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Superintendents:  Leaders Envisioning and Developing the Future of New York Public Education

Guest Post by Jere I. Hochman, Superintendent, Bedford, New York
Reprinted with permission from NYS Council of School Superintendents

In “envisioning” public education for the future, the vision part is easy. It starts with the phrase “Every child…” and the rest are details. Developing the strategies to accomplish the vision and enacting them with results is the challenging and exciting part. As those responsible and accountable, as those with the expertise and experience, as those whose life’s work and passion is that vision for “Every child” with results, public school superintendents will be at the table.  

Why “will be?” Because sometimes our perspectives have not been given due weight at the table. Excessive testing? The debate over unfunded and underfunded mandates? Charter schools?  Policing cyber-bullying off school premises? Annual Professional Performance Reviews (APPR)?   Despite often heroic efforts by Council members and staff, superintendent views are sometimes overlooked, in spite of the rich collective knowledge and leadership superintendents bring.

While 21st century elected officials in Washington D.C. and Albany, corporate investors, self-proclaimed reformers, and special interest groups all banter over their 20th century conceptions of fixing what they perceive to be failed schools; our local Boards of Education, faculty and staff, and communities under the leadership of superintendents must fend off the banter as we realize success with children.   

A disservice is done to children, to parents and our communities, and to faculty and staff when the perspectives of those with the ultimate buck-stops-here responsibility are not weighed in the decisions made for schools by others with far less grasp of their theoretical and practical implications. Superintendents know children, teaching, learning, and curriculum.  Superintendents know policy, regulations, law, and school operations. Superintendents know working with Boards of Education, civic leaders, legislators, unions, and communities.  Superintendents know change, culture, and systems implementation.  

With these concepts in mind, The Council has empowered an “Envisioning Committee” with the charge to develop a context and recommendations for New York’s public schools’ success and every student’s achievement beginning with a framework, a way of thinking, and a barometer for policy and practice that will stand the test of time.  

The Envisioning Committee, comprised of superintendents from across the state, has begun assessing our shared vision and guiding principles. No different than our work in our respective school districts, our plan is to:

1.    Establish what matters (and what does not);
2.    Build on strengths and confront deeply rooted impediments;
3.    Learn, collaborate, and facilitate development; and
4.    Implement, make mistakes, and construct meaning to progress.  We will proceed with necessary urgency and with patience, the latter a term the new reformers simply reject.  

Our committee’s work and its context in an era of “everyone is an expert reformer” reminds me of the story of the fellow searching for his keys under the streetlight because the light is better there than where he lost them. Reformers seeking to (quick) fix public education, too, are looking in the wrong places just because the light is better. Superintendents accept the challenge to lead through the dark. We and all with whom we collaborate bring research and experience to design the keys to substantial change which will deliver on the promise of a free and public education for every child in New York.    
Superintendents are serious about substantive educational reform and know sound academic recommendations must be congruent with a framework of vision, principles, overcoming obstacles, and systemic recommendations. We will align our recommendations for policy, models and plan, and strategies and practices with this framework. We will not subscribe to nor tolerate isolated solutions, especially solutions to the wrong problem. Local school boards and schools, too, must consider these principles and ideals and identify and address the impediments, the sacred cows, and the deeply rooted obstacles that have stopped so many local plans in their tracks.  

I recall a sign in a pizza place that read: “Our pizza establishment has made a deal with the bank.  They won’t sell pizza and we won’t cash checks.”  

Perhaps we should make an analogous deal with the corporations, the quick fix consultants, and reformers emulating the fast food industry. They don’t need to use principles of democracy and sound educational professional practice to make burgers and fries (or textbooks, segregated schools, and tests) and we won’t use temporary employees, short-lived training, scripts, and meaningless repetition to educate children. We encourage those in Washington, Albany, and those self-proclaimed reformers and their investors to use our expertise and follow our lead.

The Council’s Envisioning Committee and all superintendents accept this moral imperative, the stewardship of public education, and the responsibility to make ethical decisions in the best interests of children and to marshal human, fiscal, and community resources to ensure access and equity, scholarship, and citizenship in our public school communities.  

We know learning does not begin at the age of five nor is it a race that ends at 21; yet still we will nurture a nation of learners who enter school with eyes opened wide and filled with curiosity and walk across that stage years later to get a handshake, a copy of the Constitution, and a diploma with eyes opened wide and filled with curiosity.  

If you want to see Superman solve the problem of the day with the fix of the day, go to the movies or buy a comic book. If you want to see a student motivated intrinsically with drill-skill learning and a standardized test, go the DMV. If you want to make money off the backs of kids, open a small business that sells video games, not tests.  

If you want to see authentic learning, go to a public school where you will find a proud principal who will gladly engage you in dialogue with professional teachers and introduce you to remarkably dedicated staff members. And then proceed to the entire school district where you will find a humble superintendent observing in schools, meeting with citizens committee or civic partners, and planning with an elected board or district leaders; a superintendent who revels in the connections, the learning, and the organizational capacity to sustain success.

Again, the vision part is easy. To begin the hard part, our Envisioning Committee is asking:  

Why does this matter so much?  Is there a higher purpose? What are the valued and valuable means to the end of every student graduating? What are the aspirations and ends of life and living to which all of our work and that high school diploma is a means?  

What are the principles that guide our work? Where and how do concepts of equity, access, scholarship, and citizenship serve as the litmus tests of our work as educators? What do we believe, what do we know, and what beliefs and practices must we test to insure we are on solid ground, a level playing field, and sound footing to proceed?  How will we know we are successful qualitatively, in story and narrative, and in human terms?  

What are the impediments? What are the barriers, the decades-old assumptions, and the “that we cannot or will never change?” What must we go over, around, thru, under, and beyond?  What are the beliefs, the structures, and practices; and what are the misperceptions, misconceptions, and myths we must eliminate, eradicate, or at minimum, elucidate to achieve our intended outcomes?  

Then, as superintendents do so well after assessing where we are with a clear vision ahead, we collaborate with countless others and ask: “What’s next?” and proceed with recommendations. And eager to proceed, we lead, to guide, to advise, and implement so our mission for every child’s success in New York is realized.  

Posted By Meg Carnes | 2/8/2013 4:12:06 PM

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