The Long View for Superintendents

What is important to an urban superintendent?  What keeps him or her up at night?  Years ago, Eduflack remembers getting into a discussion with a former boss on such issues.  At the time, I was told superintendents simply don’t care about college-going rates or what happens after the merriment of commencement commences.  Life after isn’t their concern, this boss lectured me, superintendents simply care about keeping the bodies in their schools and seeing them through the 12 years.  Then the work is done.

At the time, I fought the notion.  It seemed awfully cynical (even for a cynic like me) and lacked the sophistication of school district leaders seeking where they fit along the P-20 continuum.  It meant superintendents were focused on the process, and not on the outcomes or the product of their work.  I refused to believe that.
When my father was president of a public institution of higher education in New England, one of his top concerns was making sure his kids graduated ready for the workforce.  He actually issued a guarantee to the local business community, offering to take back any graduate who was found to lack the soft skills a college graduate with a certain major should have.  It seemed novel at the time, and took many a stakeholder aback.  But it was a bold statement.  It said the local college cared about the product of its work, and measured it success, in part, on what happens long after student had taken their final course or paid their final bill.
After today’s Education Trust conference, Eduflack feels validated.  I can see that many a superintendent shares the view of my father (and not that former boss), and are deeply concerned about the success of their graduates AFTER graduation.  District leaders such as Chicago’s Arne Duncan, San Jose Unified’s Don Iglesias, and Montebello’s Janet Tomcello, along with the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals’ Jim Ballard, all spoke to the need for preparing ALL kids for college and careers.   
It obviously helps that this is also a priority shared by a thick checkbook such as the Gates Foundation.  But it was reassuring to hear these leaders talk about college and career preparation in a meaningful way, recognizing the need for improved rigor and relevance in the classroom, knowing that education is not completed at the end of the 12th grade, and embracing the notion that today’s jobs require a more comprehensive education reflective of the more complex work and life environments we’re all facing.
We ask a great deal of our superintendents.  We want them to get all students proficient as soon as possible.  We ask them to show AYP. We want them to close achievement gaps.  We want problem schools turned around quickly.  And we want 100% high school graduation rates to boot.  Now we expect those diplomas to stand for something, both in terms of college readiness and workforce preparedness.
We’ve all heard the data on college remediation and how more than half of today’s college freshmen (two- and four-year institutions) have to take either remedial English or remedial math.  I’ve done survey after survey and focus group after focus group with business leaders who share the sentiment that today’s high school graduates lack the skill sets to excel in today’s workforce.  Clearly, we are facing a gap here, a gap between our aspirations and our realities.
If leaders like Duncan and Iglesias are serious, maybe it is a time for our major urban districts to offer their own guarantee.  If a Chicago Public Schools graduate lacks the reading or math skills to do college-level learning, CPS will take them back and get them up to speed.  If a recent graduate from San Jose lacks the literacy or problem-solving skills to work in the local factory, San Jose Unified will step in and further equip their grads.  These supes will stand behind their diplomas, and make good on all of them.
Such guarantees may seem gimmicky, but they work.  We see a guarantee, and we assume it is a stronger product.  We believe those who sell it believe in its quality.  Imagine the power of a high school guarantee.  We say the superintendent and his principals all stand behind the value of the education the provided.  Talk about a confidence builder for those looking for college and career preparedness.

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