Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Cuomo Fails Public Schools

As nearly 50 million students return to public school classrooms across the country this month, most of them will find larger class sizes, less music and arts, reductions in college preparatory Advanced Placement classes, cuts in the numbers of guidance counselors and librarians. In all, thirty-four states have cut public school budgets.

About the Author

Billy Easton
Billy Easton, who lives in New York’s Hudson Valley, is the executive director of the Alliance for Quality...
Republicans like Wisconsin’s Scott Walker and Michigan’s Rick Snyder have been lightning rods for progressive organizing in response to Tea Party–inspired budgets, which slash social spending while letting corporations and the wealthy off the hook. But are Democrats getting a pass on the same policies?
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, already being hailed as a potential Democratic presidential front-runner for 2016, wants to position himself as a progressive leader. In his sweeping State of the State address earlier this year, he declared that he was going to restore New York’s great progressive tradition.
But his budget is hard to distinguish from Walker’s or Snyder’s. He rammed through $1.3 billion in school cuts and a roughly $4.5 billion tax cut for the wealthiest 3 percent of New Yorkers—a plan praised by the state’s Tea Party leadership. As a result, more than 10,000 educator jobs were eliminated from schools, along with cuts in arts, sports, music, Advanced Placement, pre-kindergarten, and career and technology courses.
Though Cuomo campaigned on a pledge to take from rich school districts and give to the poor, his cuts per pupil were actually twice as large in poor districts as in wealthy ones. He gutted New York’s commitment to the Campaign for Fiscal Equity—plaintiff in the landmark school-funding lawsuit that had led to a commitment to invest $5.5 billion to close the funding gulf between rich and poor classrooms.
While starving schools from above, Cuomo is also choking off local funding by instituting a property tax cap. In California such a cap, enacted via Proposition 13, caused that state’s schools to plummet from among the best in the nation to among the worst. The cap, like the Cuomo funding cuts, will increase existing educational inequities and reduce students’ opportunity to learn. This is why it is so hard to square the word “progressive” with Cuomo’s budget, much less with the governor himself—same-sex marriage success notwithstanding.
Setting the stage for Cuomo’s agenda has been a growing movement of “market based” school reformers. The wind is at their backs thanks to Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top and Davis Guggenheim’s one-sided film Waiting for Superman. Groups like Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) and Stand for Children, representing hedge-fund managers, venture capitalists and private equity investors, provide campaign cash to Democrats nationwide. This enables Democrats like Cuomo to slash funding for schools in poor communities and cash in on political contributions while wrapping themselves in the mantle of “progressive school reform.” DFER, which now has branches in ten states, pumped $17 million into political and advocacy campaigns in its first three years—giving momentum to its agenda and providing Democrats with a new source of funds as an alternative to the teachers unions.
The group’s reform platform includes a heavy emphasis on test scores, replacing public schools with privately run charter schools, top-down school closings and pay for performance. The market reformers also want government to help expand the role of educational entrepreneurs.
Governor Cuomo’s crowning achievement, by DFER’s estimate, was to increase the role of standardized test scores in teacher evaluations (a policy that a state court has since overturned). As with many of the changes promoted by market reformers, there is scant research to justify the use of test scores to evaluate teachers—in fact, pay-for-test-score performance was shown to be a failure by a 2010 study by Vanderbilt University. Cuomo’s next proposal is to force school districts to compete with one another for scarce resources—ensuring that some students are winners while others are losers. It makes a catchy sound bite, but it runs counter to what is being done in nations like Finland, Japan, Singapore and our neighbor Canada, all of which are international leaders in educational outcomes. In these countries they value teachers, promote and fund equity, and ensure all students access to a high-quality curriculum.
The Cuomo cuts were enacted despite vigorous opposition by community organizations and teachers unions, which collaborated to organize dozens of rallies, press events and grassroots lobbying efforts. As the cuts hit classrooms this fall, these same groups are planning a barrage of actions to focus the public’s attention on how the cuts are affecting students. Ultimately, progressive education activists in New York and across the country will have to translate this into electoral action in 2012’s state legislative elections and beyond in order to demonstrate that school cuts have political consequences. Forging a unified approach to fighting budget cuts is a first step; taking on the larger frame of “market reforms” is a bigger challenge. One key opportunity will present itself in 2013, when New York City elects a new mayor and the legacy of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s nationally touted market reforms of schools will be a central issue.
The Tea Party threat is real, but the future of our public education system could rest in the hands of Democrats like Cuomo. It’s time to remind them, and their constituents, what the word “progressive” means.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

American Schools in Crisis

By Diane Ravitch
If you read the news magazines or watch TV, you might get the impression that American education is deep in a crisis of historic proportions. The media tell you that other nations have higher test scores than ours and that they are shooting past us in the race for global competitiveness. The pundits say it’s because our public schools are overrun with incompetent, lazy teachers who can’t be fired and have a soft job for life.
Don’t believe it. It’s not true.
Critics have been complaining about the public schools for the past 60 years. In the 1950s, they said that the public schools were failing, Johnny couldn’t read, and the schools were in a downward spiral. In the 1960s, we were told there was a “crisis in the classroom.” For at least the past half-century we have heard the same complaints again and again. Yes, our students’ scores on international tests are only average, but when the first such test was given in 1964, we were 12th out of 12. Our students have never been at the top on those tests.
The critics today would have us believe that our future is in peril because other nations have higher test scores. They said the same thing in 1957 when the Soviet Union sent its Sputnik into orbit and “beat us” by being first. At the time, the media were filled with dire predictions and blamed our public schools for losing the space race. But we’re still here, and the Soviet Union is gone.
Maybe those tests are not good predictors of future economic success or decline. Is it possible that we succeeded not because of test scores but because our society encourages something more important than test scores: the freedom to create, innovate, imagine, and think differently?
We should, as President Obama said in his 2011 State of the Union address, ignore the naysayers because “America still has the largest, most prosperous economy in the world. No workers are more productive than ours. No country has more successful companies or grants more patents to inventors and entrepreneurs. We are home to the world’s best colleges and universities where more students come to study than any other place on Earth.”
Norman Rockwell visits a Country School
In the days before standardized tests, teachers had the freedom to tailor their curricula to encourage students to create, innovate, imagine, and think differently. “Norman Rockwell Visits a Country School” (November 2, 1946).(© SEPS)
Since the 1840s, our public schools have been a bulwark of our democratic society. Over time, they have opened their doors to every student in the community regardless of that student’s race, religion, language, disability, economic standing, or origin. No one has to enter a lottery to gain admission.
With this openness, there is a price to be paid: Our public school teachers have one of the most difficult jobs in society. Their classes include children who are recent immigrants, many of whom don’t speak or read English; they include children who have social, emotional, mental, and physical disabilities; they include children who live in desperate poverty.
Let’s be fair to our schools and our teachers. As our society has changed, the schools have had to deal with escalating social problems. Compared to schools today, the schools of the 1950s were tranquil. Teachers were uncontested authorities in their classrooms. They were free of the mandates now regularly issued by Congress, the courts, and state legislatures. If students misbehaved or failed repeatedly, they were likely to be suspended or expelled. Only half of the students who started ninth grade eventually graduated high school, and responsibility for their success or failure was shared equally by family and school.
In the mid-20th century, most children lived in two-parent families; today, single-parent families are the norm in many communities, and many children come home to an empty apartment or house. Our popular culture has changed dramatically, too. Television, cell phones, and the Internet have connected children to the outside world, and the outside world often sends messages that contradict parents’ efforts to create sound values and a work ethic.
In the years after World War II, the American economy grew steadily, and there were plenty of good jobs for people who did not have a high school diploma. Now most of those jobs, whether clerical or in manufacturing, have been replaced by new technologies or by outsourcing. Back then, it was no shame to leave school without a diploma. Today, it is expected that everyone must graduate from high school, and anyone who does not is stigmatized socially and economically.
The good old days were not that good if you were black or disabled. Public schools routinely excluded children with disabilities, and schools in many parts of the nation were racially segregated, either by law or by custom.
Our schools are now expected to educate all children, whatever their condition. In 1975, Congress mandated special education for children with disabilities. It promised to pay 40 percent of the cost but has never followed through. When politicians complain about the high cost of education, they fail to acknowledge that most of the new money spent on the schools has gone to pay for services for children with physical, mental, and emotional problems.
Since the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, which banned racial segregation in the schools, the basic principle of American education has been equality of educational opportunity. Starting in 1965, Congress passed legislation to send extra resources to districts that enrolled the poorest children—resources that benefited children of all races. Meanwhile, as white and black middle-class families moved to the suburbs, urban districts had school systems characterized by heavy concentrations of students who were both racially segregated and impoverished.
In 2001, after the election of President George W. Bush, Congress passed a law called No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which changed the federal role in education. Instead of seeking equitable funding, Congress decided that it would impose a massive program of school reform based on standardized testing. The new law required states to test every child in reading and math from grades three through eight. The theory behind NCLB was that teachers and schools would try harder and see rapid test score gains if their test results were made public. Instead of sending the vast sums of money that schools needed to make a dent in its goal, Congress simply sent testing mandates to every school. It required that every child in every school must reach proficiency by 2014—or the schools would be subject to sanctions. If a school failed to make progress over five years, it might be closed or privatized or handed over to the state authorities or turned into a charter school. There was no evidence for the efficacy of any of these strategies, but that didn’t matter.
Educators knew that the goal of 100 percent of the students reaching proficiency was wildly unrealistic, but no one asked their opinion. So they kept their mouths shut. Over the past decade, districts and states have committed billions of dollars to testing, test preparation materials, and data systems. The results have been meager. Test scores have gone up in some districts and states, but federal audit tests do not reflect the same rate of improvement. That’s because most state tests have lower standards than the federal tests, and some states have since lowered their standards in an effort to show the kind of improvement the federal government has mandated.
NCLB was a radical plan of action, particularly because there was no reason to believe that annual tests—coupled with fear and humiliation—would produce the miraculous goal of 100 percent proficiency, a goal not reached by any nation on earth. The law treats public schools as though they were shoe stores: Make a profit or else. If you don’t, you might be fired, you might get new management, or you might be closed down. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently predicted that more than 80 percent of our public schools would be declared failures by next year based on federal standards.
Setting an impossible goal, providing inadequate resources to pursue that goal, and then firing educators and closing schools for failing to reach it is cruel and unusual punishment.
In 2009, the Obama administration launched its own radical school reform plan called Race to the Top. In some ways, it is worse than NCLB. Like NCLB, it assumes that higher test scores mean better education, even when those scores have been purchased by intensive test-prep activities. (What’s misleading about this kind of gain is that aggressive test-prep activities may lift scores without improving students’ knowledge or skills. In fact, some districts have seen scores and graduation rates rise while college remediation rates remained the same.) More than NCLB, Race to the Top blames teachers if student test scores don’t go up, which has demoralized millions of teachers. The program dangled nearly $5 billion in front of cash-hungry states, which could become eligible only if they agreed to open more privately managed charter schools, to evaluate their teachers by student test scores, to offer bonuses to teachers if their students got higher test scores, and to fire the staff and close schools that didn’t make progress.
Again, not one of these policies—not one—has any consistent body of evidence behind it. The fundamental belief that carrots and sticks will improve education is a leap of faith, an ideology to which its adherents cling despite evidence to the contrary.
Charter schools on average do not produce better academic results than regular public schools. As charters proliferate, regular public schools lose students and funding, and many charters try to avoid the students who are most costly and difficult to educate. Merit pay has failed again and again. Most testing experts agree that it’s wrong to judge teacher quality by students’ test scores. The promise of Race to the Top is that billions more will be spent on more tests, and districts will reduce the time available for subjects (like the arts and foreign languages) that aren’t tested. Piece by piece, our entire public education system is being redesigned in the service of increasing scores on standardized tests of basic skills. That’s not good policy, and it won’t improve education. Twelve years of rewarding children for picking the right answer on multiple-choice tests is bad education. It will penalize the creativity, innovativeness, and imaginativeness that has made this country great.
What the federal efforts of the past decade or more ignore is that the root cause of low academic achievement is poverty, not “bad” teachers. Children who are homeless, in ill health, or living in squalid quarters are more likely to miss school and less likely to have home support for their schoolwork. The most important educators in children’s lives are their families. What families provide in the way of encouragement, experiences, expectations, and security has a decisive effect on a child’s life chances. The most consistent predictor of test scores is family income. Children who grow up in economically secure homes are more likely to arrive in school ready to learn than those who lack the basic necessities of life.
Of course, no school should have any bad teachers. But bear in mind that administrators usually have three to four years to decide whether to grant due process rights (often called “tenure”) to teachers. In the years before a teacher gets due process rights, the teacher may be fired without any reason or cause at all. After a teacher wins due process rights, it doesn’t mean life tenure—it means that teachers have the right to a hearing before they may be fired. Teachers don’t hire themselves, don’t evaluate themselves, and don’t grant themselves due process rights. If there are bad teachers, we should ask why administrators are not doing their jobs, and the district should demand speedy resolution of any charges against teachers.
Most of what is called school reform these days consists of privatization and de-professionalization. The charter industry is growing rapidly and competing with regular public schools; it has ample resources to air television commercials and print ads to attract new “customers.” This competition has not proceeded on a level playing field because the charters frequently have smaller proportions of English-language learners and children with disabilities than the neighboring public schools. In addition, many charters are subsidized by additional millions of dollars in private donations, which enables them to market their wares and provide services that regular public schools cannot afford such as tutoring and mandatory summer school.
Some conservative governors—such as Mitch Daniels in Indiana, Scott Walker in Wisconsin, and Tom Corbett in Pennsylvania—have taken privatization to the next level and are pushing voucher programs, which will send public dollars to private and sectarian schools, possibly even to home-schoolers. This will divert many millions of dollars from the regular public schools.
At the same time, some states are lowering the standards for entry into teaching, ironically under the banner of improving teacher quality. Some, such as New Jersey, are proposing to remove certification as a requirement for teaching; others, such as Florida, are removing any stipends for experience. In Texas, a person can become a teacher by taking courses online. Still other states seek to make it easier for novices to become not only teachers, but also principals and superintendents.
Two major reports were released in spring 2011 that showed what a risky and foolish path the United States has embarked upon. The National Research Council (NRC) gathered some of the nation’s leading education experts, who concluded that incentives based on tests hadn’t worked.
In other words, the immense investment in testing over recent decades, the NRC commission said, were based on intuition, not on evidence—and faulty intuition, at that. The other report, by the National Center on Education and the Economy, maintained that the approach we are now following—testing every child every year and grading teachers by their students’ scores—is not found in any of the world’s top-performing nations.
It’s important to remember that this is not simply an abstract matter for ivory tower policy wonks to be nattering over. Our present course endangers one of our nation’s most precious institutions: our public schools. Surely they need improvement, but they don’t need a wrecking ball. Our policymakers’ obsession with standardized testing has proven to be wrong; not only does it lack scientific validation, but any parent or teacher could have told the policymakers that a heavy reliance on multiple-choice tests crushes originality, innovation, and creativity. As the federal government ratchets up the stakes attached to the tests, they become an even greater burden on students, teachers, and the quality of education. In addition, the higher the stakes, the less reliable the tests become as measures of learning. When everything rides on test scores, schools will encourage “teaching to the test” and even cheat to avoid being closed.
We are now at a fork in the road. If we continue on our present path of privatization and unproven market reforms, we will witness the explosive growth of a for-profit education industry and of education entrepreneurs receiving high salaries to manage nonprofit enterprises. The free market loves competition, but competition produces winners and losers, not equality of educational opportunity. We will turn teachers into “at will” employees, not professionals, who can be fired at the whim of a principal based on little more than test scores. Their pay and benefits will also depend on the scores. Who will want to teach? Most new teachers already leave the job within five years—and that figure is even higher in low-income districts.
What we will lose, if we move in that direction, is public education. Just as every neighborhood should have a good police station and firehouse, every neighborhood should also have a good public school.
If we are serious about closing the achievement gap, we should make sure that every pregnant woman who is poor has good prenatal care and nutrition and that every child has high-quality early education before arriving in kindergarten. The achievement gap begins before the first day of school. If we mean to provide equality of educational opportunity, we must begin to level the playing field before the start of formal schooling. Otherwise, we will just be playing an eternal game of catch-up—and we cannot win that game.
It is worth remembering that the reason we first established public education was to advance the common good of the community. It began in small towns, where communities agreed that all the children should be educated for the good of all and the sake of the future. Public schools have a civic mission: They are expected to prepare young people to become citizens and to share in the responsibility of maintaining our society. As political forces tear them apart, creating opportunities for entrepreneurs and for profit, it diminishes our commonwealth. That is a price we must not pay.
Diane Ravitch is a historian of education and a professor at NYU. She’s the former U.S. assistant secretary of education.

