Commentary

Making A School System Work

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Recent studies on what makes schools effective have all pointed to the importance of good leadership in both the individual school and the school system. This perhaps is obvious, but what may not be so obvious is that good leadership is not a matter of style but requires day-to-day commitment, competence, and no small amount of courage.

This is especially true in the public schools, constrained in ways private schools are not. An effective leader in the public schools will find himself involved in skirmishes every day, and at the end, if not of the day, of the school year, he must win more than he loses. One such effective leader is Peter Greer, superintendent of schools in Portland, Me.

Mr. Greer, previously a full-time teacher, is 40 years old and has been Portland's superintendent for the past two years, having been an assistant superintendent. The system includes 12 elementary schools, three middle schools, two high schools, a regional vocational school, and a school for the emotionally disturbed. Many of the 8,000 students come from low-income families. An unusually high 16 percent are enrolled in special education. The system relies heavily on the property tax. The budget this past year was $20 million. The Portland system is Maine's largest, and nationwide it is of average size.

Earlier this summer Mr. Greer spelled out his educational philosophy. Portland, he said, "must stand for the belief that the widespread despair over public education is a form of self-indulgence we cannot afford. Education must demand something, stand for something, or it has nothing to give. Competence and quality must be recognized, sought, and rewarded. Outstanding teachers must be rewarded in order to encourage first-rate people to choose teaching as a profession. Excellent students must serve as models for other students."

Mr. Greer has emphasized this philosophy to teachers and staff. But his push for excellence has involved more than philosophy.

Faced with budget cuts and at the same time wishing to institute a program in Latin for the elementary grades, Mr. Greer has succeeded in finding funds for the program from a local bank. He also has instituted a writing program in which all students in all grades participate, and he has instituted a Great Books program.

Mr. Greer hired administrators for his central office whom he describes as "professional, competent, no-nonsense workaholics." They are actively involved not only in the schools but also the lives of the students, taking time, for example, to read samples of the students' writing. Mr. Greer does the same, and also finds time during his more than 70-hour work week to teach a class in American history.

Mr. Greer has established a quarterly periodical called "Excellence." It is mailed to all parents, including thosewho send their children to non-public schools. The periodical also is placed in hospitals, supermarkets, and offices. Excellence highlights the achievements of Portland students, teachers, and schools.

As a result of these achievements many parents who chose to place their children in private schools have decided to return them to the Portland system. In 1980-81, for the first time in the past 10 years, the standardized test scores of Portland students were at or above the national norm in all grades, one to 11, and in all seven test areas. Last year Portland students won 35 state and national awards for writing, the highest ever for the city's children.

But everything isn't roses and harmony in Portland. Mr. Greer is controversial. He receives his share of hate mail. "Drop dead," said one recent letter. Another said: "You will be shot dead soon in a lonlely (sic) place by the people of Portland due to your unreasonable and unjustful demands. You are the most unacceptable person for the Portland public schools system. The time is very short for you to leave Portland to heavenly holiday."

A large part of Mr. Greer's administrative work is absorbed by personnel matters, mainly grievance and arbitration procedures. He estimates he spends two days a week in legal matters. During a recent two-week period he was served three times by the Portland sheriff.

Though he is well liked and widely respected by parents and by most of the teachers in the system, the Portland Teachers Association, the local affiliate of the National Education Association, is hardly a Peter Greer fan club. Some of the system's principals have told Portland citizens that since Mr. Greer became superintendent "it's not as much fun as it used to be."

Mr. Greer frankly admits that they are right. "There are no more long lunches and visits with each other by the principals and teachers every day. There's no more neglect or rejection of test scores. Test scores now are taken seriously, and so is the teachers' work. When the teachers had fun, as before, the students suffered. I firmly believe that superintendents who are universally liked make no decisions or have few to make."

Mr. Greer issues press releases that anger some school personnel and please others. A recent one led with the headline: "Fewer sick days equal higher test scores." Mr. Greer says that "one way to assess school morale is by considering the number of sick days each staff member uses."

The staff evaluation form Mr. Greer uses has angered some Portland school-system employees. The evaluation form's first question asks the reader to say when this person usually arrives at work and usually leaves. The second, third, and fourth questions ask about the employee's pace at work, level of effort, and quality of work. Other questions deal with the person's maturity and stability, and there are very direct questions about the person's intelligence, judgment, and range of information.

Mr. Greer is serious in using these evaluation forms; indeed, he is serious about getting the best people there are to teach in and staff the Portland schools. He is absolutely opposed to using seniority as the sole criterion for retention. The most important issue in his mind is the quality of the teacher. He thinks that the credibility of teacher associations depends on their understanding this.

One afternoon recently Mr. Greer relaxed with one of his principals over beer and reflected on the pace of their jobs. Like Mr. Greer, this principal works hard, and the two were probing the question of why work so hard.

"The only answer," Mr. Greer said, "is that for some reason we can't stand the fact that children in certain classrooms are getting mediocre teaching. We know how bad it is to be short-changed in your education--it ought to be a crime. We can't stand to let new and terrific teachers go, while a bozo stays to cheat kids."

Mr. Greer is an example of what it takes today, day-to-day, to be an effective public school administrator. There is no avoiding the fact that the campaign for effective public education is a battle, and it takes conviction and courage on the part of those ultimately in charge of a school system--the superintendents--to wage this battle successfully.

Vol. 01, Issue 06, Page 24

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