GRAVES: D.C. superintendent fired for truly serving studentsWith summer vacation’s conclusion (finally!), I have been trying to spend at least a brief time considering to just what advantage I have put the recent 13-week hiatus from classes.
By: Joe Graves, superintendent, Mitchell School District
With summer vacation’s conclusion (finally!), I have been trying to spend at least a brief time considering to just what advantage I have put the recent 13-week hiatus from classes.
When you work in the Central Office there are always things to do — planning, purchasing for the fall, various reports, etc. — but it is also a good time to, as they say in the leadership literature, “sharpen the saw.” If one can spend a bit of the summer figuring out ways to work a bit smarter, a little more efficiently, then this will pay off with interest when school is actually in session.
An exercise I tried with myself this summer was to list some of the rules of thumb or even adages by which I tend to make decisions or even just observe the reality of education. It is, frankly, important to do this on occasion as some of these that worked quite well in the past don’t work so well when change comes and change is definitely coming to the field of education. No Child Left Behind seems to either be on its last legs or to be morphing into something different, possibly based on student growth rather than achievement targets but also very possibly something lacking in accountability. Over the next few years, I suspect, we’ll find out together which it is.
In any case, I began my list with some fairly fundamental ones including this one:
“Any student can learn any thing given sufficient time.”
Some people call this the “J curve” because that is what it looks like when you graph student achievement on one axis and instructional time on the other. This one is irrefutably true and no changes in the political realities can change it. Yet it consistently runs into a political reality, a too-short, one-size-fits-all school year which virtually guarantees that some students will not get the education they need. Sigh.
Far down the list from this elemental one is a saying a bit more glib but also representative of the reality of the superintendency:
“There are two kinds of superintendents, those who have been fired and those who are going to be fired.”
I bring this one up here not as some sort of a dare to my school board but as a reality check for superintendents in general. (In fact, I have never been fired, but saying that doesn’t change the reality of the statement any more than the man whose goal was to live forever. When asked how that was going, he concluded, “Well, so far, so good.”)
What the adage really offers to superintendents is the advice that they should do the job as they see it should be done and not worry overly much about political considerations because one way or the other, they will eventually be fired.
And at that point, I scribbled one name on my yellow note-pad’s growing list: Michelle Rhee.
For those of you not familiar with Rhee, in 2007 she was named chancellor (their name for the superintendent) of the Washington, D.C., public schools, unarguably one of the largest school systems in the country and arguably the worst. D.C. had been led by six superintendents in the 10 preceding years, student achievement was a district and national embarrassment with, in some academic areas, less than 10 percent of students at grade level, and spending per student was the third highest in the country.
Things were so bad, in fact, that Rhee was given an astonishingly free hand, her actions accountable not to the extraordinarily partisan school board (like some other schools board in large metropolitan areas, school board membership was seen as a stepping stone to higher political office rather than, as is the case of every board I have ever worked with or even observed in South Dakota and Iowa, as an opportunity to serve their community and its students) but to the mayor alone.
Not one to waste such an opportunity, she closed 23 schools, fired 36 principals, slashed over 100 office positions, added early childhood, GATE, arts, and special education programs, temporarily ended tenure, provided teacher bonuses based on student achievement, increased teacher compensation, and all but dissolved seniority protections for employees.
The criticisms were instantaneous and shrill, seemingly the most reasonable of which was simply that she was moving too fast. She wasn’t. The public schools in D.C. were performing so badly that they were essentially on fire and no one accuses a fireman of being too quick to start throwing water on the flames. Her defense was no less compelling, that the performance of D.C. schools was essentially robbing students of their futures.
The result of her leadership and her changes was dramatic improvement in student achievement. The other result was a new mayor of D.C. in 2010 which led directly to her firing or resignation, pretty much the same thing in this case. And so Michelle Rhee moved from the latter category (superintendents who are going to be fired) to the former (superintendents who have been fired). And if ever there has been a purer example of a superintendent who moved full speed ahead and damned the torpedoes coming at her because it was the right thing to do for kids, it was Chancellor Rhee. Given the choice of getting fired for being ineffective (like her six predecessors) or getting fired for being effective and serving kids, she chose the latter.
Would that every school superintendent in America made that same choice.