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Superintendency: No-Win Job Needing Diverse Skills

To the Editor:

Oh my, is Susan Moore Johnson off-base in her Commentary ("Turnover in the Superintendency: A Hazard to Leadership and Reform," March 13, 1996). She has flat out missed the target.

Ms. Johnson should know the Vermont saying, "Take your fist out of a bucket of water and the hole fills in real fast." Rather than lament over the increased frequency of superintendents' leaving and suggesting that boards seek collaborative administrators as opposed to heroic leaders, she might consider the reasons why superintendents throw in the towel.

As crazy as this sounds, school superintendents also work for the community, as agents of the state and federal departments of education, and of course as advocates for the students in their schools. They definitely do not work for the teachers or the building administrators. Let's hope they work effectively with them, but recall it was the teachers and the administrative unions that established an adversarial relationship with school chief executive officers in the early 1960s. This is coincidentally about the time of the increase in distrust in public-sector schools.

Having spent seven years in the superintendent position, I can tell you that it is a no-win, lonely, next-to-impossible job. Long-term superintendents are rare indeed, for one must not only be an educator of note but also possess the skills and abilities of a businessman, politician, negotiator, public relations expert, and visionary. Often months go by on the job with nothing but "maintenance talk" aimed at the superintendent. That is, besides hello, weather, and the most recent sporting event, the conversations are about problems in the district or an attempt to lobby for an issue.

Someone far wiser than I has said, "School administrators do not make friends, they simply accumulate enemies." Said another way, we now live in a time when a no from the person in the leadership role is no longer accepted or acceptable.

Working in a union-imposed adversarial environment, dealing with vocal, well-meaning, but clueless parent groups, being forced to give in to self-serving union demands from teachers, administrators, secretaries, cafeteria workers, custodians, and perhaps bus drivers, complying with state mandates and local board "do it now" suggestions, keeping a positive outlook and a sense of fulfillment is a long-shot parlay. I am always amazed that for 60 to 75 hours per week of doing this (only occasionally) rewarding work, the district CEO gets a salary that is in many communities less than that of the manager of the local McDonald's. To carry that analogy a bit further, both are providing the same service--that of teaching or training adolescents.

Ms. Johnson should know that governance by committee or consensus sounds terrific but in practice is frequently ineffective. Bad decisions ultimately get thrust in the direction of the leader, and that leads to superintendent turnover. Harvard University's graduate school of education, where Ms. Johnson works, has had for a long time the reputation of being anti-superintendent and pro-principal. Collaboration sure, but always remember who has the ultimate responsibility for the decision and who must answer for the group, the process, and the costs.

Perhaps it is time to get some data from former (not current or looking) superintendents to shed some light on this disruptive phenomenon. I do agree that for a superintendent to have a positive impact on a school district, the term of office should be of five to seven years' duration or perhaps longer.

Sidney I. DuPont
Headmaster
Harbor Day School
Corona Del Mar, Calif.

On EAI, Edison Project, Miami Schools 'Twice Shy'

To the Editor:

Bruce S. Cooper and Denis P. Doyle write that educational entrepreneurs are "prying the doors open" ("Education Supply: Will It Create Demand?," Commentary, March 20, 1996). Oh, really?

Education Alternatives Inc. was welcomed into Miami's public school establishment in 1990-91. The teachers' union, the school board, and the administrators were happy to extend a warm greeting. Teachers vied for positions, and the entire community watched the new venture with interest. Visitors from all over the country came to see the city's EAI-run South Pointe Elementary School in action.

But it just didn't deliver. Test scores didn't rise significantly, and EAI couldn't raise the private money necessary for the program.

A "momentary setback"? Gosh, I hope John Golle, EAI's chief executive officer, is more than "disappointed." All of us who wished EAI well were devastated; we had hoped that the smaller class size, computers, and innovative parent reporting would succeed. That Baltimore and Hartford, Conn., canceled out their agreements with EAI isn't a surprise. "Vendors already in the market (like EAI) will forge ahead," Mr. Cooper and Mr. Doyle tell us. I hope they have a new plow.

