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What Do Superintendents Want?

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They want to talk about the decline of community in America--and the role of the public schools in creating and sustaining that community.

What do public school superintendents talk about when they get together? In July, we had a chance to find out when about 60 practitioners of this beleaguered calling from all parts of the nation gathered at Teachers College, Columbia University, for some R&R and reflection on the parlous state of the schools they lead. San Francisco and New York City and Omaha, Neb., and Richmond, Va., and Bemidji, Minn., among others, all sat down together and swapped their stories. And despite the group's striking diversity, a common theme emerged.

It's not easy being a public school superintendent these days, so cataloguing the mutual problems was easy: lack of money, too many and conflicting demands, public hostility, uncertain tenure. But surprisingly, once these matters were acknowledged, they were not what superintendents wanted to talk about. The problem that gripped their attention was the decline of community in America--and the role of the public schools in creating and sustaining that community.

Superintendents from all over the country lament a loss of social cohesion. In too many places, they say, gone are the days when people pulled together. Increasingly, superintendents deal with individuals and special-interest groups who insist on immediate gratification of their own wants and care little or nothing about the common good. The problem is more acute in the cities, but it afflicts small towns and villages as well. As people responsible for the educational welfare of all children and families, and for the effective management of the community's resources, superintendents find themselves buffeted from all sides for doing the very thing they are hired to do--seeing the situation whole and trying to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number.

Perhaps some people won't lose a lot of sleep if public school superintendents have a hard time. But maybe we ought to think about what is happening in our society. Do we really want a country in which it is everyone and every group for himself, herself, and itself? Can't we see and feel how many people these days are searching for something beyond self?



Nobody wants to retain the top-down bureaucracy of yesteryear. But neither do many Americans favor nature red in tooth and claw, with no kindness and concern for the less fortunate.

The education-reform movement in which much of America is now involved emphasizes higher academic standards. The superintendents who met at Teachers College this summer believe in higher standards (no member of the group was in favor of lower standards). They are committed to helping all children achieve these high standards, and they know that they must make significant changes in school practice to achieve this goal. But they also know, as the public does, that simply raising standards is not enough. Unless students have access to the curricula and the materials of instruction they need, and unless teachers are given better training and support, the new standards will not be reached and the schools will be charged with failure once again.

And even more important, superintendents are concerned that setting high standards will not by itself address the problem of creating the community needed for attaining high standards. They worry about that portion of the reform movement that would fragment or privatize the public system. Don't be too quick to write this view off as self-serving. Of course self-interest is involved. But superintendents are also genuinely concerned about efforts that privilege one small group or another at the expense of those less fortunate, and that harm an institution that has provided much of the social glue for this society throughout the past 150 years.

Nobody wants to retain the cumbersome, inefficient, top-down bureaucracy of yesteryear. But neither do many Americans favor nature red in tooth and claw, with no kindness and concern for the less fortunate. Surely we can find a middle ground, one that opens the system to creative initiative while still protecting the weak and preserving a sense of general welfare. Of course we want individual students to achieve to the very best of their ability. But we also want to create a more wholesome community, both nationally and at the local level.

This sample of America's superintendents, at least, wants that kind of public system. As one participant in the conference said, they want to return to the values expressed in the core documents of our society--the preamble of the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights--and, consistent with those values, to devise a new system of public schools for all the children of all the people. They are committed to working toward that end. Anyone want to help?

Thomas Sobol is the Christian A. Johnson professor of outstanding educational practice at Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York City. From 1987 to 1995, he was the New York state commissioner of education.

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