The Myth of the Heroic Leader: Rhee in D.C.*

Even before Tuesday’s primary in Washington, D.C., the obits on Michelle Rhee and the future of the D.C. schools are being written. See here and here.

I do not know whether Adrian Fenty will defeat Vincent Gray or whether Michelle Rhee will continue as Chancellor. What I do know is that the heroic view of superintendents (Wonder Woman, Batman, Superman—take your pick) breaking the china in order to build a better district for students—an image so loved by media and the public—is a sure-fire recipe for disappointment and corrosive cynicism about turning around failing schools.

How do I know that? Think Alan Bersin (1998-2005) in San Diego and Mark Shedd (1967-1971) in Philadelphia.

In less than 18 months, Bersin had given electro-shock treatment to a district of 146,000 students in order to improve student achievement: He fired administrators, altered the district office dramatically, and installed a plan to improve achievement by realigning the bureaucracy. National media made him a rock star.

The teacher union and school board, however, once they recovered from the jolt, fought Bersin every step of the way. 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 Mark Shedd from Englewood, New Jersey, 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; established Black Studies at high schools and alternative schools such as the first “school without walls”; he gave students a ‘bill of rights.” Reading scores rose. But he also 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 came face-to-face with then Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo. A rally of 3,500 black students demanding better schools turned violent after police intervened. Over fifty 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. 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 dishes and pottery must be broken. That’s the easy part. The hard part is building a strong political consensus–a super glue–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? Tom Payzant in Boston (1996-2006), Carl Cohn in Long Beach, California (1992-2002) (CA), Pat Forgione in Austin Texas (1999-2009), and Laura Schwalm (1999- ) in Garden Grove, California. 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 that added up to major changes. 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.

*This post appeared in the Washington Post‘s “Answer Sheet,” September 9, 2010



Filed under leadership, Reforming schools

3 responses to “The Myth of the Heroic Leader: Rhee in D.C.*

  1. Larry, wouldn’t it be wonderful and productive if you could write another book featuring the stories of the superintendents you just identified – I would love to see documentation and details about what they did, how they did it, what they think of it now, and what lessons we could take from it.

    You’re just the one to do such a valuable history…


    • larrycuban

      Too much on my plate to do such a book, Jane. I did write about Pat Forgione who was Austin’s superintendent for a decade in As Good As It Gets. Thanks for the thought anyway.

  2. Bonnie Bracey Sutton

    Thank you for your very insightful column. I read it all the time. You are the voice of reason and understanding. I think that education has flavors of the month and people who are championed for reasons that others are not. I always feel pretty helpless here in DC though I work sometimes around the world, in places of need.

    I taught three years at Anthony Bowen in DC. It is now a gleaming police station , beautiful , in my southwest neighborhood. The school population is crammed into one school. So sad. It was a vermin infested, urine fumed school with disrepair when I was there.

    I returned to Arlington to teach and did well, but never have been able to be a part of the voice of DC
    education.I am working now in education, in various states and initiatives.
    We enjoy your columns those of us who are pioneers in thinking about change and education.

    Bonnie Bracey Sutton
    ( I was a teacher in Arlington when you were Superintendent!)

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