Friday, July 22, 2011

Extraordinary Responses to School Failure: Superintendents

On Wednesday I mentioned, among the four possible outcomes of California parents pulling their trigger, the direst: school closure. This hasn't happened yet; no group of parents has argued, in a parent trigger case, in favor of closing their children's school. But other people have, including some of those in a group who get paid to make tough choices: public school superintendents.

Of course not all superintendents have this decisive power over their failing schools, either because they are working under more tightly circumscribed contracts or because they don't have the necessary political backing of their local boards. Others have plenty of power but don't use it to respond in a forceful manner; these often rose through the bureaucracy by means of their compliant, agreeable personalities, and are unlikely to start stirring up trouble when they've finally reached what is likely to be the pinnacle of their careers.

One prominent superintendent who was not constrained by lack of empowerment or excessive personal delicacy was Michelle Rhee in Washington. Inheriting probably the most prominently failing district in the United States, she moved fast, closing many failing schools and dismissing teachers and principals whose performance did not meet her standards. Predictably, as at Locke and in Compton, backers of the status quo ante struck back, attacking her personally and sometimes viciously on every ground they could find, and debasing educational discourse in the process. Her mayor, Adrian Fenty, was defeated in his reelection bid, and she resigned her post at DC Public Schools less than a month later.

But as in Compton, the postscript is more encouraging. Just as the rebellious parents of McKinley Elementary School eventually did get the right to send their children to a school run by people of their own choosing, so too Ms. Rhee has moved on to a promising future: last December she started StudentsFirst, a national advocacy organization that puts the interests of students ahead of all others in arguing for educational reform. This is a new organization that, like the Parent Revolution, deserves support for its willingness to sponsor bold reforms on behalf of people who had been previously disempowered, tethered to failing schools.

Two things tie together the extraordinary responders to school failure at Locke, in Compton, and in DC: a strong sense of the urgency of the need to change students' lives for the better, and implacable courage, even in the face of opposition. I admire them for that.

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