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Accountability Opinion

Two Types of Superintendent

By Diane Ravitch — February 09, 2010 4 min read
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Dear Deborah,

As I watch events across the nation, I have concluded that district leadership today falls into one of two varieties.

On one hand is the traditional superintendent, who believes that he is responsible for the schools and students in his care. He visits the schools often and consults frequently with mid-level superintendents to make sure that the schools get the resources they need. When a school is in trouble, he sends in a team of experienced educators to assess its needs and devise a plan to help the staff. If the school continues to struggle, he works harder to try to solve the problems. He may decide to remove the principal and shake up the staff. He is relentless in trying to get the school to function well. This superintendent believes that he will be judged by his efforts to help the neediest of the students and schools.

On the other hand is the new breed of reform superintendent. Whether he (or she) was a business executive, an education entrepreneur, or a lawyer, he is steeped in a business mindset. He wants results. He surrounds himself with business school graduates, lawyers, marketing consultants, and public relations staff. He focuses on management, organization, budgeting, and data-driven decision-making. He shows little or no interest in curriculum and instruction, about which he knows very little. He is certain that the way to reform the schools is to “incent” the workforce. He believes that accountability, with rewards and sanctions, makes the world go round. He plans to “drive” change through the system by being a tough manager, awarding merit pay to teachers and principals, closing struggling schools, and opening new schools and charter schools, all the while using data as his guide. He believes that the schools he oversees are like a stock portfolio; it is his job not to fix them but to pick winners and losers. The winners get extra money, and the losers are thrown out of the portfolio. When addressing the business community, he speaks proudly of his plan to give maximum autonomy to school principals, thus absolving himself of any responsibility for the performance of the schools, and then sits back to manage his portfolio. If a school fails, he is fast to close it. The failure is not his fault, but the fault of the principal and the teachers.

You can see why the reform superintendent would love the Race to the Top. It incorporates all the principles that he loves. Charter schools, accountability, merit pay, school closings, data-driven decision-making. It is the same mindset, the same belief in rewards and sanctions that we have seen in NCLB, taken to a higher level with a pot of gold containing almost $5 billion at the end of the rainbow. (I read a blog a few days ago, forget which one, that refers to RTTT as “dash to the cash.”)

Now, the problem with the reform superintendent is that he usually knows very little about schooling and education. He focuses on organization and strategic planning and so on, but is in the dark about what happens in the classroom. This is why he relies so much on data. Numbers don’t lie, do they?

Well, yes, they do. A major front-page story in The New York Times on February 6 described a major study conducted by criminologists who found that the numbers do lie. More than 100 retired, high-ranking police officers in New York City told them that intense pressure to produce improved crime statistics had led to manipulation of the data. For the past 15 years or so, the city boasted that its data system, known as CompStat, had brought about a major reduction in crime. But the survey said that the data system had encouraged supervisors and precinct commanders to relabel crimes to less serious offenses. The data mattered more than truth. Some, for example, would scout eBay and other Web sites to find values for stolen items that would reduce the complaint from a grand larceny (over $1,000 in value) to a misdemeanor. There were reports of officers who persuaded crime victims not to file a complaint or to change their accounts so that a crime’s seriousness could be downgraded.

This is not only a major scandal, it is a validation once again of Campbell’s Law, which holds that: “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decisionmaking, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”

Anyone who wants to learn more about Campbell’s law and how it applies to education should read Richard Rothstein’s Grading Education and Daniel Koretz’s Measuring Up. Or Google Rothstein’s “Holding Accountability to Account,” if you want to see what happens when data becomes our most important goal.

For just as the police officers felt compelled to game the system to meet the demands of CompStat, so educators are now gaming the system to meet the demands of NCLB. Some states have dumbed down their tests; some have rigged the scores to produce greater numbers of “proficient” students. Some districts have narrowed their curriculum and have replaced instruction with intensive test-prep. Some schools of choice exclude low-performing students. All in the service of making the numbers, making AYP, looking good rather than doing well.

Anyone who thinks that these methods will produce first-class education for our nation’s children is either a fool or is fooling himself.


The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.