Many readers probably never heard of Benjamin Demps, Jr.
He is the son of a laborer who grew up in Manhattan and joined the Air Force after high school in 1951. He eventually worked as an air traffic controller becoming a manager of operations. As a married man with two daughters, he returned to school and got a bachelor’s degree at the age of 32 and a law degree at the age of 48. He served as a high-ranking federal civil aviation official for six years. After leaving the FAA, he served as Oklahoma’s secretary of health and human services. In 1999, he was appointed superintendent of the Kansas City (MO) public schools and walked into a firestorm of criticism about failing city schools.
“Some people are skeptical because I’m not from Kansas City…. Who is this guy? [ they ask. He had never been a teacher or principal].” Mr. Demps acknowledges that criticism but said his role was to lead the professionals, not do their job. “Does the general necessarily know how to drive the tank? Maybe not. But he knows how to lead the troops.” Mr. Demps left the superintendency in 2001.
Hiring non-educators like Benjamin Demps as superintendents has made national headlines. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg just appointed Cathie Black, corporate executive for Hearst Magazines as the first female Chancellor of the city schools. Black has no public school experience. Demps, Black, and more than a dozen other lawyers, corporate leaders, and ex-generals have served large urban districts across the nation. Appointing non-educators has been part of a larger multi-pronged strategy aimed at changing urban governance and leadership to improve teaching and learning in every classroom.
By school governance reform, I mean changing how major decisions are made and who has the primary authority to make them. First, a look at governance reform and then in the next post, I turn to non-educators as superintendents and the questions that arise about such leaders.
GOVERNANCE REFORM REDUX
Over a century ago, a national reform movement swept across the public schools and got rid of large boards of education, politically appointed staff. Reformers divorced politics from education and created the civic-minded school boards and professional superintendents that ran urban district for the rest of the century.
In the late-1960s, the civil rights movements turned its attention to big cities and leaders called for decentralizing school board authority and community control of schools. Creating smaller organizational units where professionals make key decisions, such as 30 community districts in New York City or 8 area superintendencies in Detroit or having parents run a school occurred in many cities across the nation as part of these governance reforms.
By the late 1980s and early 1990s, those decentralizing reforms had run their course. Governors, legislatures, and state superintendents, under pressure to do something about low student scores on national and international tests, began centralizing curriculum standards, funding, and testing. State officials made major educational decisions, funded district budgets, and held cities and suburbs accountable for results. Yet even amid these centralization trends, states also encouraged parents and teachers to start new public schools through charter school legislation. Illinois empowered the Chicago school board to have each school site hire and fire principals between 1988-1995 and then gave that authority to the mayor. Thus, over the past century, there has been a shuttling back and forth between centralized and decentralized school governance reforms.
In the late-1990s, after almost two decades of non-stop criticism of urban school boards’ failure to improve schools, reduce dropouts, and raise students’ academic achievement and amid a record run of economic prosperity, many big-city mayors hit on a number of approaches to improve cities by making them attractive to business and young families. Public officials expressed hope that urban school districts just might be able to turn the corner in raising academic achievement and reducing the gap between minority and white scores on standardized tests by using one or more of these newly crafted governance strategies.
a. Mayoral control of schools (Chicago, Boston, New York City, Cleveland)
b. Corporate-led coalitions working closely with school boards and superintendents to adopt particular reforms (San Diego, Seattle, Pittsburgh)
c. Non-educators chosen to lead districts (Chicago, SanDiego, New York City, Seattle,etc.)
These reform strategies, of course, are not mutually exclusive. Some urban districts have forged combinations of these strategies.
Urban school governance reform became the newest new thing to improve failing schools. But questions remain. The next post takes up those questions.