Who needs Superman?

Thank you, Larry Cuban, for this guest post on the WaPo’s Answer Sheet blog. He’s beautifully summed up something I’ve been mulling over for quite a while: Who needs Superman? Or, to borrow from Mr. Cuban’s headline, exploding “the myth of the heroic leader.”

There’s already been a fair number of pixels spilled on Davis Guggenheim’s “Waiting for Superman,” and the movie doesn’t officially come out for another week or so!  I have strong, mostly negative, feelings about the film, because the whole concept of looking for a Superman–or a miracle cure–to fix local schools is wrong-headed. In every school system where reforms have led to sustained increases in achievement (Montgomery County, Md.; Boston, Mass.; and Austin, Tex., to name a few), those reforms have been introduced gradually, with community consensus, by a superintendent who has managed to last two or three times longer than the average urban school leader’s tenure (about three years).  Mr. Cuban writes:

They wore no capes and donned no tights. They slogged through a decade or more of battles, some of which they lost, to accumulate small victories. They helped create a generation of civic and district leaders and a teacher corps who shared their vision.

They built brick-by-brick the capacities among hundreds and thousands of teachers, principals, parents, and community members to continue the work. Yes, they angered many and, yes, they fought to win but they persevered. They left legacies that teachers, principals, and parents can, indeed, improve schools by working together.

Michelle Rhee can pose with her broom all she likes, but will the schools in the nation’s capital be better off for her scorched earth, take no prisoners approach? Test scores have risen, but whether or not the famously dysfunctional D.C. schools are “fixed” remains to be seen. At the very least, it appears that Mayor Adrian Fenty’s failure to win nomination for re-election last week was at least in part a referendum on Ms. Rhee’s penchant for pissing people off.

The larger point is that education reform is hard, slow work–a marathon. Anyone who tells you differently is either misinformed or lying; think less about miracles and more about thoughtful, sustained reform approaches that take time, effort and money. Superintendents, however brilliant and charismatic, can’t reform school systems on their own — they need buy-in from teachers, from parents, from students and from community leaders.  Sustained reform takes vision, coalition-building, lots of listening, trust and tolerance for missteps or mistakes.

Does San Francisco have the patience or the political culture to build the necessary coalition to support true educational reform? I know San Franciscans yearn for schools they feel are worthy of their beloved City.  What I hope is that it will be possible for our traditionally exuberant and fractious public discourse to allow for long-term consensus-building around school reform.  That’s what I’m waiting for.

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5 responses to “Who needs Superman?

  1. @Parent, just to follow up, I looked into Carlos’ contract as far as “golden parachutes” and the like. The deal is that Ms. Ackerman was the only Superintendent in recent memory to have a provision that allowed her to unilaterally trigger the golden parachute if she determined she could no longer work with the Board. That provision was inserted in late 2004 after the Board majority presumed to be friendly to Ms. Ackerman dissipated in the results of the Nov. 2004 elections. Carlos Garcia’s contract does allow him 18 months severance IF — and only if — the Board were to terminate him before his contract expires. There is no “five year provision” that you have previously asserted.

  2. @Parent I don’t know for sure, since as I said I wasn’t here when the contract was negotiated, but I believe that Ms. Ackerman’s provision was unusual. As far as I know, the contract is public record; Carlos has always told me that he intends for San Francisco to be his last superintendency and that he would like to retire from here. I think that he saw Tony Smith as a natural successor to carry on the work. And I think Carlos would be the first to say that “Beyond the Talk” will require years of sustained investment to bring the vision to fruition.

  3. I guess I just assumed that all superintendents got those huge outrageous 375,000 settlements after serving 5 years, and that is why they always leave after serving only 5 years. Are the terms of Carlos Garcia’s contract with SFUSD public information? Does he plan to stick around, and see it through?
    Ackerman had her “Excellence for All” plan, Garcia has his “Beyond the Talk” plan, whenever SFUSD gets a new superintendent they all come with new plans, most of which take 5 years just to implement properly. When the superintendents change, the plans change all over again, so, honestly, it seems like nothing ever changes. It’s depressing to watch.

  4. @Parent, what do you mean by “golden parachute”? Since I wasn’t on the Board when Carlos’ contract was originally negotiated, I actually don’t know whether there is a provision like that. Ms. Ackerman had one, but wasn’t that inserted after the fact once divisions between her and a new Board majority became apparent?

  5. People are tired of waiting, and hoping. The energy is all focused on political struggles between administrators rather than on what is best for the children.
    Trust must be earned, and trust, once lost, is mostly lost forever.
    I doubt our superintendent will stay longer than the 5 years he must stay to get his golden parachute pension, I would love to be wrong about this.