Published Online: October 10, 2001
Published in Print: October 10, 2001, as Leadership

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Politically Incorrect?

The standards movement is no friend to urban superintendents, Larry Cuban argues in a new essay being billed as "politically incorrect."

Testing and accountability measures offer unrealistic and even misguided goals, writes Mr. Cuban, a noted historian of schools and professor emeritus in the school of education at Stanford University.

"Our nation's urban schools, particularly those most in need, are poorly matched to current popular reforms and leadership formulas packaged like brand-name products for schools across the country," he writes in "Leadership for Student Learning: Urban School Leadership—Different in Kind and Degree."

Instead, he says, they need more money and to focus not just on preparing students for jobs, but for participating in civic life.

The paper was released last week by the Institute for Educational Leadership, a Washington-based organization, as part of an ongoing project examining school leadership. (Parts of the essay also appeared in an Education WeekCommentary on May 30.)

The essay ranges over the history of American urban schools, with an emphasis on the push in the past two decades for higher academic standards. In Mr. Cuban's view, three myths about big-city schools "distort" efforts to lead them.

One is that urban districts are ungovernable. In fact, Chicago, Boston, and Seattle, for example, are run well, Mr. Cuban says. Another is that the superintendency is a revolving door. He cites a number of big-city chiefs who have stayed for at least five years, including Thomas W. Payzant in San Diego and now Boston and Paul G. Vallas in Chicago.

The last myth is that schools alone can improve the lives of poor children. While praising the standards movement for raising expectations, Mr. Cuban faults it for ignoring poverty and argues that civic education is as important as preparing students for jobs.

Mr. Cuban calls on urban school leaders to educate city officials about the hurdles they face. Also, he urges training urban teachers and principals in yearlong internships.

Diane Ravitch, a research professor of education at New York University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, disagreed with many of Mr. Cuban's views.

"The alternative is no standards, and the public doesn't seem amenable to that," she said. "It's not as if kids are getting a civic education by not being able to read the newspaper."

—Mark Stricherz mstricherz@epe.org

Vol. 21, Issue 6, Page 10

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