Confessions of a School Reformer (Part 6)

This is the last post of a series drawn from “Confessions of a School Reformer,” a book I am now writing. Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 describe my entry into classroom teaching beginning in 1955 and ending in 1972.

In August 1968, no longer teaching at Roosevelt High School, I resigned from the full-time job I had at federal Commission on Civil Rights (CCR). No job did I have for 1968-1969.

Treading water

For the next few months, I was at home. With no more salary checks from either the DC schools or CCR, Barbara found a job as an administrative aide to a Rabbi at a nearby congregation. I stayed home with Sondra and Janice, walking them to school in the mornings, writing, doing household chores and making occasional dinners. I thought that with my name as an urban educator, an expert on multiethnic instructional materials, and author I could drum up sufficient business as a consultant to provide enough cash to cover monthly mortgage payments and expenses. I was wrong.

After sending out many letters advertising my talents and experiences, few requests dribbled in. Of those that came in, most asked me to speak or consult for free. My work on Scott Foresman textbooks brought in a few advances from the publisher. Between my paltry earnings and Barbara’s job we were just barely covering monthly expenses. Apart from worrying about money, I was thoroughly enjoying the time I spent with Barbara and my daughters.

Then in December, I heard from Associate Superintendent of Instruction, Norman Nickens of the DC schools that he wanted to see me. I had gotten to know Nickens when I directed the Cardozo Project and he headed the Model School Division in 1964, a sub-system within the District aimed at reforming schools in the Cardozo area. With the release of the Passow Report in 1967, a devastating evaluation of the entire school system by a cadre of professors from Teachers College, Columbia University, the Acting Superintendent and his successor deputized Nickens to oversee that the Report’s scores of recommendations would be put into practice. Within a few years, Nickens had become the go-to person within the District for reforming the Washington public schools.  [i]

As a respected insider, Nickens was politically smart and knew what buttons to push and levers to pull to get things done within the ever-growing District bureaucracy. Even though I was an outsider who sought changes in the schools, we had developed a mutual respect for one another. He had understood the importance of bringing in a new generation of teachers prepared to work in urban classrooms. And of even greater importance he knew how crucial it was for the District to improve systematically the teaching corps and administrative team. [ii]

Nickens had persuaded the new Superintendent to create a district wide Office of Staff Development in 1968. Nickens asked me to apply. Interviews went well and in January 1969, I became the first Director of Staff Development. I now had an office at the Presidential Building on 12th St., district headquarters for the D.C. schools.

From classroom history teacher at Roosevelt High School to central office administrator responsible for the professional development of thousands of new and experienced teachers and principals was a big leap for me. No longer a classroom reformer who believed that new racial curriculum materials would make a difference in teaching and learning, and no longer a school-wide reformer concentrating on recruiting and training new teachers for an urban district, now I was in a district position poised to strengthen the entire teacher corps of a large urban district.  The key unit of change, where reform mattered most, had shifted in my mind as I went from Glenville to Cardozo to Roosevelt from the classroom to the school and now to the Presidential Building.[iii]

Office of Staff Development

The two years in the District office fully opened my eyes to how the splintered governance of the D.C. schools both complicated and obstructed the already difficult tasks of schooling mostly Black and poor students. Moreover, add to the mix a dollop of fierce racial politics in administrative appointments and how bureaucracies clogged the arterial flow of resources into schools and classrooms. The District of Columbia schools was a textbook case of fragmented governance and unhelpful bureaucracy.

My responsibilities as Director brought me in close touch with the members of the newly elected Board of Education, two superintendents, and an array of both innovative and foot-dragging time servers among central office administrators.

I learned first-hand how the bureaucracy worked amid the fractured city governance of appointed Commissioners who chose Board of Education members being tossed. In 1967, President Lyndon Johnson appointed a mayor and council to run the city government. A year later, an elected Board of Education became a reality. One catch, however, bothe appointed and elected bodies had to make annual trips to the U.S. Congress, hat in hand, to get funded. In doing so, the superintendent and his retinue including elected Board members had to swallow hard the guff that Congressional representatives dished out..

From my journal, December 16, 1969

Another example of how difficult it is to run the D.C. schools….is the calculated crap that eats up time, energy, and resolve. Consider that [Congresswoman from Oregon] Edith Green, chairing the subcommittee on education investigating higher education asked Ben [Acting Superintendent Benjamin Henley] to testify on the teacher training needs of the 1970s. I wrote up Ben’s statement emphasizing that urban school systems will have to assume more responsibility for training and re-training. We [superintendent, associate superintendent, director of personnel, and I accompany Superintendent Henley] go over to Rayburn Building for hearings. Green convened session with [Al] Quie [from Minnestota] and [Albert] Steiger [from Wisconsin]. Questions were rambling, unconnected, and strangely vacuous for a Committee dealing with higher education.

A pattern emerged. Questions on violence in schools were asked by Green. Then Green asked Ben to stay for the testimony of Bolling Air Force Base parents who were complaining about the terrible time their children were having in Southeast [D.C.] schools. Apparently, the parents had gotten to Green who scheduled Ben to be a witness, making the point that violence is in the schools while satisfying the military parents. An arrogant use of power.

Then Congressman Steiger questioned Ben on Georgetown schools [a largely white neighborhood in D.C.] to which Black kids were being bussed. He tsk-tsked the “deterioration” of education and had great “sympathy for the white parents” who withdrew their children from these schools. It was a snotty, arrogant remark that could easily be labeled racist. Ben, as vigorously as he could, disagreed with the Congressman.

This divided authority for the D.C. schools was a recipe for continual conflict within the system. And the recipe worked. The splintered  authority crippled both the elected Board of Education and its appointed superintendents. I learned how things got done officially and unofficially, and the importance of informal and prior relationships inside and outside the bureaucracy. That racial politics was in this stew goes without saying. I also learned how the annual trek to the Hill was crucial for maintaining (but not necessarily improving) the District and, of equal importance, how divorced the Presidential Building at 12th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue housing the Board and administrators were from what happened in schools and classrooms. [iv]

From my journal, July 7, 1969:

How to reform schools, if indeed it can be done. After six months in the system at the level I am, I can see all of the difficulties I had barely perceived and wrote about but they are now more sharply in focus and more complicated which means, I guess, less open to quick, simple changes. My belief that good people working in concert could effect the “right” changes (sounds so much like Lincoln Steffens’ prescription for corrupt-ridden municipal government at the turn of the century) is much more open to question. Not that good people aren’t around but that the distrust and the inertia that is its by-product is so damn pervasive. Good-will, good ideas, energy, and vigor create the froth of reform but don’t seem to get to the substance, i.e., change in behavior. It’s so frustrating.[v]

Within a year of my arrival, however, a newly appointed City Council and an elected Board of Education—dependent upon funding from the Council–clashed over the budget. As the Office of Staff Development’s budget grew and the budgets of a dozen or more District of Columbia curriculum supervisors shrank, these veteran supervisors–offended by the reduction of their influence and smaller budgets–reached out to their friends within city government. Soon their complaints about OSD taking over many of their traditional functions and reduced funding blossomed into racial politics as these downsized supervisors, nearly all of them Black, quietly lobbied the mostly Black Council members to get rid of OSD, led by a white manager.

Tense negotiations between the Board of Education and City Council for the 1971-1972 budget produced deep cuts in the Office of Staff Development’s budget. I saw the cuts at aimed at me. After many conversations with my wife and a politically astute deputy who I had appointed, I decided to resign in order to keep OSD alive. The following year the City Council restored full funding to OSD. By then I had returned to teaching history at Roosevelt High School.

I taught history at Roosevelt until 1972 when I and my family moved to Stanford University so I could get a Ph.D. After working closely with superintendents in D.C., all of whom had advanced degrees, I believed I could do the job. I needed a doctorate. After getting the Ph.D. in 1974, the Arlington County School Board, a Virginia district across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. hired me to be their superintendent. I served there for seven years and returned to Stanford in 1981 as a professor until 2001 when I retired.


[i]Norman Nickens, “The Ineffectiveness of Education Reform,” Doctoral dissertation, University of Massachusetts at Amherst, 1972 at: https://scholarworks.umass.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=3617&context=dissertations_1

Teachers College Professor Harry Passow directed the Study. The first finding was damning:

Despite some examples of good quality education, of dedicated and creative profes-sionals at all levels, of a pattern of improving financial support and of efforts to initiate new programs, education in the District is in deep and probably worsening trouble. Unlike most large city systems which have a core of “slum” schools surrounded by a more affluent: ring, the District has a predominance of so-called “inner-city” schools.These schools include large concentrations of economically disadvantaged children, a largely re-segregated pupil population, a predominantly Negro staff, a number of over-aged and inadequate school buildings and inappropriate materials and programs.

A. Harry Passow, “Creating a Model Urban School System: A Study of the Washington, D.C. Public Schools,” (New York: Teachers College, Columbia University, June 1967), p. 2.

[ii] Larry Cuban, “Reform in Washington:The Model School Division, 1963-1972″(U.S.Department of Health, Education .and Welfare, Office of Education,December, 1972).

[iii]During the years I was at Cardozo High School working on the Project (1963-1967) teaching at Roosevelt High School twice, working at the Commission on Civil Rights, and finally administering a District-wide program (1967-1972), I kept a personal journal chronicling my activities and thoughts.  The Journal helped me considerably in recalling specific people and instances.

[iv]Steven Diner, “The Governance of Education in the District of Columbia: An Historical Analysis of Current Issues.,” Studies in D.C. History and Public Policy Paper No.2. at: https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED218375.pdf

 Mary Levy,  “History of Public School Governance in the District of Columbia: A Brief Summary,” at: http://www.21csf.org/csf-home/DocUploads/DataShop/DS_307.pdf

[v] Personal Journal, vol. 7, May 23, 1969 to January 31, 1971. Entry for July 7, 1969.

 In describing these experiences within a large educational bureaucracy and the coming face-to-face with the politics of governing schools is not the  same as understanding their import on my thinking.  Not until I was at Stanford University working on my dissertation about urban superintendents in 1973-1974 did I come to realize that teaching and administering in D.C. for nearly a decade had shaped my framework for understanding urban schools both organizationally and politically.

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