Take your time!

For those who noticed (or care, for that matter), Montgomery County, Md.’s public school system’s superintendent is stepping down in June. The Post, of course, wrote an article reflecting on Jerry Weast’s service and accomplishments, noting how remarkable the length of his tenure has been. The article cites that most superintendents last three to five years before facing burnout. If nearby jurisdictions are any indication, this rings true.

Weast took the helm in Montgomery County in 1999. That same year, Iris T. Metts took over as the first woman to lead neighboring Prince George’s County Public Schools (while I haven’t looked at her policies with a critical eye, I remember not being fond of her at all while in high school … but I think she had a hand in voting “yes” for a substantial competitive scholarship I received. *tips hat*). Despite being fired by the school board (then reinstated after the state dissolved the school board) Metts’ served until February 2003, when she chose not to seek a renewal of her contract. Next, Andre J. Hornsby became the chief of PGCPS in spring 2003, but resigned from office in May 2005 amid investigation (and subsequent convictions) for federal corruption charges. Howard Burnett succeeded Hornsby as interim superintendent until John E. Deasy’s selection in March 2006. Deasy served two years, leaving in 2008 to work with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (although some wonder if the controversy over how he was awarded his doctorate had any hand in his decision to leave the county). His then-Deputy Superintendent, William Hite, is now entering third year as superintendent.

The same can be seen with District of Columbia’s public school system. In 1999, Arlene Ackerman was in her second year as superintendent of DCPS. After her resignation in 2000, former MCPS superintendent (Weast’s immediate predecessor), Paul L. Vance assumed leadership. He resigned mid-academic year in 2003, and Clifford Janey assumed the role in 2004, while then-mayor Anthony Williams was in office. After becoming mayor in 2007, Adrian Fenty took over DCPS and ousted then-superintendent Janey, who’d served three years. Michelle Rhee was brought in as chancellor of DCPS and has had a tenure filled with controversy and questionable educational gains.

One cannot help but consider the impact strikingly high turnover in such an influential position has on the direction and outcomes for such large, problem-riddled school systems. There is little contention about the poor achievement scores, but less attention is paid to the socioeconomic issues that contribute to school system failure. Anyone within the field knows lasting change in an educational context rarely happens overnight. Most changes occur over time, and observations are best made longitudinally. Unfortunately, that hasn’t kept the political and public communities from expecting overnight success. While it’s certainly acceptable to expect change and improvement from a new superintendent, it’s foolish to expect this within the first year. To be frank, most educators will tell you it’s foolish to expect this within five years.

It takes time for people to diagnose the problem. It takes even longer to find a suitable, politically viable remedy. The schools are probably one of few places where stakeholders pay an insane amount of lip service to the long-lasting effects and psycho-social impacts of the learning experience, yet seem to conveniently forget that there are very few “controls” in schools. Every year there is a new dynamic. Every year, there is a new political, social, economic, and personal context. With so many factors at the whim of time, it’s no wonder that policy makers and practitioners have so much difficulty determining, implementing and evaluating changes.

It’s downright frightening to see the big picture of the turnover among school leadership. Students, faculty and staff are constantly in a state of flux, not knowing when or how their environment, curriculum, philosophy, etc. will be altered in the interest of satisfying some new leader. Imagine how it must feel to be an educator in a system that’s gone through 5 superintendents in ten years. Or imagine how significantly impacted the educational experience of students who entered the K-12 system in the midst of organizational change might be.

As much as it pains me to say it, the high expectations of our schools is reflective of our society. We always expect quick turnaround, even when it’s not in our best interest. The adage “a watched pot never boils” is absolutely true here. It’s as if our society has come to the conclusion that positive change will happen, no matter the context, even in the midst of political conflict, economic downturn, and community non-support. *blank stare* No, that’s pretty rare, actually. Sometimes, even if change comes, we’re so narrow-minded that we only see the positive changes in one arena. For schools, we may raise test scores but fundamentally destroy the educational experience for both the teacher and students. Is that really the best thing? It’s something that needs time to manifest, and people need time to actually, you know, assess.

I’d like to think that at some point in the near future, other school districts will take some cues from Montgomery County schools. Despite how people feel toward Weast’s policies, few can deny that the county has experienced some measure of educational success under his tutelage. At the very least, instructors, staff, parents and students were in a place of stability. There were not sweeping policy changes every two years to appease the new face. Perhaps it’s more than just his leadership. Maybe what “worked” for the county was public investment, political involvement, educator preparation, etc. Whatever the case may be, Weast was given time to show that he could invoke change. Without necessarily endorsing Fenty/Rhee or Hite, I hope that DCPS and PGCPS get to a point where they can have long-term leadership and stability, if for no other reason than for the students.*

*But not stability at the cost of effectiveness. If the leadership sucks and the outcomes are terrible for students, show them the door … in a legal way.

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