Long Distance Runners Make the Best Reformers

In 1971, John Gardner, then head of Common Cause, a grassroots organization dedicated to keeping government open and accountable, hired a young staffer to work on cleaning up the dirty money that flowed into Presidential campaigns during Richard Nixon’s term of office. Fred Wertheimer lobbied U.S. senators and congressmen and women to put limits to campaign spending and to keep the donations open to public inspection. At that time, Gardner told Wertheimer, “reform is not for the short-winded.” Over forty years later, Wertheimer continues to work on cleaning up campaign financing and says about Gardner’s advice: “He never told me it was 41 years and counting.”

School reform (championed by the political right, center, or left), like campaign financing, is for long distance runners who have overcome short winded-ness. I made that point when analyzing short-term superintendents like sprinters Michelle Rhee in Washington, D.C. and John Deasy in Los Angeles Unified. But short-windedness also applies to the long-haul necessary for incremental school reform in districts to accumulate into something that matters in the lives of students and teachers.

Like building a house, putting in a foundation, wall framing, putting on a roof, wiring and plumbing are done in increments that end up being a finished house. So it is for school reform. Most zealous reformers–be they policymakers, school boards, philanthropists, CEOs–know that in their heads but seldom practice it. Building a house, of course, means the purpose and direction of change is obvious. Not so, for school reform.

District policymakers, administrators, and activist parents–stakeholders–seeing themselves as “agents of change”– seldom ask: change toward what end? Change in of itself becomes the desired outcome, not the district’s long-term direction (e.g., prepare students for an information-driven economy, build decent adults engaged in helping themselves and others). And that is why the short-winded are attracted to school reform. From charter schools to “disruptive innovations” to delivering computer devices en masse to students and teachers, rarely is the question asked: Do these new things take us in the direction that we want to take tax-supported public schools in a democracy? If yes, how? If no, why invest scarce resources in them?  Sprinters worship speed and seldom ask these questions; they want to make grand changes fast and cheap. Marathoners have the time and energy to ask the questions and figure out how to get from here to there in chunks, not all at one time. They seek quality–“good”–over fast and cheap.

I have written a few times about long distance runners as urban superintendents (see here). District marathoners means serving at least a decade in the post. Consider Boston’s former superintendent Thomas W. Payzant, Carl Cohn of the Long Beach, Calif., school district, and Laura Schwalm of California’s Garden Grove Unified School District. To be sure, these long-serving chiefs were beset with political, economic, and demographic challenges over which they had no control. Moreover,  because they were mostly minority districts there were continuing problems of low achievement and test score gaps between minorities and whites that were tough to solve. Criticism often stung. Yet these marathoners quietly and steadily chipped away at these problems.  Their teachers, by and large, were supportive of their school chiefs’ efforts even when local teacher unions disagreed with parts of each one’s reform agenda. These urban superintendents sought incremental changes moving carefully and slowly toward their goals walking hand-in-hand with teachers and their unions.

Then there are a few smaller urban districts that have shifted from mostly white to mostly minority and, in doing so, have still maintained academic achievement even though school boards have changed membership, budget crises occurred, governance shifted, and states required districts to alter programs. In such an ever-changing political context rife with socioeconomic problems, these superintendents hung in, starting new programs here, bolstering older programs there. They worked closely with teachers either within collective bargaining contracts or through meet-and-confer. They not only knew that teachers and teaching were central to student improvement but acted again and again to help teachers do what they did best. In these smaller districts, they worked incrementally towards overall district goals amid demographic shifts and ever-increasing state requirements. One such district prided itself on long-winded superintendents who, with its school board, achieved enviable student outcomes over decades.

The urban district is Arlington (VA).  Since the late-1970s, through shifts in school board governance–Arlington went from appointed to elected board members–and long-serving superintendents, the district has established and maintained a reputation for academic excellence (however measured) as it has changed gradually from a majority-white to majority-minority district. Between 1974 and 2015, for example, the district has had only five superintendents. The current superintendent has been in the post since 2009 and was recently selected as Virginia superintendent for 2014. Public participation in an array of citizen committees including parent involvement in school site decision-making have become an Arlington tradition. Although collective bargaining is banned by the state, teacher and administrative unions have worked closely with district leaders in achieving the school board’s strategic plan. Incremental changes aimed at achieving desired student outcomes have been executed decade after decade to achieve that vision. Sure, there are organizational, curricular, and instructional issues that bother both parents and teachers and need attention. But for an urban district, that kind of continuity in district leadership, public participation, and sustained high academic performance is uncommon.

As John Gardner said: “reform is not for the short-winded.”

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