This is a job for the brave, the tireless, the politically savvy.
That was the overriding message that emerged when nearly 100 big-city education leaders gathered recently to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Harvard University’s Urban Superintendents Program, sharing the deep challenges of improving some of America’s most troubled schools.
Graduates and current students in the doctoral program also spent the weekend of May 5-6 discussing how urban education leaders should be trained for the difficult jobs in the coming decade.
“We want to get as far away from the traditional role of the superintendency” as possible, said Robert Peterkin, the former Milwaukee superintendent who co-directs the Harvard doctoral program with colleague Linda Wing.
The program is one of the oldest and best-known of a growing number of efforts by colleges and universities to create innovative training programs to better prepare school administrators for the new pressures of accountability and demands to improve.
Many of the participants at the conference talked of the need for administrators to make better use of employees in the district’s central office, to encourage and empower teachers and principals, to involve students in major decisions.
Most of all, they talked about the need for courage, combined with the knowledge and persuasiveness needed to build the complicated link between knowing what can improve urban schools and then making it happen.
“Navigating that environment is the critical piece,” said Carl Cohn, the superintendent of the 92,000-student Long Beach district in Southern California. “If we’re really going to move the system forward,” he added, “many of the things we think are politically correct may not get us there.”
Looking Back and Ahead
The Urban Superintendents Program began as a way to “tear down the walls of Harvard Yard” and open the university’s graduate school of education to more practical training, Mr. Peterkin said.
The program enrolls fewer than 10 people a year, and mixes coursework and theoretical study with on-the-job experience in some of the nation’s largest school districts. Many of those in it are experienced principals or teachers who aspire to the job of superintendent or high-level deputies.
In the future, the program will include even more interaction with public schools and the districts where the program’s graduates and their mentors work. The education school also will focus more on research, Mr. Peterkin said.
“We’ve been talking about how to have a greater impact on more than six to eight superintendents a year” who are actually enrolled in the graduate school, he said.
A major hurdle for many urban superintendents is learning to present ideas to school boards, voters, district administrators, and the media that will not only help schools improve but that can also survive the political process, Mr. Peterkin said.
As an example of the complex and often troublesome path urban schools chiefs face in trying to drive change, he cited the example of Arlene Ackerman, the superintendent of the District of Columbia schools, who is working on her doctorate from the Harvard program.
In the nation’s capital, the District of Columbia Council, the school board, a congressionally created financial-control board, and Congress itself have roles in school decisions. Those barriers limit a superintendent’s ability to make improvements, Mr. Peterkin said.
Ms. Ackerman “is as fine a leader as I’ve ever seen: bright, strategic, cares deeply,” he said. “Her exercise of leadership is strained by the noise.”
Last week, Ms. Ackerman warned city officials that the confusing governance structure was limiting her ability to do her job and acknowledged that she was a candidate for the top schools job in San Francisco.
Those who are a part of the Harvard program spent much of the two days in small groups discussing the challenges they face every day—particularly, how to carry good ideas forward so that colleagues, teachers, and the public will join the fight rather than start another.
Susan Moore Johnson, a Harvard education professor, told participants that district offices must be used more effectively. “The whole question about why the central office should exist is one I think everybody has to face,” she said. Many appropriate duties can be carried out by such offices, she added.
Claudia Bach, the superintendent of the 5,600-student Andover, Mass., schools, noted that she had learned from the program that the challenges of urban superintendents are similar to those of their colleagues in rural districts.
A former admissions counselor at a private school, Ms. Bach had contemplated leaving education before earning her doctorate. She interned under Rudolph F. Crew when he was the superintendent in Sacramento, Calif. After leaving the Harvard program, she became the superintendent of the 2,000-student Milton-Freewater district in eastern Oregon.
In both urban and rural districts, Ms. Bach said, superintendents often feel isolated in their jobs, have extremely limited resources, and may have school boards and staffs reluctant to change. “True reform-minded superintendents get lost,” Ms. Bach said.
Mouths of Babes
Twelve students from the Teen Empowerment leadership program in the nearby Boston public schools led discussions for an entire day of the Harvard conference, teaching superintendents and other school leaders about what young people expect—and sometimes encounter—in urban schools struggling to improve.
The students said many times that they wished classrooms were more like their leadership program, which uses games and other activities to spur discussions and help people get to know one another.
“I want to have input on what’s being taught and the structure of the class,” said Demetrius Jackson, who lives in the city’s South End/Roxbury community and is bused as a senior to suburban Lynnfield High School.
Tyshawn Brown, a sophomore at the English High School in Boston, said his hopes for one-on-one help in algebra this year faded when he was assigned to a class of more than 50 students last fall. He said the class size was later reduced to about 30, but was still too large for students needing extra help.
“When I’m in those big classrooms, I can’t produce,” Mr. Brown told a small discussion group at the conference. “I don’t want to be a big kid in a little classroom.”
Structure That Serves
Mr. Crew, who resigned in January as the chancellor of the New York City schools, said helping students in practical ways—and making that philosophy an everyday part of school life—is a challenge that requires school leaders to do something they sometimes don’t do well: reflect on their successes and failures.
“In leaving New York, one of the things I haven’t had the opportunity to do is reflect on what the hell happened there,” Mr. Crew said, referring to his sometimes-rocky tenure in the nation’s biggest school district.
“You have to have the courage to say what isn’t good and what you know isn’t good,” he said.
Mr. Crew has begun forming the Institute for K-12 Leadership at the University of Washington in Seattle, a training academy for superintendents, principals, and teachers that is scheduled to open in the fall.
Richard F. Elmore, a professor in Harvard’s education school, urged superintendents to fix the problems in their systems that limit student potential. “The American high school,” he said, “is—along with the penitentiary—one of the most dehumanizing institutions in Western civilization.”
On the shoulders of leaders like those at the conference, he said, rests the responsibility for doing something about that situation. “You have demonstrated that we have the skills and knowledge to address this problem now,” he said. “Not next year after planning around it. Now.”
Carrying It Home
The messages of professors and those within their own group at Harvard blended with the words of the Boston students.
“You guys want to change. That gives me a lot of hope for the future,” 10th grader Hilani Morales of English High told them.
After hearing such words, participants here said, they left the Harvard conference with the importance of their mission fresh in their minds.
“The incompetent, uncommitted, dispassionate, and uncourageous must not be allowed to be a part of this enterprise,” said E. Wayne Harris, the superintendent of the 14,000-student Roanoke, Va., schools.
“I’m leaving with the reflection about how do I become a more courageous leader. They are all daunting tasks,” said Amalia Cudeiro-Nelson, a graduate of the Harvard program and a deputy superintendent in the 63,000-student Boston system. “I’m definitely going back with more knowledge and a lot more support.”
A version of this article appeared in the May 17, 2000 edition of Education Week as Superintendents’ Program Celebrates 10th Anniversary