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Q&A: Outgoing Pittsburgh Chief Reflects on Long Career of Reform

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At a time when the careers of big-city superintendents are often nasty, brutish, and short, Richard C. Wallace Jr.'s experience is a notable exception.

Not only has he held the top post in Pittsburgh for 12 years, he has also helped the Pittsburgh school district earn a reputation as one of the most innovative, reform-oriented urban districts in the country.

After retiring from his job later this year, Mr. Wallace will join the faculty of the University of Pittsburgh to work with a program that trains superintendents.

Mr. Wallace discussed his career with the Pittsburgh schools, as well as the university program, with Staff Writer Daniel Gursky.

Q. Why do you think the Pittsburgh public schools have been relatively successful compared to a lot of other urban systems?
A. I asked a question before I took the job: Was the district manageable and could someone actually do something here? And the response I got from all of the people with whom I talked in the community as well as in the district was a positive yes. And, indeed, I think it's turned out that way.

Even though I came in with a [school] board that was badly divided, in rather short order we were able to bring them together, to rally them around some very specific priorities that they voted, based on a broad array of data that we collected in a needs-assessment survey.

That exercise--in setting priorities based on the analysis of data--brought the board together. And for more than a decade, we had virtually a unanimous vote of the board on every educational issue that came before it.

Q. Does that have something to do with why you've lasted so long in the job?
A. I think so. I have a very strong data orientation to educational leadership. I think the fact that we've constantly focused the attention of the board on data and had them set priorities based on data has, in effect, taken me out of the crossfire that often happens when superintendents come in with their own agenda.

What I addressed was the board's agenda and the community's agenda, starting in 1981 when the board first voted its priorities.

Q. You've said it takes more than a couple years to really accomplish something as a superintendent.
A. Oh, yeah. It takes a minimum of three to five years. I think, oftentimes, particularly in urban districts, boards expect the superintendent to come in with a package of programs or a bag full of tricks, or to wave a magic wand and bring about change in a hurry. And that doesn't happen. There are no quick fixes in education.

Q. What are some of the biggest changes you've seen in your tenure?
A. I think we've seen a dramatic change in the teachers in terms of their willingness to engage in the process of professionalizing the role of teacher. ... And the role of the teachers in participating in leadership at the building level has changed dramatically over the decade.

There's also been a big change in the role of administrators. We have very strongly advocated the role of the principal as that of an educational or instructional leader. We've spent a substantial amount of time and money training the principals to function in that role.

Q. Do you see some lessons for other superintendents from your experience in Pittsburgh?
A. I'm convinced that a lot of what was done here could be done in other places. I think that having a very strong data orientation, setting priorities based on data, engaging in long-range planning, [and] engaging in a lot of staff-development work to improve the performance of teachers and administrators [are things] that can be done and should be done in any community.

Given that approach, we can increase the longevity of superintendents in a given community.

Q. After you retire, you're going to the University of Pittsburgh to join the faculty of a superintendent-preparation program. How does the approach there differ from the preparation that most superintendents now receive?
A. The program has four domains to it. The first is called vision because we believe a person cannot lead unless he has a vision of what education ought to be. The second domain is called data orientation, which reflects some of the things I've talked about. The third domain reflects the need for organizational and professional development, which essentially deals with the continuing professional development of teachers and administrators, and also the development of schools as effective problem-solving institutions. And then the fourth domain is management.

It's hoped that the people coming out of the program ... will be well-prepared to lead school districts effectively.

Q. Some people have lately proposed getting rid of the position of urban superintendent and transferring a lot of that person's duties to schools. What do you think of that idea?
A. I think that's very unwise. The problems in most urban districts across the nation are not with the superintendents; they're with [school] boards. I think there are ways to improve the quality of educational leadership on the part of superintendents and ways to improve the quality of boards.

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