The Urban Education Dragon: Can the Next Generation of Superintendents Tame Big-City Schools? (from the Editors)

Education Next, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

The Urban Education Dragon: Can the Next Generation of Superintendents Tame Big-City Schools? (from the Editors)


Few urban school superintendents remain in place for long nowadays. According to the Council of the Great City Schools, they last an average of 2.5 years. Like mythological children sent to appease the ravening monster, the chief education officers are ready sacrifices offered up when things go badly. Replacing the person nominally in charge is a short-term fix that helps spare the powers that be--often the school board and the mayor--from facing the reality that profound changes are needed.

What, exactly, is the urban education dragon? Disorderly, dangerous schools. Rules, regulations, and red tape. Union contracts that block reform of the system and make it harder to employ top-notch teachers and principals. And municipal politics, often a dragon's tail that can whip around and smack you at any moment. All of which conspire to depress student achievement.

In most big American cities, the pro-child constituency is tiny. The kids in school, those who face the dragon's fire on a daily basis, don't vote. Most of the adults who do cast ballots have no children in school. Vendors, contractors, bureaucrats, and employees thus wield great power, as they are deeply interested in and fully informed about what is happening. But they are far more apt to oppose reform than to favor it. No wonder superintendents get eaten alive.

Yet both Alexander Russo and Kenneth Wong, in complementary accounts, reveal Paul Vallas to be an accomplished dragon tamer. As head of the Chicago Public Schools, he complied in an impressive track record. What was once chaotic is now more orderly, and, as Brian Jacob's research suggests, students seem to be moving ahead educationally.

After a better-than-expected run at the Illinois governorship, Vallas is now back in the dragon's lair, this time in Philadelphia. Sometimes called the City of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia can hardly apply that moniker to its woeful school system and treacherous politics. Philadelphia's education behemoth is well described in Jay Mathews's account of the struggle between entrenched forces and Edison Schools, the country's best-known for-profit school manager.

Edison also figures prominently in the competition between independent mom-and-pop charter schools and the sleeker national education-management companies. …

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