Too many do-gooders?

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I’ve had a chance to talk by phone with a number of superintendents over the past month. After the election of Vincent Gray in Washington DC and the hammer ready to fall on the now former DC School Chancellor (the equivalent of the city’s superintendent) Michelle Rhee, I wanted to get their thoughts on how things are going.

When you talk to superintendents, there are two things you hear. One is predictable (the lack of resources—and it is not just in Massachusetts that you hear it), the other isn’t. So after the first five or ten minutes listening about how there is no money, you often hear quite a bit on this: the number of people who show up on their doorstep armed with good will and desire “to help them.” While the supers recognize that it’s great to have help and people of good will, as you dig deeper, the help is not always perceived as, well, helpful. They obviously don’t want to say it, but it sounds like there are too many good ideas and too many do-gooders.

Everybody has a solution to the dropout problem, student engagement, measurement, teacher training, and on and on the list goes. And there are lots of people who just keeping banging on the door, or who have money or resources they offer to bring to the table, and some superintendents seem afraid to say no.

When you write on education in papers or blogs, you do face the same avalanche. The do-gooders come at you fast and furious, with the same insistence, with the same can’t-you-see-that-I’m-trying-hard attitude. And good for them to do it. Right now I am getting at least three requests a day to blog on one or another effort. A new website to raise money for dropout prevention. Hey, can you help us push professional development so teachers can learn to teach 21st century skills properly? We want to get teachers involved in policy development – can you publicize us?

Most of the requests for a sit-down or for help in publicizing an effort come from communications firms. That is a sign of the buckets of philanthropic money floating around to fund private and non-profit efforts to improve the schools. Some of these efforts are legit—in the sense that they actually work—but many lack even the slightest credibility or attempt to provide “proof of concept.” Often they are wrapped up in fads and edu-babble.

I suppose that we wouldn’t have it any other way—after all, don’t you want philanthropies and individuals seeking to improve their public schools? But just stop and think what it is like to be a superintendent run ragged by all the good intentions swirling around them. And the fact is that, given the difficulties of turning around a large urban district, your best friend is clarity of purpose and a strategy on key issues like drop-out rates, students who come without the right language skills, and un-engaged parents.

To have that focus, you have to set aside a lot of these requests. And that is tough to do because they often come with built-in constituencies.

But the fact is that any superintendent that has more than a handful of core goals has been twisted into knots by the do-gooders — and is likely not doing very much good. The best superintendents set goals, support their team of principals and teachers, and evaluate. The supers who can’t stop telling you all the great and various things they are doing, simply are not getting the job done.

There are two key qualities I look for in a superintendent: (1) the ability to set a small number of goals and stay on them no matter how many people try to take him or her in a different direction, and (2) the steely eye of John Adams who was able to stare down an impassioned crowd with the rightfully famous quip:

Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.

And sometimes, even often times, that means saying no to do-gooders.