Do Messrs. Cooper and Doyle worry at all about Christopher Whittle's media world crumbling around him, financially speaking? That his business is failing and has reportedly left Knoxville, Tenn., with empty buildings and dashed dreams raises a red flag in my mind. The Edison Project is untested; it looks good on paper. But once burned, we're twice shy in Miami.

Nancy Webster
Miami, Fla.

OBE's Vagueness Stretches Meaning of 'Achievement'

To the Editor:

According to sociologist-cum-outcomes-based-education-theorist William Spady, "outcomes are measurable results of learning." ("The Trashing and Survival of OBE," Commentary, March 6, 1996). If an outcome must be measurable, then it can only be a simple, discrete behavior which can be judged "finished" or "not finished." Defining outcomes in simplistic behavioral terms like this is a basic principle of behavior modification. As such, behavior modification is a fundamental component of "special" education for mentally retarded and emotionally disturbed children.

Mr. Spady himself has admitted that special educators have been using OBE principles and practices for years, as if this is something to be proud of. Whether through ignorance or by design, Mr. Spady fails to explain that reliance on behavior-modification principles and practices reduces education to a simple formula: The child completes the required outcomes and his education is "finished." The purpose of education has never been defined more narrowly; it makes my blood run cold to realize that Mr. Spady and his ilk would have normal, healthy children subjected to the same toxic philosophy and methodology that has drained the life from scores of conscientious special educators for the past two decades--and robbed handicapped children of any real hope for academic achievement.

For thousands of years, the ability to reason intelligently has been created through the use of dialectics (thoughtful, prepared arguments and challenging discussion). Outcomes-based education changes all that, permanently. There is no room for dialectics in OBE. Teachers hang up a target (they call it an "outcome"). If the student hits the target, the student gets another target, and so on, until he hits all of the targets and his education is "finished." If a student misses a target, he gets another try, and another, until he hits the target. There is no need for discussion. Repeated failure is permissible because eventual "success" is guaranteed.

OBE teachers guarantee success by making the target as easy to hit as necessary. They'll make it bigger, move the student closer, they'll have other students aim for the student--whatever it takes. This is what OBE theorists mean when they say "the school controls the conditions for success."

OBE theorists guarantee high achievement for all students, but there's a catch: The definition of "high achievement" changes from student to student. What is called "high achievement" for a slow learner would be low achievement for a fast learner, but OBE systems never compare students with each other, so the secret is safe. Such systems rely on "criterion-referenced testing" and banish "norm-referenced testing." If you limit yourself to criterion-referenced testing, the Edsel was a great car. It is only when you compare the Edsel with other cars manufactured at the same time--when you use norm-referenced testing--that you discover the truth.

The bottom line is that OBE outcomes are deliberately written in vague terms so that they can be stretched to accommodate the functioning levels of all students--and create the illusion of "high" achievement for all. That illusion lasts only until graduation. The real world tells the truth.

Steven Kossor
Coatesville, Pa.

Help With Technology: One Principal's Story

To the Editor:

It fascinates me that NetDay96 gets headlines ("Thousands Turn Out To Wire California Schools for the Internet," March 20, 1996) for the sort of energy that many of us have come to expect as a necessary ingredient in stretching our meager budgets. I can relate one story that I am sure has its equally unheralded counterparts throughout the country.

When I arrived on my first day as principal almost three years ago, I found a new computer and printer waiting for me in my office. Within a month, my complaints about the phones were heard by a resident who worked for a regional communications company. He installed several jacks and found some used two-line phones we could place strategically about the building. Not a phone system, but it was an improvement.

While work on an addition went forward last summer, he supervised the wiring of our entire building for a phone system we did not have, cable television that was not yet in town, and a computer network, the hardware for which would arrive before the end of September. Our cost? The wire and related jacks and boards; the cable company provided the cable we needed to connect each classroom to a central location near the computer-network hub and will connect us within two weeks.

