Man versus Superman

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Movies like Waiting for Superman have done a great public service by focusing the country’s attention on the now-or-never challenge of making sure all kids have access to a decent school. A broad swath of the public and, importantly, the philanthropic community, has made education a priority. That is fantastic news.

But where there is Superman, there is kryptonite. And the Achilles Heel of the WFS set is that the superhero commissioners and superintendents’ records of success are not as stellar or sustainable as you might think. I have written skeptically (here and here, for example) on the view that a heroic reformer armed with foundation dollars can cure what ails our schools. That there has been improvement in NYC, for example, we can be certain (see here). But the percentage of students who are reaching proficiency is open to question (also see here).

While many of the changes put into place by former NYC school superintendent Joel Klein were centralizing, others, happily, were not. Klein pushed school-based flexibility with energy through sizable charter school expansions, and the results have been quite good. In DC, the changes advanced by former school chancellor Michelle Rhee were not aimed at expanding school-based power, charters, or the Opportunity Scholarship program. Real questions remain as to how sustainable her system-focused actions (school closures, teacher evaluations, principal firings, contract changes, etc.) will be.

I understand that there is frustration with teacher unions, and that strong leadership is needed. But I think a real distinction needs to be made between super people like Eva Moskowitz and Geoffrey Canada, on the one hand, who have focused energy and attention on school-based reforms and superheroes like Joel Klein and Michele Rhee, who are focused on systems. I prefer the former and like the latter only inasmuch as they expand the role of the Moskowitzes and Canadas.

Massachusetts’ success in improving student achievement was not due to a single hero. Its success and sustainability was in great part due to the fact that the reforms were enshrined in law, debated and agreed upon by Democrats and Republicans alike. Therefore there was “settlement” on the strategy, and implementation of high-quality state standards, the MCAS and other key elements was in each case debated in public, reinforcing the level of settlement around the reforms.

Its success was also premised on bringing parents, students, teachers and principals along during the various debates on the law and then during implementation. If you are a parent or a student, that sort of public process helped prepare you for what came next. The same is true if you are a teacher or principal. Moreover, unlike many of the heroic superintendents, Masachusetts’ reforms did not seek to centralize power — and were respectful of districts and schools. If anything, the original reform sought to further decentralize control over money and human resource decisions down the the school level. Massachusetts 1993 reform aimed to:

  • Move decision-making power to the school level so that principals and teachers are invested in success. Charters have this flexibility. So do regional-vocational schools. Both have proven remarkable successes in Massachusetts.
  • Limit centralized authority to what it does best — set strategy, support strategically, and evaluate. That means ensuring fair, objective and high-quality standards and assessments. That also means giving schools the tools they need.
  • Focus on teacher quality up front through rigorous testing of content knowledge.

These lessons have only been partly digested and made a priority by some of the heroic reformers across the country. John Merrow has been tracking education debates for a very long time, whether for PBS, NPR or other news outlets. He has a great blog at Taking Note and recently wrote about the impact of the king daddy of heroic reformers — Joel Klein. John Merrow tells us at Taking Note:

the lasting legacy of Joel Klein might not be in New York City but elsewhere, in New Jersey; Baltimore; Washington, DC; New Haven, CT; Rochester, NY; and Christina, Delaware. In each of these places, someone closely connected with the Chancellor became the top educator.


By my rough calculations, well over 1.5 million students are now in schools led by the five former deputies of Mr. Klein. Add to that Chancellor Rhee’s 44,000 students in Washington, DC, and Mr. Klein’s 1 million-plus students for a total of 2.6 million students, give or take a few thousand.

… that means that more than 5 percent of all US public school students were either directly or indirectly under his influence.

So applaud Klein and Rhee and so many others for their energy and willingness to try new things and to put themselves on the line. But this isn’t about them. And it really isn’t about one individual’s crusade against the unions. It’s about sensible reforms that can stand over time. Consider what Hoxby, Mararka and Kang found in their study on the impact of charter schools in NYC. They found that key elements of student success were a mission focused on academics, pay for performance based on consistent internal evaluations, discipline based on the school’s ethos, and a core knowledge curriculum. That all stems from the school’s shared mission — and therefore it is something that has to happen within the school.

And one of these core reforms that Klein only got late in his tenure — and that it seems, sadly, Rhee has not understood — is that content matters a lot more than so many of the “system” reforms heroic superintendents love.

Consider this interaction Robert Pondiscio had with former DC Chancellor Rhee after an event at Manhattan Institute. Pondiscio understands how critical a strong liberal arts curriculum is to student achievement and growth.

After the Manhattan Institute event, I had the opportunity to talk briefly with Rhee about my reform game –curriculum, teaching and learning. I wondered out loud whether it made sense to reach conclusions about the effectiveness of individual teachers who are poorly trained and have no say over their curriculum or, more often than not, no curriculum at all.

“I know you have a lot on your plate,” I concluded. “But I’d urge you to at least keep curriculum in mind.”

“The last thing we’re going to do,” she replied with a chuckle, “is get wrapped up in curriculum battles.”

A stunning reply if you think about it. The poster child for bare-knuckle reform, who moments earlier was urging her listeners to “embrace conflict,” has no stomach for a debate about what kids should learn in school. Is it that difficult or controversial, for example, to say that all kindergarteners should learn shapes, colors and to count to 20? Confronting the teachers unions on pay and tenure is worth a fight, yet it is too heavy a lift to say what third graders should know about American history, geography or science—or whether they need to know anything at all?

As Merrow notes on his “About this blog” page for Taking Note,

Education isn’t known for having an institutional memory, which means reformers often embrace fads or re-invent the wheel. Unfortunately, every such misstep wastes more than money and energy. They also have real consequences for children and youth, who don’t get a do-over when adults endorse ‘reforms’ that have failed before.

I’ll take a clearly articulated academic mission, great curriculum, empowered principals and teachers who have a good grounding in content over a heroic superman any day.