Monday, September 12, 2011


by Nicholas Lemann
The New Yorker Magazine
A hundred years ago, eight and a half per cent of American seventeen-year-olds had a high-school degree, and two per cent of twenty-three-year-olds had a college degree. Now, on any given weekday morning, you will find something like fifty million Americans, about a sixth of the population, sitting under the roof of a public-school building, and twenty million more are students or on the faculty or the staff of an institution of higher learning. Education is nowhere mentioned in the Constitution; the creation of the world’s first system of universal public education—from kindergarten through high school—and of mass higher education is one of the great achievements of American democracy. It embodies a faith in the capabilities of ordinary people that the Founders simply didn’t have.
It is also, like democracy itself, loose, shaggy, and inefficient, full of redundancies and conflicting goals. It serves many constituencies and interest groups, each of which, in the manner of the parable of the blind men and the elephant, sees its purpose differently. But, by the fundamental test of attractiveness to students and their families, the system—which is one of the world’s most ethnically diverse and decentralized—is, as a whole, succeeding. Enrollment in charter schools is growing rapidly, but so is enrollment in old-fashioned public schools, and enrollments are rising at all levels. Those who complete a higher education still do better economically. Measures of how much American students are learning—compared to the past, and compared to students in other countries—are holding steady, for the most part, even as more people are going to school.
So it’s odd that a narrative of crisis, of a systemic failure, in American education is currently so persuasive. This back-to-school season, we have Davis Guggenheim’s documentary about the charter-school movement, “Waiting for ‘Superman’ ”; two short, dyspeptic books about colleges and universities, “Higher Education?,” by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, and “Crisis on Campus,” by Mark C. Taylor; and a lot of positive attention to the school-reform movement in the national press. From any of these sources, it would be difficult to reach the conclusion that, over all, the American education system works quite well.
The school-reform story draws its moral power from the heartbreakingly low quality of the education that many poor, urban, and minority children in public schools get. This problem isn’t new, and the historical context is important: one of the cornerstones of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society was the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, which for the first time directed substantial national funding to schools attended by these children. (George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind was technically a tweak to Johnson’s law, and Barack Obama is incorporating his education-reform ideas into another tweak.) The gap in educational achievement between black and white children narrowed during the nineteen-seventies and eighties, and has been mainly stuck since then, but it’s misleading to suggest that the gap is getting bigger.
In higher education, the reform story isn’t so fully baked yet, but its main elements are emerging. The system is vast: hundreds of small liberal-arts colleges; a new and highly leveraged for-profit sector that offers degrees online; community colleges; state universities whose budgets are being cut because of the recession; and the big-name private universities, which get the most attention. You wouldn’t design a system this way—it’s filled with overlaps and competitive excess. Much of it strives toward an ideal that took shape in nineteenth-century Germany: the university as a small, √©lite center of pure scholarly research. Research is the rationale for low teaching loads, publication requirements, tenure, tight-knit academic disciplines, and other practices that take it on the chin from Taylor, Hacker, and Dreifus for being of little benefit to students or society.
It should raise questions when an enormous, complicated realm of life takes on the characteristics of a stock drama. In the current school-reform story, there is a reliable villain, in the form of the teachers’ unions, and a familiar set of heroes, including Geoffrey Canada, of Harlem Children’s Zone; Wendy Kopp, of Teach for America, the Knowledge Is Power Program; and Michelle Rhee, the superintendent of schools in Washington, D.C. And there is a clear answer to the problem—charter schools. The details of this story are accurate, but they are fitted together too neatly and are made to imply too much. For example, although most of the specific charter schools one encounters in this narrative are very good, the data do not show that charter schools in general are better than district schools. There are also many school-reform efforts besides charter schools: the one with the best sustained record of producing better-educated children in difficult circumstances, in hundreds of schools over many years, is a rigorously field-tested curriculum called Success for All, but because it’s not part of the story line it goes almost completely unmentioned. Similarly, on the issue of tenure, the clear implication of most school-reform writing these days—that abolishing teacher tenure would increase students’ learning—is an unproved assumption.
Yet for a system that—according to Taylor, especially—is deeply in crisis, American higher education is not doing badly. The lines of people wanting to get into institutions that the authors say are just waiting to cheat them by overcharging and under teaching grow ever longer and more international, and the people waiting in those lines don’t seem deterred by price increases, even in a terrible recession.
There have been attempts in the past to make the system more rational and less redundant, and to shrink the portion of it that undertakes scholarly research, but they have not met with much success, and not just because of bureaucratic resistance by the interested parties. Large-scale, decentralized democratic societies are not very adept at generating neat, rational solutions to messy situations. The story line on education, at this ill-tempered moment in American life, expresses what might be called the Noah’s Ark view of life: a vast territory looks so impossibly corrupted that it must be washed away, so that we can begin its activities anew, on finer, higher, firmer principles. One should treat any perception that something so large is so completely awry with suspicion, and consider that it might not be true—especially before acting on it.
We have a lot of recent experience with breaking apart large, old, unlovely systems in the confidence of gaining great benefits at low cost. We deregulated the banking system. We tried to remake Iraq. In education, we would do well to appreciate what our country has built, and to try to fix what is undeniably wrong without declaring the entire system to be broken. We have a moral obligation to be precise about what the problems in American education are—like subpar schools for poor and minority children—and to resist heroic ideas about what would solve them, if those ideas don’t demonstrably do that. 
Read more http://www.newyorker.com/talk/comment/2010/09/27/100927taco_talk_lemann#ixzz1XlrEdzXR

Friday, September 2, 2011

Serviceable Myths about the Dilemma-Laden Superintendency

Serviceable Myths about the Dilemma-Laden Superintendency

by Larry Cuban — 1998

The author describes his own mixed feelings regarding The American School Superintendent: Leading in an Age of Pressure.

Reading The American School Superintendent: Leading in an Age of Pressure left me with mixed feelings. Gene Carter and William Cunningham captured well the unrelenting and inexorable conflicts that I, a former superintendent who served one district for seven years in the 1970s, faced then and what contemporaries—by their own accounts in this book—face now. Working closely with fifty superintendents who participated for five years in the Danforth School Administration Fellowship, Carter, a former urban superintendent, and Cunningham, a professor of educational administration, describe what urban, suburban, and small town superintendents encounter in the 1990s.

In words from scores of district school chiefs, the authors detail their hopes and failures; their planned reforms and. shattered designs, and, most of all, the intractable contradictions they face in trying to make a difference in the lives of children. The dilemmas the authors describe are age-old and, ultimately, humbling: how to enact deep institutional changes while maintaining organizational stability; how to exert limited authority to make major changes that affect classrooms when you are utterly dependent on others (a school board and subordinates) to adopt what you seek and then implement faithfully what you wish to happen; how to manage unpredictable, turbulent events that occur outside and within your district over which you have modest to no influence. Few working superintendents would disbelieve the authors’ description of the job. In delineating these dilemmas so well they also undermine a central message of their book: that superintendents can solve all problems. I will return to this point later.