Shortly after Thanksgiving, I received a call asking if I would be interested in a phone system. This same regional communications company was negotiating with two companies needing to upgrade their phone systems, neither of which was more than two years old. Each was willing to donate its used system to a nonprofit agency in lieu of a credit toward the purchase of a new system. Our volunteer came back shortly after Christmas to install the phones. We now have 16 extensions, including one in each classroom. Our cost? The time and materials for thank-you letters.

We did get some private foundation money to purchase computer equipment to supplement the computers already in the school--most of which had been donated. We paid only slightly more than the lowest mail-order prices to purchase our new machines locally, and when the time came to connect and set up the network, our vendor donated one of the two days he spent working with us and sold us the laptop on which I write this letter for about half the cost of a new one.

Most of the schools in my area do not have the resources to have a computer technician on staff full time. Instead, we rely on time stolen from a member of the staff or the community. In the case of my school and that in a neighboring town, the people we use when our skills or time are not up to the task are board members.

My official guess for the town meeting was that these efforts (including the grant) saved the town about $40,000. But I didn't put a figure on the board members' time--which is significant--and I forgot to include the computer hardware donated over the last three years. That probably brings the total closer to $55,000. Not bad for a school with an enrollment of fewer than 100 children in K-6.

Daniel A. Poor
Principal
Doty Memorial School
Worcester, Vt.

New Disciplinary Programs Leave This Reader Mystified

To the Editor:

Some years ago when patients were released en masse from the state-run mental hospitals, not all of them became homeless. Apparently some have gone on to become school officials and hold other posts of public trust.

Case in point: School officials in Union County, N.C., plan to place a mobile classroom just yards away from the new county jail, so that "disruptive students [can] benefit from a visual reminder that they could wind up in prison if they don't change their behavior" ("N.C. District To Press Point With Classroom Near Jail," March 20, 1996).

Case No. 2: New York State Attorney General Dennis Vacco chairs the governor's Commission on Child Abuse and Neglect. He says that parents of children who repeatedly skip school would face up to seven years in prison for child abuse under a change he is recommending in state law. Under existing law, this type of neglect can lead to no more than a misdemeanor endangerment charge against parents and potential incarceration of no longer than one year.

Does the New York attorney general think a parent who got a year in jail would not receive the wake-up call, or are his motives political to the extent that he feels that a harsher, tougher stance is the tenor of the times?

And do the Union County, N.C., school officials really want their tough-to-manage kids (and they are impressionable kids) to emulate those incarcerated inmates?

James M. Zatlukal
Education Director
St. Dominic's Home
Blauvelt, N.Y

Testing Reading Methods Gave Students 'Surprise'

To the Editor:

I was gratified to read "The Best of Both Worlds" as the research segment in your March 20, 1996 issue. I thought I might just add a little to the discussion.

Over the last five years, many of my graduate students in curriculum and instruction were strong advocates of what they considered the whole-language approach, and one was an advocate of the Spalding (strong phonetic) approach to effective reading. The students, separately, developed experiments to compare the effectiveness of traditional instruction using a basal reader with that of whole language and/or the Spalding method. In each case a pre-test/post-test format was used and the growth of the experimental group was compared with the growth of the control group.

To the students' surprise, they found no statistical difference in growth of student reading over a period of from one to three years. When different aspects of reading were separated, they did find a slight improvement in decoding skills using Spalding, but the comprehension of the Spalding students was lower; even though this was true, the difference was not statistically significant.

We should not be shocked by the concept of balance as suggested in your article. If learning-style theorists such as Rita and Kenneth Dunn, Anthony Gregorc, and Bernice McCarthy have taught us nothing except that students learn differently, we should understand that an eclectic approach would address more learning styles than any one single approach. There simply is no one best way to deal with all children.

William A. Rieck
Professor of Education
University of Southwestern Louisiana
Lafayette, La.

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