In Search of 21st Century Joe Clarks

When I’m flipping through the cable stations late at night, unable to sleep because something or another has my mind going a thousand miles an hour, there are a number of movies for which I will always stop and watch.  Braveheart, Thank You For Smoking, the original All the King’s Men, Bull Durham, Tin Cup, Roadhouse, 10 Things I Hate About You, and She’s All That tops among them.

The remote also cools down when I stumble across Lean on Me, which I happened to catch again late last night.  We all know the movie I’m talking about, the 1989 film starred Morgan Freeman and told the story of Joe Clark and his transformation of Eastside High School in Paterson, NJ.  The story has become urban legend by now.  About 30 percent of Eastside’s students were passing the state proficiency exam.  New Jersey had just passed a law stating that any school with less than a 75 percent passage rate faced state takeover.  So in a move of desperation, Paterson turned over its most troubled school to “Crazy” Joe Clark, giving him seven months to more than double the passage rate and avoid state control.
In the biopic, Clark is dogged, even possessed, in enacting his version of school improvement.  Focusing on discipline, accountability, self-respect, and responsibility, he quickly brings a new culture to the school.  That culture brings about a change in attitudes and actions from the students.  (He actually appeared on the cover of Time magazine with a baseball bat, not unlike DCPS Chancellor Michelle Rhee and her broom.)  In the 11th hour, facing possible jail time and certain termination because of personality clashes and violation of the fire codes, the movie Joe Clark reveals that the school surpassed the 75 percent proficiency mark.  Takeover averted.  Possibly the state’s worst public school transformed in a matter of months into a performer.  From dropout factory to postsecondary pipeline.
If only it were that simple.  But why, you may ask, is Eduflack writing about a movie from the late 1980s that has almost been forgotten in recent years?  President Obama and EdSec Duncan’s visit to Wisconsin on Wednesday has really got me thinking.  By now, we’ve all heard the chattering that the visit is being used to advocate for mayoral takeover of urban school districts in crisis, calling for changes at the top of the systemic education pyramid to bring about real change at the foundations.  In recent months, we’ve heard the detailing of successful takeovers in Chicago, New York, and Boston, along with promising takeovers in cities like Washington, DC.  With the success of charter schools in Milwaukee (and to a lesser degree, of vouchers), it only makes sense that the city will be the next test for mayoral takeover.
Yes, we can point to mayors who have been tremendously successful in using their bully pulpit to bring about a new world of thinking in the public schools.  But the story of Joe Clark and Eastside High should make us remember that there is only so much that can be done at the top of the foodchain.  A mayor’s support for a superintendent only goes so far in school transformation.  It ultimately takes the support and efforts of the teachers and the principals to bring about the sort of lasting change sought by Duncan and funded through RttT, i3, and other new programs.  And we are rarely talking about principals and building leaders these days.
So it begs the question, where are the next generation Joe Clarks?  What school districts are empowering their principals to “take no prisoners” and do whatever it takes to fix a broken school, restore order, and deliver improved student achievement?  Where are the breeding grounds for such school leaders, where they develop the instructional leadership, the vision, the executive management, and the passion to take on the schools that need it the most?  How do we embolden incoming cadres of principals, ensuring they see their jobs as more than building managers and more than the middle ground between the superintendent and the teachers?  And how do we give the right people the authority to shake things up and truly toss out what wasn’t working, even when facing strong defenders of the failed status quo?
Year after year, we hear about the modern-day Eastside High Schools, the dropout factories, the persistent contributors to the achievement gap, the schools where too many students are written off before they even arrive for their first day of school.  As we focus on how to move forward with lasting school improvement, it seems we need a whole mess of Joe Clarks to implement a new way of thinking, a new way of teaching, a new way of motivating, and new way of achieving.  Without it, all the fresh paint and duct tape in the free world can’t truly heal the schools that need help the most.

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