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Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice: Choosing Reform-Minded Urban Superintendents

If I had to choose an urban superintendent between Michelle Rhee in Washington,D.C.(2007-2010) and  John Deasy in Los Angeles Unfied School District (2011-2014), I would choose Christopher Steinhauser, Long Beach (CA) superintendent since 2002. Why? Because Rhee and Deasy were sprinters in a job that requires marathoners like Steinhauser. Both Rhee and Deasy knew that teachers were the linchpin to achieve any degree of success and both ended up alienating the very people they depended upon. Steinhauser and his predecessor, Carl Cohn, who had served a decade earlier built close ties with their teachers over two decades.

Why are there so few long distance runners among urban superintendents? Answer: Sprinters want 180 degree change fast; in doing so, they rarely gain respect and confidence of teachers; marathoners work with teachers steadily from day 1 of their tenure.

Boston’s former superintendent Thomas W. Payzant, CarlCohn of the Long Beach, Calif., school district, and Laura Schwalm of California’s Garden Grove Unified School District served a decade or longer. To be sure, these long-serving chiefs were beset with problems that went unsolved and criticism that stung but all of them remained quietly and steadily effective. 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 superintendents sought incremental changes moving carefully and slowly toward their goals walking hand-in-hand with teachers and their unions.

Sprinter superintendents, however, embrace a reform agenda that assumed what existed in each of their districts when they became school chiefs was awful and had to be dumped. They refused to be identified with the status quo. Out with the old, in with the new. And fast. The “new” and “fast” meant swift fundamental change, especially with teachers and administrators. On the Richter scale of reform, fundamental change translated to major earthquakes of 7.0 and above. No changes that registered as tremors.

So Rhee, appointed by D.C.’s elected mayor, Adrian Fenty, fired both teachers and principals within the early months of her brief tenure in D.C. She pushed through new salary arrangements where experienced and effective teachers would increase their salaries dramatically but would have to give up tenure in exchange. As a former Teach for America alumna, she relied upon recruiting from that pool of new teachers and elevated other alumni to administrative posts.Her statements about teachers and administrators who had been in the D.C.  schools prior to her arrival were tinged with disrespect for their work in schools, particularly if these practitioners expressed how difficult it was to work with students who arrived in their schools from poor families with limited academic skills. Rhee was one of many new leaders that trumpeted the slogan of “no excuses”for low student performance. Schools could reverse low achievement. She designed a new system of evaluating teachers that included multiple observations of teachers by principals and “master educators” with one segment of the evaluation dependent upon how the teacher’s students did on district standardized tests. All of these actions occurred within the first two years of Rhee’s administration. To say that the hard-working, feisty Chancellor alienated the majority of teachers in D.C. would be accurate from one simple fact: Mayor Adrian Fenty ran for re-election in 2010 and lost. Many D.C. teachers worked for his opponent. And Rhee admitted her mistake in not gaining the respect and confidence of teachers. She resigned shortly afterwards.

John Deasy’s short three years in Los Angeles Unified School District differed from Michelle Rhee’s experience in that the school board that appointed him changed into one that became increasingly hostile to him including a former teacher getting elected.  Even the Los Angeles Times which supported his superintendency right up to the moment he resigned gave Deasy a parting editorial that sung his praises for his accomplishments in getting rid of ineffective teachers and raising student attendance and graduation rates but also pointed out his errors in alienating teachers–he testified in one law suit against teacher due process and seniority rights to –and the massive iPad purchase from Apple in which the superintendent pushed unrelentingly and ended in a debacle.

Rhee and Deasy sought fundamental reforms, no holds barred and as swiftly as possible. Payzant, Cohn, Schwalm  knew  (and Steinhauser knows) that designing and persisting with incremental changes that barely toggled the Richter scale of reform. Marathoners worked slowly and patiently with teachers knowing that success with students would occur. Sprinters gain media attention fast. They revel in it mistakenly thinking that such instant snapshots means things are changing in classrooms. That is not the case. Marathoners see the big picture and fill in the dots gradually over the years.

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Larry Cuban

Larry Cuban is a former high school social studies teacher (14 years), district superintendent (7 years) and university professor (20 years). He has published op-...