The overall story that Carter and Cunningham tell is divided into five parts and fourteen chapters. In Part I, “The Superintendency in Question,” two chapters describe the history and changing role of the superintendent. Six chapters in Part II, “Challenges and Dilemmas,” take the reader through the politics, finances, board conflict and daily woes, and the personal and professional price superintendents pay in dealing with these perennial conflicts. Parts III, “Responses and Remedies,” and IV “New Directions and Responsibilities,” are largely upbeat sections that profile successful superintendents who stitch together strategies for building community coalitions, developing staff capabilities, designing innovative schools, and using technology.

The first two parts lay out the terrain superintendents negotiate. The authors, quoting past and current administrators, as well as numerous research studies, clearly commit themselves to the view that the superintendency is both political and conflict-ridden. Superintendents, they argue, are caught betwixt-and-between community factions, contentious school board members, contending levels of government, and vociferous single-minded interest groups. Frequently-used metaphors capture their belief in unremitting conflict as the central motif to heading a district: The job is a “lightning rod” (p. 5), “pressure cooker,” “hot seat,” and “highwire act;” the superintendent is like the “Captain of the Titanic” (p. 8). The constant political handling of unending conflicts, such as sexual harassment complaints, student expulsions, school closings, and incompetent staff, exact a high toll among superintendents in illness, death, and, inevitably, frequent turnover in the post.

The last two sections of the book, however, shift tone considerably. Carter and Cunningham stud the final chapters with instances of superintendents’ successfully overcoming conflicts and other obstacles. The authors unabashedly urge the nation’s school chiefs, board members, and general readers to take their advice. Passage after passage is dotted with “must, ” “should,” “needed,” and “required.”

In this book, then, Carter and Cunningham render well what other researchers have noted in the personal and professional tensions arising from conflicts inherent in the dilemma-laden lives that superintendents lead (Arnez 1981; Blumberg 1985; Boyd, 1976; Feilders, 1981; Kowalski, 1995; McCarty & Ramsey, 1971; Tyack & Hansot, 1982; Zeigler, Kehoe, & Reisman, 1985).

Yet, as much as I find their portrait of the political nature of superintendency credible, reflecting my experiences in the 1970s and those of current school chiefs, the authors’ arguments and evidence leave me unsettled. Why the ambivalence? There are two reasons.

First, Carter and Cunningham write from within a familiar genre of professional education literature. I call articles and books within this genre How-Impossible-the-Job-Is-but-Strong-Smart-Superintendents-Can-Still-Make-a-Difference. I know this genre well since I have contributed to it over the years.

The genre derives from committed practitioners and researchers’ trying to get other professionals and noneducators to understand the complexities of work in districts better while simultaneously offering advice on how to handle conflicts and improve what happens in classrooms. These articles, books, and videos have been institutionalized and are published regularly by national organizations of professionals (superintendents, principals, teachers) because such writing serves their interests. When Carter and Cunningham state: “America’s future is inextricably linked to the quality of its public schools, its K-12 educators, and the leadership of its superintendents” (p.236), the American Association of School Administrators (AASA) says, Amen.

It is no accident that the current AASA Executive Director wrote the foreword to the book. Nor is it chance that Gene Carter leads the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) and was the AASA’s first National Superintendent of the Year (1988). Portions of the book contain the AASA and National SchooI Boards Association (NSBA) joint statements on “Roles and Responsibilities” (pp. 16-17), the AASA Commission Report on Standards for the Superintendency (pp. 17-19) and ample quotations from the organization’s publications. Two of the three appendices are official AASA documents.

Although my comments may sound accusatory, that is not my intent. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with practitioners and scholars or even professional organizations’ producing a literature that paints a job as impossible while implicitly arguing that there are heroes among superintendents who have stepped forward and done, with skill and elan, the impossible.

My point, and this is the second reason for my ambivalence, is that such a literature inevitably sustains myths that run counter to the intended purposes of writers like Carter and Cunningham, who seek “a broad understanding of the challenges, issues, and dilemmas, as well as of the necessary remedies” (p. 3). By “myths” I mean popular but unexamined statements, even including those with authoritative statistics, that a professional organization and the larger public holds as true and those who serve as superintendents, or would like to serve, also believe to be true, Whether the statement is true, that is, factually accurate, is less important than whether it is shared widely (Meyer & Rowan, 1977).

Such unquestioned statements are retained nonetheless because they take what is often too complex to capture in factual statements and provide the illusion that what is mysterious, uncertain, even unintelligible can be rendered understandable. Thus, such widely believed statements are “true” yet are beyond factual support. A few examples may help make the point.
The Revolving-door Superintendency

To make the case that the superintendency is an impossible job, Carter and Cunningham, like so many others who write about superintendents, cite the many reports that big-city chiefs serve between two to three years before being ousted or resigning (pp. 5-8). Virtually all writers about the superintendency confuse turnover rates among a cadre of big-city superintendents with how long individual superintendents served in a post (or completed tenure). When Gary Yee and I looked back at a century of “completed tenures” in the twenty-five largest urban school districts, we found that tenure in these districts had indeed shrunk from an average high of fourteen years in 1900 to just under six years in 1990 (Yee & Cuban 1996). In both popular and professional articles and books, the figure of just over two years for the tenure of urban superintendents (more of a reflection of turnover among a group of urban superintendents) when they really serve in their districts, on the average, almost three times longer is, in a word, inaccurate. Yet the two-plus years of tenure in big cities does symbolically reinforce the image of an incredibly hard job with a high casualty rate.
A Superintendent Must be Superman or Wonder Woman

The belief reinforced time and again in this genre is that for such a high-visibility, important job in a community with a brief life-span, only just-in-time heroes or heroines need apply. What needs to be done is for superintendents to leap major hurdles, solve problems, and tackle irreconcilable dilemmas while fundamentally changing a profoundly conservative social institution. That is one tall order for anyone. Carter and Cunningham, like so many other writers, use the language of heroics in their final six chapters. They urge superintendents to engage in “transforming schools” (p. 192) and to become “Superintendent Reformer[s]” (p. 215) who creates “visionary” schools where there is “hands-on interdisciplinary learning” and where “technology can be the central agent for meaningful education reform” (pp. 219,223).

Such resonant language, exhorting superintendents to think grandly and act heroically, however, must compete with the authors’ contrary admonition that the school district “must be in step with community expectations” (p. 198). Yes, being a superintendent, like being a mayor or a police chief, is a high-profile, highly paid public position, often caught between conflicting forces and insoluble dilemmas which require astute political radar, negotiating skills, and a clear idea of where the school chief wants the district to move. These ideas and skills are mundane, even prosaic, yet significant. They are seldom the raw material from which heroics are fashioned.

There is nothing inherently wrong with spreading these myths. They are serviceable (Sayre, 1958). They help organizations stay alive; they provide writers with useful work by dispensing advice; they help practitioners dream of a better future while binding their psychic wounds. But such myths do not in any way increase understanding—the oft-stated aim of those who write within this genre. If anything, such widely shared myths slide past obvious contradictions and obscure deeper, more complex questions that need answers, not bumper sticker slogans.

Two persistent and unanswered questions, for example, have confounded the literature on the superintendency that includes both this genre typified by the American School Superintendent and less accessible research studies. These questions go to the very core of the job. To secure reliable and valid answers to these questions and then to convey them in clear, concise prose would serve the admirable goal Carter and Cunningham set for themselves well: to acquire “a broad understanding of the challenges, issues, and dilemmas” (p. 3) f acing both superintendents and researchers.

The questions are:

1. What drives superintendents’ behavior? Carter and Cunningham argue convincingly that the context, or what researchers would call environmental and organizational variables, strongly shapes what superintendents do, yet an assertive, far-seeing, and highly skilled individual can overcome the powerful effects of the organization and its community. It is a story that many of us yearn to believe. In light of their many case studies of highly successful superintendents’ resigning under pressure, however, what the linkage is between the individual and the setting remains mysterious. Without specifying how victories can be fashioned, how success can happen across different settings, and what weight can be assigned to individual factors and contextual factors, the story we yearn to believe remains unexplained and leaves readers with a shrug of the shoulders.

A decade ago, Norman Boyan (1988), in a synthesis of the research on administrators, asked how situational and personal variables interacted in superintendents and principals to explain why they act as they do. Based on what he reviewed then, he could offer only a partial answer. A decade later, the precise mix of individual and contextual factors explaining superintendent behavior still remains beyond the grasp of researchers. Susan Johnson (1996), Kenneth Leithwood (1995), and others have produced fine studies that plumb what superintendents say and do. Their work offers clues, even strong hints, but few reliable guidelines to explain why superintendents behave as they do either to researchers or practitioners—beyond the uncomforting conclusion that it depends on the match between person and context. That may well be the formula for an answer to this question, but it falls far short of answering a related one that also is central to superintendency.

2. Does what superintendents do matter to students’ academic performances? The literature on the post, regardless of genre and with few exceptions, assumes a “yes” answer to the question of superintendents’ effectiveness. Only a few researchers have raised the question directly (Bridges, 1982; Erickson, 1979). Whether or not the assumption is another widely shared myth among aspiring educators, I do know that I would not have applied for a superintendency had I believed, among other things, that I could not make a difference in students’ academic performance.

Carter and Cunningham also have no doubt that superintendents can be effective in this arena. Their book is anchored in that belief. When they recount the success of Robert Spillane—named AASA Superintendent of the Year in 1995—in Fairfax County (Virginia), they offer evidence of his effectiveness: increasing scores on standardized achievement tests and the Scholastic Achievement Test (SAT), declining dropout rates, high percentages of graduates entering college, and National Merit Scholarship finalists (p. 56). Yet in their book and in the work of most researchers who grapple with this question, there is no explicit model of effectiveness. How exactly does a superintendent—who is completely dependent on a school board, a cadre of principals in schools whom he or a deputy may see monthly, and teachers who shut their doors once class begins—raise test scores, reduce dropout rates, and so forth? Without some model by which a superintendent can be shown to have causal effects, test scores’ going up or down remains a mystery. It is a matter of chance that the results occurred on that superintendent’s tour of duty (Bossert, 1988; Crowson, 1987; Pitner, 1988; Wimpelberg, 1997).

Yet the political nature of the superintendency and the organizational hierarchy preclude a model that maps out direct cause-effect relationships between superintendents’ actions and students’ outcomes. A model of indirect influence by superintendents on principals, in shaping a district’s culture and in spending time on symbolic issues, suggests an approach that is, at the least, consistent with how superintendency is structured in American districts. Some researchers have explored this with principals, but few have with superintendents (Dwyer, 1985; Heck & Hallinger, 1995). Occasional researchers seeking to determine the effects of superintendents over time have examined districts historically and such a tack seems most promising (Smith, Dwyer, Prunty, & Kleine, 1988; Yee, 1996)

Nonetheless, the question of effectiveness has to be raised openly and explored critically, rather than ignored or dismissed because it contradicts widely shared beliefs or professionals’ organizational interests. The essential task is to figure out how that effectiveness happens (or doesn’t) in a complex organization undergoing constant external pressures to change and internal calls for maintaining stability.

These hard questions strike me as central to the work of superintendency. Although Carter and Cunningham do superintendents a decided service by emphasizing the political nature of the occupation and the unforgiving dilemmas that they face, the genre in which they work, at least for this reader, rings hollow. After all, there is so much evidence that superintendents are far more often crisis managers than heroic leaders (Cuban 1988; Feilders, 1982; Johnson, 1996). The American School Superintendent rightly concentrated in its opening chapters on the inescapable dilemmas that come with the terrain of being a superintendent, Managing dilemmas (rather than “solving” them) is what superintendents end up doing. Balancing competing interests and defusing tensions while constructing compromises, takes much of a superintendent's thought, action, and time (Jacobson, Hickcox, & Stevenson, 1996). While Carter and Cunningham spend less time elaborating what they call the “Challenges and Dilemmas” of being a superintendent, they hit the bull’s-eye before slipping into a genre that ultimately perpetuates myths and ignores critical questions that superintendents, scholars, and the larger public could use much help in answering.

