A Critical Position in Critical Condition
Comments from Annie: I consider this an important essay. I hope the author will expand the information touched on in his essay.
I do very much agree with Paul Houston that there are still surviving superintendents who try to do the best they can to maintain an independent and educated dedication to the schools, teachers, and students in their districts. Inventive opportunities can be created whereby courageous leaders can still hope to offer sound, if not joyful educational experiences in our schools.
The problem is, I am not overwhelmed with pride and satisfaction, for some reason. Yes, I am grateful for the few who are hearty or bold or stubborn enough to cope with the oppressive forces of NCLB but I can not help feel pangs of sadness for the mammoth losses we suffer simultaneously.
A rare superintendent maintaining ethical and personal conviction in this raging battle is just not enough.
The battle of political and business intrusion into our public school system is fought on the basis of information. I want to hear more from AASA and our school leadership who, on the frontlines of this battle, already know very well what exactly is happening and how.
By Paul D. Houston
The history of the school superintendency has been a fitful journey from manager to leader. The role has evolved from an ad hoc response to local needs for school management to leading a complex community learning enterprise. It is a position that is widely influential but narrowly understood.
One must admit that today, if we were part of the medical profession, superintendents would be listed in critical condition. We have political leaders who want to reduce the number of superintendents or lower their pay. We have others who feel that anyone can be a superintendent: The irony is that at the very time when teaching and learning are central to the work, boards of education are hiring leaders who know nothing about either.
Other politicians want to work around superintendents or to scapegoat superintendents for all the problems of education — many of which emanate from the failures of these very same politicians. We see educational amateurs in the corporate and political world tell the professionals what to do, how to do it and what will happen if they don’t do it. Even though these amateurs lack the insight even to know what they don’t know, they have the power and they are calling the tunes.
The superintendency has become a job with lots of accountability but limited authority and one that many have called the most complex job in America. Little wonder there is a shortage in those willing to tackle it.
Yet there is another side to the story. There are thousands of professional educators who get up every morning and go to their jobs as superintendents, dedicated to creating a brighter future for children. They find ways to transform the intrusion of government mandates into lemonade. They work past the poverty of some of their students to create safe havens for children.
Superintendents protect America. Our forefathers were wise enough to create a system of public education in this country that allows a diverse and disparate people to come to a common setting to learn to set aside their differences and live together as one nation. And this institution was so vital it would be paid for by all our citizens because each would have a stake in its success.
It is ironic to me that when the 9/11 Commission issued its report, it called for the creation of public schools in the Middle East to allow people seeking to live more democratically a way to get past the narrow teachings of the jihadists. You can’t have a modern democracy without a joint agreement by its citizens that they will put aside their differences and personal desires for the good of the whole. For democracy to thrive, public education must survive.
Yet we know there are those who would dismantle the public education system to replace it with their private vision. Will we destroy the one institution in our country designed to bring people to a sense of common good? And can that common good emerge from narrow self-interest?
Superintendents are engaged in a battle of competing visions of a future America. One would serve private interests through choice and by starving the public institutions of the resources necessary for success. The other would see that we are all in this together and we have a compact with each other and a common destiny to fulfill.
In the midst of this battle stand the superintendents who must maintain a steady course, while being able to moderate and mediate the shifting political pressures. Although it is important to find common ground inside the system, it is also important to confront those from outside who would threaten these institutions.
Martin Luther King once said, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny and that what affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” I am reminded of a professor I once heard who observed that if you drain the Pacific Ocean, you would find that all the islands are connected. Once you get past the surface of things that seem to show we are on separate islands, if you go deep enough, all are one. Standing up for public education is about protecting that little boat that we share on that big ocean that can take us from where we are to where our dreams might lead us.
The Right Choice
Preserving possibilities for children requires leadership. And that leadership is a critical condition for success. Evidence is emerging that when one tries to find the critical variable in school reform, it is the superintendent. While the educational journey takes place in the classroom and school, the trip is planned, the fuel acquired and the steering done in the superintendent’s office. Good superintendents are the critical condition for system success.
The work of the superintendent is to be a warrior for justice, a healer for those in pain and a lighthouse keeper to help folks find their way. The work is vital to the future of democracy. It requires us to reach the broader community in new and creative ways. Our role is that of transformative leaders who must bring out the best in those around us. We are dream merchants and civic sailors.
Yes, superintendents are in the critical position to create the conditions for a successful future. In the latest Harry Potter movie, Headmaster Dumbledore tells Harry that “dark days are ahead — and we will be faced with the choice between that which is easy and that which is right.”
Superintendents, by choosing the work we do have already made that choice. We chose to do the right and not the easy. As we face an uncertain future, we must continue to lead by doing the right thing.
Paul Houston is AASA executive director. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Paul D. Houston
The School Administrator
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES