Opinion
School & District Management Opinion

Profiles in Education Courage

By Lew Smith — November 01, 2010 6 min read

When I was 15 and a high school sophomore, I walked two blocks from my school to Union Square in lower Manhattan. It was October 1960, and I was determined to hear John F. Kennedy as he waged his presidential campaign. Like many other baby boomers, I was caught up in the excitement triggered by his candidacy.

I searched for all I could find about and by J.F.K. Naturally, his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Profiles in Courage, caught my attention. As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s presidential victory, it is appropriate for us to return to those tales of courage and what they mean for us as educational leaders.

Kennedy recounted the stories of eight political leaders, including Daniel Webster, who sacrificed personal political ambition to forge a compromise that postponed the Civil War for a decade; Sam Houston, who lost power and popularity for his refusal to endorse Texas’ entry into the Confederate States of America; and Edmund G. Ross, who resisted tremendous pressure and ignored potent threats when he voted to acquit Andrew Johnson during the embattled president’s impeachment trial in the U.S. Senate.

These historic stories have common themes and are reflected in my research about 66 schools from 24 states that were nationally recognized for significantly changing. Like Daniel Webster, Sam Houston, and Edmund Ross, the principals of these schools shared several characteristics. One was courage.

In San Antonio in 1995, Joanne Cockrell was assigned to lead Louis W. Fox Technical High School, also known as Fox Tech, the worst high school in Texas. It took six years for Joanne to significantly change the school but, in 2001, Fox Tech was recognized by Time magazine as one of the best in the nation. I wanted to know how Fox Tech had beaten the odds. On one of my visits, Joanne rushed me to her car. Five minutes later, she jumped out to talk with a tough-looking young man. We then sped to another section of the city, where a second private principal-student conversation took place. Disregarding her physical safety (and mine), Joanne prevented a serious gang fight.

Like Daniel Webster, Sam Houston, and Edmund Ross, the principals of these schools shared several characteristics. One was courage.

Rob Carroll, the principal of South Heights, an elementary school in Henderson, Ky., lost patience with his school’s failure to make academic gains. He called a staff meeting and announced that the school “was all about change.” If anyone could not join in that cause, he would send him or her to another school. The next day, Rob returned to find a hole punched in the wall behind his desk. He left it there and kept working.

Bill Andrekopoulos took over as the principal of a failing middle school in Milwaukee. Despite overt and subtle resistance at the district office, the school made gains. But they were not enough. To move forward meant “going around” district officials, risking their ire. Bill did it. Later, the school applied to the state to become a charter school. The process required the local school board to first give its approval. Milwaukee’s board stalled and would not make a decision. Bill would not be deterred. He locked the charter application in the school safe and challenged the board to bestow their approval within two weeks; otherwise, he said, he would submit the required materials directly to the state. The board relented.

Veteran principal Chris Zarzana, of Citrus Heights, Calif., volunteered to lead Skycrest, the worst elementary school in the district. At about the same time, 3,000 miles away, in Rochester, N.Y., new principal Michele Hancock took over School #5, a failing institution where a body had once been found in a dumpster. In both cases, the schools were converted from places of fear, danger, and hopelessness to sanctuaries where children could feel safe and achieve, parents were welcome, and staff were held accountable. In both cases, the principals put themselves on the line. They each displayed banners that listed school goals and indicated—publicly—where progress had been made and where it hadn’t.

High-profile leaders of American education have also displayed courage. For example, Theodore R. Sizer, in Horace’s Compromise, attacked the stultifying nature of the American high school and offered a radically different model. James P. Comer and Edward T. Joyner put the health and social welfare of students and their families on the table, advancing the idea of developing “the whole child.” Deborah Meier insisted that paper-and-pencil tests were meaningless measurements; students needed to exhibit, prove, and defend deeper concepts.

In Death at an Early Age, new teacher Jonathan Kozol revealed how schools broke the spirit, curiosity, ambition, and will of their students. Three decades later, in The Shame of the Nation, Kozol documented how schools in America were becoming more (not less) segregated.

Ronald R. Edmonds was the father of the “effective schools” movement, identifying the characteristics of successful schools. He said what others could not or would not say: “We can successfully teach all children whose schooling is of interest to us. We already know more than we need in order to do this. Whether we do it must finally depend on how we feel about the fact that we haven’t so far.”

Recent stories about education also demonstrate courage. Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone rejected the premise that children in poverty cannot succeed in school. Rather than denying the devastating living conditions his students faced, Canada acknowledged those factors and made schooling a community enterprise, linking social-service agencies to schools, supporting families, providing health services, and so on. Canada simply said that schools were failing students, and that doing things in the same ways made no sense.

Michelle A. Rhee, the outgoing schools chancellor in the District of Columbia, took on a powerful teachers’ union, placing the blame for student failure on teacher failure. (We are not supposed to say this out loud.) Rhee was challenged, fought, and blocked at every turn. Though Washington voters recently rejected Rhee’s boss and partner in vision, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, and Rhee subsequently announced her resignation, she did win a key battle: A new teachers’ contract ties teacher job security to student academic growth.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten walks the tightrope of being both a teachers'-union leader and an educational reformer. Davis Guggenheim’s new film, “Waiting For ‘Superman,’ ” which praises charter schools, portrays Weingarten as a villain, contending that she opposes school reform in general and charter schools in particular. Weingarten needs to refute that view through her actions, in much the same way that legendary aft leader Albert Shanker did. That takes courage.

Arne Duncan, as the U.S. secretary of education, has shown how the federal role can drive state policies and practices in new ways. In the Race to the Top initiative, he has dared states to commit to reforms, such as authorizing more charter schools and looking at teacher effectiveness, before they receive special funding. Some states chose not to apply for the funding. What if all states opted out? What if states don’t deliver on their commitments? What if the new funding fails to produce results? Duncan’s actions took courage.

We generally define courage through tales of risk-taking and standing in harm’s way. We make heroes out of those who dared to do what others have not done before. We search for the blood, the wounds, the injuries suffered during a “good fight.” We look up to those who do what we fear doing.

The words and works of high-profile educational reformers and the “everyday” school principals I describe matched what John Kennedy advocated more than a half-century ago. As J.F.K. put it, the characteristic shared by the subjects of his book was, above all, “a deep-seated belief in themselves, their integrity, and the rightness of their cause.” While Kennedy’s profiles were about eight U.S. senators, he ends by declaring: “To be courageous, these stories make clear, requires no exceptional qualifications, no magic formula, no special combination of time, place, and circumstance. It is an opportunity that sooner or later is presented to us all.”

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A version of this article appeared in the November 03, 2010 edition of Education Week as Profiles in Education Courage

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