Academic journal article Education Next

Her Worship: Cities Look for a Savior to Transform Their School Systems, but Lasting Reform Takes a Sustained, Community-Wide Effort. (Forum)

Academic journal article Education Next

Her Worship: Cities Look for a Savior to Transform Their School Systems, but Lasting Reform Takes a Sustained, Community-Wide Effort. (Forum)

Article excerpt

PERHAPS NO EVENT REPRESENTED THE TREND IN URBAN SCHOOL politics better than Harold Levy's becoming chancellor of the nation's largest school district, New York City, in May 2000. The previous chancellor, Rudy Crew, a veteran educator with experience running several large school districts, had been pushed out at the urging of New York mayor Rudy Giuliani. The main reason for Crew's departure was the rift that had developed between the mayor and Crew because of Crew's opposition to school vouchers. This was seen as evidence that Crew's long, close affiliation with public education had somehow corrupted his perspective. The eventual solution? Bring in Levy, a top corporate lawyer at Citibank. He had a longtime interest in education, serving as a member of New York State's Board of Regents, but no particular obligations to the union leaders or bureaucrats within the system. Maybe Levy's corporate know-how and status as an outsider would enable him to shake things up, it was thought.

The idea of looking for a savior from outside the school system is on the verge of becoming a time-tested strategy. So-called alternative superintendents have taken the helm in big cities from Washington, D.C., to Chicago and San Diego. But what made Levy's ascension so highly symbolic was its unique combination of all the elements of urban school drama: a mayor whose desire to wrest control from the city's elected school board was long voiced; a city fed up with failure on a grand scale and in the long term; a competition between city hail and school leadership to pass the blame; and the realization, finally, that a system the size of a Fortune 500 company might be better led by someone with the skills of a Fortune 500 executive.

Big-city school boards and community leaders are understandably frustrated with school superintendents who "came up through the ranks." Too often their first loyalty is to "the system," and though they share community leaders' hopes for school improvement, they shrink from doing anything that would roil central-office staff, employee unions, or other entrenched interests. Such superintendents also are often itinerants who do not understand the politics of the cities in which they work. They are thus unable to marshal grassroots support for reforms.

For the past ten years big cities have been searching for alternatives. Some have turned to generals or business leaders. Generals John Stanford (Seattle) and Julius Becton (Washington, D.C.) were not children of the school system, but they did not have many ideas about how to transform failing schools. Business leaders like Levy and Joseph Olchefske (Seattle) have focused on good management, but at this point they seem unable to act boldly enough to raise the overall level of school performance. The same can be said of Los Angeles's superintendent, former Colorado governor Roy Romer, whose great political skills fit another place and time.

As Giuliani's intervention illustrates, the question of who should run big-city schools is not only who should be the CEO, but also who should serve on the board of directors. Traditional school boards, especially in large cities, are increasingly seen as a large part of the problem. Their tendency toward micromanaging; their factionalization along ethnic and political lines; the political ambitions of individual members; their use of the school system as a candy store for their families and friends--all are seen as needlessly distracting the superintendent and the school system from their main goal, academic excellence.

As a result, mayors have been moved to take over school systems in Baltimore, Detroit, Cleveland, and Chicago. The idea is that a direct line of accountability should run from the school system's central office to city hail, Something similar happened in Los Angeles, where former Mayor Richard Riordan made it his mission to elect school-board members who agreed with his agenda. …

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