School Bureaucracy: A Comparison of Superintendent Styles

I recommend to you an article in the recent June Atlantic magazine written by Joel Klein, former Chancellor of the New York City Public Schools, about his efforts to reform the school system (“Scenes From the Class Struggle”). Mr. Klein ably catalogs the ills of the system as he found it. However, it seems to me the article is also about Mr. Klein himself, in ways both subtle and overt. His prosecutorial style and history, to me clearly leitmotifs of his article, I think have affected his grasp of some critical issues in the schoolhouse, as well as illuminates, without his meaning to, useful clues to the ways in which he fell short in his reform goals, despite obvious passion and commitment.

One can admire the energy of the man, and his intelligence, and still recognize that his need to impel others to do what he says, and recognize his veracity, is in fact also an Achilles heel. Orders without input and overt challenges that put teacher backs against the wall inevitably reinforce resistance, are taken as disrespect, and elicit fear, which is what I suspect  happened; Mr. Klein’s prosecutorial style reinforced the dysfunctional dynamics of the New York school hierarchy he wished to reform.

Hierarchies are used to orders from on high, but are also like hardened bomb shelters — the greater the threat the more hardened the protection. Thus, with the unsubtle ways in which he attempted to move the district from the top, in effect he nurtured his own opposition. He reinforced the classic formulation in which teachers are widgets rather than the professionals that we increasingly recognize we must empower. “Dang!” He must have often said to himself, “if only they would just listen to me!”

While he (probably correctly) laments the protections for teachers that have led to chronic abuses of their negotiated power, and uses such stories as an item in his prosecution of teacher union intransience, I hear an additional note. I am reminded of subsistence farmers in the Amazon, whom agricultural experts try to get to shift from “slash and burn” practices and adopt techniques less destructive of rain forest habitat. If one is operating close to a margin of survival, it takes great trust in the agricultural agent to make the leap of faith and trust the new technology. So with teachers, many of whom will understand that change is needed, but are equally skeptical that they should trust in a Mr. Klein whose combativeness they fear will not replace what they have with something better for themselves. Klein argues that it is about the kids, not the teachers, but here he lends a deaf ear to the real needs and fears of the teachers as well.

Down south in Montgomery County, Maryland appears to be a different story.

As it happened I also about the same time read of a counterpoint figure to Klein in the September/October 2011 issue of the Harvard Education Letter (“Leading a System Where Everyone Gains”, by David McKay Wilson.) Jerry Weast is the retiring superintendent of the Montgomery County (Md.) Schools, by many measures a successful leader of a county wide school district that serves a population of one million residents. While no doubt there are differences of significance with New York, it is still a large district with a student population that is 67% kids of color, with a substantial low income sector. Weast’s style is much more collaborative and “win-win” than Klein’s confrontational approach. Arguably, the former has gained the better traction.

While Klein’s efforts seem to have lead to some improvements, Weast’s tenure has produced more dramatic results. According to the Education Letter, his district’s graduation rate, 86%, was the highest among the nation’s 50 largest school districts for the third year in a row, the district boasts an average SAT score 150 points higher than the state average, and offers fully thirty-six different Advanced Placement classes, this in a population where 48,000 kids are from families below the poverty line. Interesting. How were such apparently impressive results accomplished?

For one example, Weast recognized that he inherited a dual school system, one for white and affluent students, and another for low income and primarily students of color. Here he demonstrated himself to be a more astute politician than Joel Klein. Rather than rush headlong into the teeth of resistance, he managed to reassure the affluent souls that they would not lose in the changes he intended to make. In the process he engaged the better nature of the affluent and elicited their support in upgrading the schooling quality of the economically challenged.

While Joel Klein points the finger at the political coalitions that stymied some of his sought after reforms, Weast seems to have understood the legitimate concerns of those who might have resisted his efforts, enlisted their support, and ultimately their trust. He would have been one heck of an agricultural outreach worker.

Weast has been equally if not more so successful in his dealings with teachers and their union. As a member of a teachers’ union that has its share of distrust of district superintendents, my jaw drops as I read his response to a Harvard Graduation Letter question:

“We’ve found that if you don’t play the ABC game – accuse, blame and criticize – you can unleash tremendous power and potential in your employees. Our teachers built not only a good system but……a good culture that worked for them and our students.”

Mr. Klein, good prosecutor that he is, clearly blames teachers and their union for his uphill battle in New York City. It is difficult to imagine him arriving at such a statement and such a gracious sharing of the glory as does Weast with his teachers.

In fact, Mr. Weast seems to have engaged teachers as partners in his efforts to change the schools. Here he goes again:

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