The superintendent, the schools and the bureaucrats

December 23, 1990|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Will Englund covers education for The Sun.

"Frankly," said the anguished mother over the telephone, "we don't know what to do. It seems like no one at North Avenue wants to listen."

Call it the parents' lament. Every year the calls pour in, to City Council members, to the mayor's office, to state legislators, to newspapers and radio and television stations. The circumstances vary, but the theme is always the same. This particular mother called The Sun when her daughter was placed in an overcrowded pre-kindergarten class. The teacher said she couldn't do anything about it. The principal said she wouldn't do anything about it. And at the Baltimore school system's headquarters on North Avenue, well, it seemed that no one wanted to listen.

Add this mother to the long list of people who have come to believe that the Baltimore school system is unresponsive, unaccountable and staffed by too many educators who don't care.

Mastering and changing that system and those attitudes will be the largest tasks facing the city's new superintendent -- whoever is chosen to replace Richard C. Hunter, who learned in the frankest possible way last week that Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke doesn't want him around anymore.

Some people wonder whether anyone can successfully handle the job. The system is so big, and has so many problems, problems that seem so deep and so abiding. Moreover, cities all across the country are firing superintendents out of frustration, suggesting there's some national ill wind blowing. Not to mention, of course, creating competition: Baltimore now must pluck a candidate who hasn't been plucked by such school systems as Austin, Texas; Boston; Columbus, Ohio; Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C.; Charleston, S.C.; Detroit; Indianapolis; Hartford; Houston; Kansas City, Mo.; Memphis; Milwaukee; Savannah, Ga.; St. Louis; Toledo, Ohio; Tucson, Ariz.; Virginia Beach, Va.; and Washington, all of which are already searching for new school chiefs.

Yet cities have had problems for a long time. What has changed are the hopes that the public and the politicians bring to the schools. Times are different, and people expect different things. In city after city, it is the failure of the systems to respond that has done in the superintendents.

Bureaucracy: If there's such a thing as a global trend, it's a disenchantment with bureaucracy. It's because of bureaucracy that Baltimoreans so often voice the parents' lament. Teachers believe they have neither the power nor the incentive to improve the lot of their students because of the bureaucracy above them. The bureaucrats can't be bothered about the problems of individual kids because they're too busy worrying about all 108,000 kids at the same time.

When Richard C. Hunter came to Baltimore in 1988, he made it clear that he intended to take control of the bureaucracy. And that, as much as anything, may have led to his fall. He believed he could successfully run a system through the layers of bureaus, divisions and offices that are stacked four stories high at North Avenue.

And as difficult as that was, he was dealing with an ingrown, watch-my-back-and-I'll-watch-yours system. One of the five consultants he brought to Baltimore described North Avenue as "a sick place."

One principal recently described North Avenue's ailments in even blunter terms: The place is populated by comfortable middle-class people whose only concern is personal advancement and making sure there are respectable schools for their children and their friends' children. That means that out of Baltimore's 177 schools, the principal said, there are about half a dozen, or maybe eight, that are allowed to prosper and that middle-class parents -- black or white -- would even conceive of sending their children to. The rest, full of children from the poorest neighborhoods of the city, are simply ignored. This principal, by the way, was not indulging in sour grapes, but is the head of one of those few acceptable schools.

Mayor Schmoke has hoped to do an end-run around the bureaucracy by decentralizing authority and putting the spotlight on principals. He is not a maverick on this point. Chicago, for instance, has set up a separate council to run each school (although the plan is tied up in the courts at the moment).

And the Maryland Department of Education is moving determinedly toward a system of measuring individual schools and holding the schools -- not the school districts -- accountable for the results.

That's a reality that won't go away. The new superintendent will have to operate within it -- but if that superintendent is comfortable dealing with schools and not with bureaucrats, it could even make the job more manageable than it has been. A superintendent who can work without the bureaucracy may be more successful than yet another professional bureaucrat determined to bend the bureaucracy to his will.

The mayor suggested last week the possibility of hiring a non-educator as superintendent. At first blush, it's hard to see how such a person could gain the respect of the administrative staff -- but if the mayor gets his way that staff will be much less influential. And, as one former board member pointed out last week, no one questions having Richard Cheney -- a non-soldier -- as secretary of defense. Even educators applauded when Lauro F. Cavazos, a former college teacher and president, was replaced as secretary of education by Lamar Alexander, a professional politician. If it can happen in Washington, he asks, why not here?

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