Arnez, N. (1981). The besieged school superintendent: A case study of school superintendent school-board selections in Washington, D.C., 1973-1975. Washington, DC: University Press of America.

Blumberg, A. (1985). The school superintendent: Living with conflict. New York: Teachers College Press.

Bossert, S. (1988). School Effects. In N. Boyan (Ed.), Handbook of research on educational administration (pp. 341-354). New York: Macmillan.

Boyan, N. (1988). Describing and explaining administrative behavior. In N. Boyan (Ed.), Handbook of research on educational administration (pp. 77-98). New York: Macmillan.

Boyd, W. (1976). The public, the professionals, and educational policy making: Who governs? Teachers College Record, 77(4), 539-577.

Bridges, E. (1982). Research on the school administrator: The state of the art, 1967-1980. Educational Administration Quarterly 18‘(3), 12-33.

Crowson, R. (1987). The local district superintendency: A puzzling administrative role. Educational Administration Quarterly, 23(3), 49-69.

Cuban, L. (1988). The managerial imperative. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Dwyer, D. (1985). Five principals in action. San Francisco: Far West Laboratory for Educational Research and Development.

Erickson, D. (1979). Research on educational administration: The state of the art. Educational Researcher, 8, 9-14.

Feilders, J. (1982). Profile. Belmont, CA: Fearon Publications.

Heck, R. and Hallinger, P. (1995). Models for principal effectiveness. Unpublished paper.

Jacobson, S., Hickcox, E., & Stevenson, R. (1998). School administration: Persistent dilemmas in preparation and practice. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Johnson, S. (1996). Leading to change: The challenge of the new superintendency. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Kowalski, T. (1995). Keepers of the Flame: Contemporary urban superintendents. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Leithwood, K. (1995). Effective school district leadership. Albany: State University of New York Press.

McCarty, D., & Ramsey, C. (1971). The school managers: Power and conflict American public education. Westport, CT: Greenwood.

Meyer, J. & Rowan, B. (1977). Institutionalized organizations: Formal structure as myth and ceremony. American Journal of Sociology, 83(2), 340-363.

Pitner, N. (1988). The study of administrator effects and effectiveness. In N. Boyan (Ed.), Handbook of research on educational administration (pp. 99-122). New York: Macmillan.

Sayre, W. (1958). Additional observations on the study of administration. Teachers College Record, 60(3), 73-76.

Smith, L., Dwyer, D., Prunty, J., & Kleine, P. (1988). Innovation and change in schooling: History, politics, and agency. Book 3. New York: Falmer.

Tyack, D., & Hansot, E. (1982). Managers of virtue. New York: Basic Books.

Wimpelberg, R. (1997). Superintending: The undeniable politics and indefinite effects of school district leadership. American Journal of Education, 105, 319-343.

Yee, G. (1996). Executive succession and organizational change in an urban school district. Unpublished Doctoral Dissertation, Stanford University, Stanford, CA.

Yee, G. & Cuban, L. (1996). When is tenure long enough? A historical analysis of superintendent turnover and tenure in urban school districts. Educational Administration Quarter& 2, 615-641.

Zeigler, H., Kehoe, E., & Reisman, J. (1985). City managers and school superintendents. New York: Praeger.
A look at books assigned in courses in education

In the Fall doctoral course on Educational Inquiry at Michigan State University taught by Professors Anna Neumann and Aaron Pallas students are reading:

Duneier, M. (1992). Slim’s Table: Race, Responsibility, and Masculinity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press,

Lareau, A. (1989). Home Advantage: Social Class and Parental Intervention in Elementary Education. London: Falmer.

Lensmire, T. J. (1994). When Children Write: Critical Re-Visions of the Writing Workshop. New York: Teachers College Press.

Luttrell, W. (1991). Schoolsmart and Motherwise: Working-Class Women’s Identity and Schooling. New York: Routledge.

Neumann, A., & Peterson, P. L. (Eds.). (1997). Learning from Our Lives: Women, Research, and Autobiography in Education. New York: Teachers College Press.

U.S. Department of Education. (1998). Pursuing Excellence: A Study of U.S. Twelfth-Grade Mathematics and Science Achievement in International Context. NCES 98-049. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office.

Williams, F. (1992). Reasoning with Statistics: How to Read Quantitative Research. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

In the Fall Research Seminar on The Professional Development of Urban Teachers at Emory University taught by Professor Jacqueline Jordan Irvine students are reading:

Guskey, T. R., & Huberman, M. (eds.). Professor Development in Education: New Paradigms and Practices. New York: Teachers College Press.

Lipman, P. (1998). Race, Class, and Power in School Restructuring. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Murrell, P. C. (1998). Like Stone Soup: The role of the Professional Development School in the Renewal or Urban Schools. Washington, D.C.: AACTE.

Smith, G. P. (1998). Common Sense About Uncommon Knowledge; The Knowledge Bases for Diversity. Washington, D.C.: AACTE.

Weiner, L. (1993). Preparing Teachers for Urban Schools. New York: Teachers College Press.

