Lasting effects of short tenures


Opportunity: Bonnie Copeland should join the ranks of interim heads of city schools who really made a difference.

April 16, 2003|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

IF BONNIE Copeland wants to make an indelible mark on the city school system, the newly appointed interim chief executive officer should announce that she won't be a candidate for the "permanent" position under any circumstances.

Then she should set about the business of reform. Relieved of having to prove herself worthy of permanency, she could step on toes, sweep out some deadwood and say what she thinks. These are the advantages of the truly independent interim.

I offer as Exhibits A, B and C the three interim city superintendents of the modern era. All did a splendid job in a brief time. A little history:

Sterling S. Keyes, Baltimore's first black superintendent, served only six months in 1971, but he performed with imagination, professional competence and quiet good humor.

Keyes said when he took the job that he wouldn't be a candidate for permanent superintendent, but he did so well that a group of school board members attempted a coup: They tried to install him as superintendent without going through the traditional search procedure.

Soon after that aborted attempt, Keyes was running a school system on Long Island.

J. Edward Andrews Jr. wasn't formally titled interim chief in 1991, but he ran the system in the waning months of the term of Richard C. Hunter. Andrews, a former superintendent in Montgomery County, knew how to pull the levers of power. No one before him - or since - has conducted a personal interview with each principal and had the guts to get rid of the weakest administrators.

Robert Schiller presided as acting chief during the transition in 1997 to the new city-state partnership. Like Andrews, Schiller made decisions and stuck by them. He eliminated much of a $27 million debt and helped write the first five-year strategic plan for the new system. He also installed a phonics-based reading program over the objection of clueless underlings at North Avenue.

By law, Schiller couldn't seek the permanent job, but he tried anyway, maneuvering in Annapolis to have the law changed in his behalf. It didn't work. You could argue that Schiller was a victim of his own ego, but that ego is what made him an effective leader. Not to worry about his future: The former Michigan state superintendent was appointed state superintendent in Illinois last summer.

There is, of course, another way of looking at it: that interims, as temporary holders of high positions, are inhibited from developing long-range policies or initiatives.

But that's not the way it's working out across the country in cities such as Portland, Ore., and Pittsburgh, where more and more temporary system heads are being appointed. Moreover, the word "permanent" has little meaning in today's urban education. Baltimore's permanent superintendents and chief officers in modern times have served an average of 3 1/2 years - hardly more than temporary. The city is searching for its third permanent chief in five years.

If Copeland is as good in the top office at North Avenue as she looks on paper, they could leave her in there as permanently temporary - and let 'er rip.

A lesson for Ehrlich on teacher unions, boards

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. pushed so few of his major initiatives through the General Assembly that he may have to sign an extremely weak charter schools bill to save face.

The bill that arrived on his desk after 11th-hour negotiations hardly resembles the legislation Ehrlich had sought originally.

Gone are the multiple agencies, including colleges and universities, that could authorize charters. Gone, too, are provisions that would have exempted charters from onerous state and local regulations. Under this bill, if charter schools are approved at all, they'll look very much like garden variety public schools.

The lesson for the governor: Teacher unions and school boards still have a tight grip on Maryland lawmakers.

U.S. pupils' reading skills rank ninth in global study

Fourth-graders in the United States demonstrate above-average reading skills in an international comparison. But they're far from the best readers in the world, and achievement gaps persist among racial, ethnic and economic groups, according to a recent study.

U.S. students scored an average of 542 on a 1,000-point scale, placing them ninth among 35 countries. But statistically, only students in Sweden, the Netherlands and England scored significantly higher than Americans.

Among countries with scores significantly lower than the United States were Singapore, Israel, France, Greece and Iran. The test is called the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, or PIRLS.

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