Swift actions certainly garner attention but sprinters quickly lose steam after completing 100 meters.

Consider long-distance runners. They carefully scrutinize and adapt reforms as they get implemented. Behind-the-scenes, they build teacher and administrator expertise to put changes into practice, mobilize staff and community to support long-term changes in teaching and learning, and, most important, create a pool of leaders ready to assume responsibility for sustaining the ever-shifting reform agenda.

Few sprinter superintendents ask tough questions:

1. Did policies aimed at improving student achievement (e.g., small high schools, pay-for performance plans, new reading and math curricula, parental choice) get fully implemented?

2. When implemented fully, did they change the content and practice of teaching?

3. Did changed classroom practices account for what students learned?

4. Did what students learn achieve the goals set by policy makers?

Sprinter superintendents neither have the breathing capacity nor motivation to ask and answer these questions. They are too busy eyeing the finish line. Marathoners spend time and energy on these questions although 2 and 3 still get skimpy attention from even the best of the long-distance runners. Still, urban children are better served by superintendents willing to go the distance rather than those swift runners who flash by without a backward glance.



Filed under Reforming schools, school leaders

5 responses to “Fixing Urban Schools: Sprinters or Marathoners?

  1. This is a very compelling post. One could add Broad Prize winner Aldine ISD to the list of marathon runners. They began their reform efforts in 1995, gained recognition around the turn of the century, began to make the Broad short list in 2005, and won this year.

    No fireworks at Aldine. Just steady, thoroughgoing reforms and process improvements.

    • larrycuban

      Thank you Claus for mentioning Aldine ISD (Texas). Although the current superintendent has been there three years, the improvement process has been underway for over a decade. Other Broad Award winners such as Garden Grove and Long Beach districts in California have had long distance runners. No sprinters have garnered the Broad Prize.

      • Thank you, Larry. While the superintendent has been in the position for three years, she has been at Aldine since 1992–so she’s been steeped in the district’s reforms from the start. Remarkably, two of the district’s seven board members have been in their positions since the early ’90s.

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