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.