Yeo, F. L. (1997). Inner-city Schools, Multiculturalism, and Teacher Education: A Professional Journey. New York: Garland.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 100 Number 1, 1998, p. 181-190

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Football for Jesus has begun again

Freethought San Marcos: A column by LAMAR W. HANKINS,  San Marcos Mercury
I can’t quite smell football in the air, probably because of our wilting temperatures and prolonged drought, but a look at the calendar tells me that it’s time for the high school football season to begin. In many, if not most, Texas public schools, this means that the name of God and Jesus will be invoked to show that football is a divinely-approved activity and that all the players will be watched over so they don’t get hurt.
Of course, that last statement is complete nonsense. Data from five years ago show that we have more than a half-million high school football injuries each year. Either God doesn’t care about football injuries or those injured must not be living righteous lives. I don’t actually believe either conclusion, but the only other reasonable conclusion is that prayer doesn’t work the way many mortals seem to believe.
Aside from that discussion, which usually goes nowhere, there is the question of the appropriateness of prayers at public high school football games, both prayers over the public address system as well as prayers uttered by the football players themselves in a group either in the locker room or before or after the game on the field.
Most people seem unaware that this issue has been settled law for over a decade. In summary, in 2000, the US Supreme court decided whether the Santa Fe ISD (located between Houston and Galveston) could have prayer before each football game. The court ruled against prayer by a chaplain and prayer by someone chosen by the students. It also decided that having “nonsectarian, nonproselytizing” prayer as well was prohibited by the US Constitution’s Establishment Clause. This decision came nine years after the court had found that prayer at public high school graduations was a violation of that same provision in the constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”
To explain the court’s reasoning, it might help to refer to a few lines of the opinion in Santa Fe, which was adopted by six of the nine Supreme Court Justices. Pre-game prayer delivered “on school property, at school-sponsored events, over the school’s public address system, by a speaker representing the student body, under the supervision of school faculty, and pursuant to a school policy that explicitly and implicitly encourages public prayer” is not private, but public speech. “Regardless of the listener’s support for, or objection to, the message, an objective Santa Fe High School student will unquestionably perceive the inevitable pregame prayer as stamped with her school’s seal of approval.” Under the Constitution, governments in the US, which include public schools, are not free to promote religion, especially when school-aged children are involved.
I have tried to understand the arguments of those who favor such prayers. Some of them want the acknowledgement of their religious views in a public forum. Such acknowledgement is certainly permissible if the forum is not a government-sponsored activity. If the Lion’s Club sponsors a junior rodeo, they can pray before, after, and during every event at will. The Lion’s Club is not a government entity. It is a private organization. But when the government sponsors religious activity, which prayer is, the Court has other concerns.
It considers school-sponsored prayer a “ serious constitutional injury that occurs when a student is forced to participate in an act of religious worship because she chooses to attend a school event. But the Constitution also requires that the Court keep in mind the myriad, subtle ways in which Establishment Clause values can be eroded, … and guard against other different, yet equally important, constitutional injuries. One is the mere passage by the District of a policy that has the purpose and perception of government establishment of religion.”
Those who believe in the efficacy of prayer to protect players against injury can pray along the entire game if they choose. Is prayer effective only if it is uttered over the loud-speaker system at the beginning of the game? The group Americans United for separation of Church and State has explained the important distinction between the right to pray and the prohibition against government sponsorship of prayer:
“There is a critical difference between private individual speech and speech promoted by the government. Consider this analogy: A group of people can go to a public park and exercise their free speech. They can even get on ‘soapboxes’ and share their speech with others. But once the state decides to help broadcast one person’s speech to everyone in the park because it is popular, it becomes state-sponsored speech. Whether a student chooses to pray at a football game is entirely up to him or her, as it should be. But it becomes state-sponsored when the school broadcasts the popular prayer to an entire audience in attendance for a football game. Public schools must be neutral on religion to protect the rights of everyone. Students should not be pressured to pray, whether it’s at football games, in the classroom or anywhere else.”
Of course, I oppose not only government-sponsored prayer; I also have a different view of football than others may have. I played six years in junior high and high school in what was referred to as a “football town”– Port Arthur, Texas. I was an above-average athlete, but not exceptional. I was well-coordinated and muscular, weighing about 205-210 during high school, and standing six feet, one-and-one-half inches tall. My coaches believed that what prevented me from being exceptional was that I was not mean enough. We were encouraged to take off the heads of our opponents, to tackle and hit hard, and punish those we played against. In those days, we were taught to use our helmets as a weapon, something that is not permitted today because of the great chance of injury.
I remember one game in 1961 against a team whose star player was a small, but fast, half-back. One of our assistant coaches offered a reward to any lineman who could take him out of the game. That occurred in the second quarter when one of our tackles had an opportunity to tackle the half-back in a way that hurt him. The half-back did not play for the rest of the game and our team won easily. That assistant coach went on to coach in college, including a stint as an assistant at the University of Texas. I told my parents about this incident, but they were not ones to make waves, especially against the football program in a place where football was a second religion.
Often, football was coached in junior high and high school in the 1950s and 1960s as a brutal game, the purpose of which was to hurt and punish opponents and make them not want to get up off the ground after they were put there by a ferocious hit. I’m not sure where prayer fit into this scheme, except to make people feel good about themselves for enjoying the violent spectacle that is football, though it could and can be enjoyed for its occasional choreographed precision.
Another related use of prayer is by the team itself. Almost always initiated by coaches, whether directly or indirectly, football team prayer is meant to create solidarity, camaraderie, and team cohesiveness. As a psychological tool, it may achieve these results. Of course, for Jewish players or atheists or agnostics, prayers offered in Jesus’ name may have the opposite effect.
Prayer at football games and by football teams has been going on perhaps as long as we have had football, though I suspect it may have had its origin during the McCarthy era when most of US society reacted to godless communism by promoting religious activity by adding “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance and adopting “In God We Trust” as our national motto. Nevertheless, school-sponsored prayer at football games is prevalent today. In recent weeks, I have read about complaints against such practices raised in schools in DeSoto County (Mississippi) and Bell County (Kentucky). In both cases, interventions by the Freedom From Religion Foundation have stopped such unconstitutional practices.
Nearly 250 years into our constitutional republic experiment is as good a time as any to honor our Constitution by following its clear prohibitions against government sponsorship and promotion of religion. As both Thomas Jefferson and James Madison reminded us, the intermingling of government and religion harms both institutions.
© Lamar W. Hankins, Freethought San Marcos

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