Who will lead America's ailing city schools out of the wilderness, and into the promised land?
Across the urban landscape, that’s the question on everyone’s lips. From Atlanta and Philadelphia to Kansas City and Seattle, over a dozen major cities are searching for a new school superintendent to solve their perennial woes: poor attendance, chronic violence, and low academic achievement.
But the quest for a savior is a fool’s errand, born of desperation rather than hope. Although leadership is obviously important, no single individual can redeem our failed big-city schools. By pretending otherwise, we set our educational leaders up for failure as well. Then the cycle starts again, as we search for the next prophet whom we can anoint and – eventually – destroy.
That’s why the average length of service for an urban superintendent in the United States is just 3.6 years. If you include all of the country’s 15,000 school districts, the average superintendent serves about seven years. But the bigger the district, the shorter the term.
It wasn’t always that way. In the first half of the 20th century, especially, urban schools had much more continuous leadership. In New York, for example, a single chancellor – William Maxwell – served from 1898 (when the city’s five boroughs merged into one school district) until 1918. Five more men would occupy the position until 1958, averaging a term of eight years each.
In the ensuing 40 years, by contrast, 17 people would serve as chancellor in New York. But the city was a beacon of stability compared to Kansas City, which had 39 – that’s right, 39 – school superintendents in the 49 years between 1959 and 2008. St. Louis went through seven different superintendents in just a five-year period, from 2003 through 2008.
So what happened? The answer might surprise you: civil rights. After World War II, millions of Americans demanded equality across race, class, and ethnicity. That created an entirely new task for school leaders, who had long shunted minorities into substandard schools or dead-end vocational programs.
Previously, the educators invoked the science of intelligence, which allegedly demonstrated that some groups – especially racial minorities – simply couldn’t hack it academically. “All children are not born with the same endowments or possibilities; they cannot be made equal in gifts or development,” the school superintendent in Newark, N.J. wrote in 1920, in a typical statement. “The ultimate barriers are set by a power inexorable.”
In the end, of course, the educators themselves held the power – to classify, rank, and determine the futures of millions of American children. And they gave minorities the short end of the stick, especially in tough economic times. During the Great Depression, for example, three-quarters of black elementary school students in Chicago attended school in two or three shifts (some students attended morning sessions, while others attended afternoon sessions). Only one white school in the entire city had such a schedule.
The civil rights movement changed all of that. Across the country – not just its Southern tier – African-Americans charged into urban schools to seek equal facilities and services for their children. They also organized to win seats on school boards and city councils, giving them a new voice in educational decisions.
As blacks rose to political power in American cities, however, whites left. Tax receipts tumbled, while crime and blight multiplied. Schools had to do more with less, struggling to achieve equality on the cheap. The great triumph of the civil rights movement was its enshrinement of racial justice as a basic American value. And the great tragedy was our failure to make good on it in our schools.
Who took the blame? Superintendents, of course. And many of them were racial minorities themselves. Although only 6 percent of American school superintendents in 2006 were minorities, over half the country’s 66 largest cities had minority superintendents. It’s a lot easier to fire a superintendent than it is to fix the problem.
To be sure, America has had its fair share of inept or corrupt urban school leaders. In Atlanta, for example, superintendent Beverly Hall recently resigned amid a cheating scandal involving 178 educators and 44 schools. In Seattle, meanwhile, the school board fired superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson after an audit showed that the district spent nearly $300,000 on services it did not receive.
No matter who replaces these leaders, however, they won’t stand a chance unless the taxpayers, teachers, parents, and community members – even corporations – pitch in to help. True, President Obama’s job speech last week called for federal assistance to keep 280,000 teachers at work. But that’s just a drop in the bucket, and it won’t bail out big-city schools. Despite Mr. Obama’s earlier stimulus package, which included federal aid to state budgets, over two-thirds of American states have made cuts to education since 2008. Arizona, for example, eliminated preschool for over 4,000 children; New Jersey stopped funding for afterschool programs serving over 11,000 students.
Inevitably, these cuts will fall hardest on precisely the kids who need the most help: our inner-city children. Even before they get to school, many of them have weaker academic skills and worse health than their more well-to-do peers. Then we put them in schools with mediocre facilities, large class sizes, and less experienced teachers. And we wonder why they fail.
Then we go looking for heroic leaders who can turn everything around. When they fail, too, we cast them aside and search for others. But the issues that plague urban education are broad and interrelated – and our responsibility to address them is shared. Instead of looking for a savior to fix our schools, we might start by looking in the mirror.
Jonathan Zimmerman is a professor of history and education at New York University. He is the author of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory.”