Letters To The Editor
To the Editor:
Nathan Glazer's piece on "Do We Need Big City School Superintendents?'' (Commentary, March 18, 1992) was so incredible that for several days after it appeared, I sat in stunned disbelief. How could someone of Mr. Glazer's renown and acumen think for one minute that the solution to the problems of urban schools would be through the simple dissolution of the office of the superintendent? That's like suggesting that General Motors could be fixed by doing away with the president or for that matter that the United States could be improved by dynamiting the White House. Ridiculous.
But in re-reading the piece I realized Mr. Glazer wasn't really saying the silly thing he appeared to be saying. He was up to some real mischief.
I admit an advantage over Mr. Glazer. I spent a number of years as one of those embattled urban superintendents. So I know, more than he'll ever guess, how frustrating and difficult the job can be. Certainly there were days when I felt like telling them to take the job and shove it. However, I knew that the frustrations and the responsibility for the organization would remain after I was gone--and that on my best days I provided a center of direction and sanity in a sometimes insane appearing situation.
I also knew that I just held the chair. That the dynamics were much bigger than I was. Mr. Glazer seems to be saying that if you just removed the chair, the problems would be gone. He is far too smart to really believe that and as I reexamined his piece I realized that he was implying something very different.
What Mr. Glazer is really suggesting is that urban schools are broken and can't be fixed. He has no solution for fixing them. So he would start by doing away with the office of superintendent. Next, logically would come the district office since all the problems of the district would still be there. And Mr. Glazer already intimates that largeness is not an asset with schools, so clearly the central operation is expendable. That would focus all efforts on the local school. Of course, the school would be left to fend for itself in the maelstrom of poverty and social injustice that permeates the urban condition.
It doesn't take a rocket scientist, or a full professor from Harvard, to figure out that very shortly it would be necessary to do away with the school itself, since it would appear to be broken and unfixable also. Which takes Mr. Glazer to the point some of his neo-conservative colleagues such as John Chubb have reached with their schemes for parental choice.
They believe that the most cost-effective solution to education's woes is to let the marketplace dictate the survival of schools. Good schools will survive. Bad ones will become extinct. It allows them to feel a solution exists without the unpleasantness of it costing more money.
Of course, anyone who has spent more than a few minutes in an urban classroom realizes that the school is not the problem. In fact, for many children the school is a haven from the problems they face in the rest of their lives. And for those children, even bad schools are better than none at all. Of course, the problems of broken families, racism, and grinding poverty would still be with these children. And since the competition has yet to be invented that allows everyone to win, what is to happen to the losers? Will they be less poor? Less distressed?
Mr. Glazer and his buddies have no real solution to the real problems. They have been in the ivy-covered towers and the palaces of priviledge too long. Like the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland, their solution is "off with their heads.'' And they'll start with the superintendent and get to the rest of you later.
Paul D. Houston
Superintendent of Schools
To the Editor:
Let us suppose, for a moment, that Nailene Chou Wiest's premise, in her article, "When the Job Candidate Can't Count'' (Commentary, March 18, 1992), is correct. She obviously has judged the entire educational community, and all superintendents, by her one experience on an advisory committee and one job applicant who supposedly cannot count. If, by her methodology, the quality of education is below standard, then I choose to use her same logic and approach in reviewing her "commentary.''
Upon review I find her article to be of low-grade quality, obviously biased by some terrible past experience she had with a school official, and thereby I, being biased after reading her ridiculous article, judge all the journalists by her inability to write an essay that makes even "low-grade'' common sense. Therefore, by Ms. Wiest's standards, all journalists should be replaced by "non-traditional'' candidates outside the classification of "journalist'' or "writer.'' As she suggests, "with industrial 'downsizing' widespread, surely there is a large pool of unemployed or underemployed executives who are bottom-line conscious and know firsthand how the United States is losing its competitiveness because of an ill-educated'' writing workforce.
I only hope that if Ms. Wiest serves on any more advisory committees she serves with more of an open mind than she has exhibited in her article. I really am sorry that she had such a bad experience on that committee but I find it insulting and illogical for a person who claims to be a "journalist'' to lump all superintendents into her nasty little corner.
I am sorry to inform her that there are poor superintendents out there, just as there are poor writers, teachers, doctors, lawyers, and she will find poor examples of anyone or anything in everything but then that's life. I am willing to bet, however, that for every "poor'' worker you find there are three good ones to take his/her place. Shame on you Ms. Wiest ... you have failed.
Thomas D. Engler
To the Editor:
Thank you for the outstanding pair of articles on quality management ("Schools Swept Up in Quality Movement''; "Florida District Vows To Infuse Quality Principles Into Schools,'' March 11, 1992).
The people quoted in the section of the front-page story on "monopolies,'' however, miss the crucial nature of using quality management in education and government agencies. The notion that monopolies like schools and government agencies are ignored by Edwards Deming's method because they can't go out of business reveals a lack of vision as to what quality brings to an organization.
Schools and government have always been engaged in competition. They compete for scarce resources, for public confidence, and for good workers. Parents have always had the choice to leave their local public schools when they perceive a lack of quality and place their children in private schools.
The Deming quality-management method lowers cost and raises productivity. It encourages cooperation and removes barriers to success. In a government agency or school, using quality management creates time, a valuable commodity.
As the director of a multi-district educational service agency that has applied Mr. Deming's principles since 1983, I can confirm that improved quality increases productivity. Less time is spent redoing work and chasing down errors. Time is now used to improve and expand services and is a direct result of improving quality in the system. More time is spent answering teacher needs, and as their needs are better met, their confidence in the service goes up. The public image of the agency also improves. This principle can apply to any government agency or "monopoly.''
I share the fear that overnight experts and the successive parade of school-reform "solutions'' will cause the Deming method to be dismissed out of hand by the educational community. Several factors may mitigate that concern. First, the Deming method has a 40-year performance record that is hard to argue with. Second, the American Association of School Administrators' Total Quality Network provides a stable, national support system for schools interested in T.Q.M. And last, quality management principles can be applied to most organizational systems. It is a "method'' and not necessarily an "instead of'' solution.
Of paramount importance is the knowledge that "quality is made in the board room,'' as Mr. Deming says. T.Q.M. must have the full and unrelenting support of top management if it is to work. Deming principles recognize that workers (teachers and students) are generally powerless to change most aspects of a system which impede quality. Only informed management can do that.
Mark L. Richie
Burlington County Audio-Visual
Mt. Holly, N.J.