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“Fixing Urban Schools: Sprinters or Marathoners?”

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Education author Larry Cuban, whose work I respect, recently began a blog. His newest post, I thought, was particularly insightful — Fixing Urban Schools: Sprinters or Marathoners?

He identifies the lack of success among “sprinter” superintendents who have “run out of gas” quickly, and contrasts them with what he identifies as the successes of those whom he calls “marathoners.”

His analysis makes perfect sense to me, and the metaphor, I think, can apply to many other areas of life.

I’m very familiar with the ones he says are “sprinters” (and agree with the critique 100% on them) but, unfortunately, know next to nothing about these “marathoners:”

Atlanta’s Beverly Hall, Boston’s Tom Payzant, and Austin’s Pat Forgione, each served a decade or more patiently building academic standards, creating strong principal cadres, strengthening teachers’ knowledge and skills, and developing portfolios of school choices for students to grow intellectually.

For those of you who know of them, do you think Larry Cuban is right?

Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.

One Comment

  1. Larry,

    In my 6 1/2 years in the School District of Philadelphia, there have been 2 superintendents. In Philadelphia’s situation, these superintendents do not ‘run out of gas,’ but rather serve their purpose and move on.

    First, we had Paul Vallas, who came from Chicago and was to be our ‘savior,’ our ‘fix-it man.’ He did neither and then abruptly left to go save the Louisiana schools after Hurricane Katrina.

    This past year, our School Reform Commission, who runs the district (we were taken over by the state in 2001 and have no school board) hired–the very expensive–Arlene Ackerman who some would say was driven out of San Francisco. She, too, was hired as a ‘fix-it woman.’

    When Ackerman came in, she immediately made everyone reapply for their jobs, eliminated jobs and let people go to bring in her own people. She made sweeping changes in August and September, some which ended up having detrimental effects for my school. I don’t believe she’ll be here for long.

    Rather than run out of gas, these people are seen as fixes for broken urban districts. “They’ll come in, make the appropriate changes and we’ll be the better for it,” must be the reasoning.

    However, these people she hired have no idea what Philly schools are all about. Often, people leading training sessions know very little about the programs, interventions and enrichments we have here in Philly. They have no ties with the staff, no ties with the city, and they come in as an outsider trying to push initiatives on teachers and administrators. How this fixes anything, I don’t know.

    This phenomenon is the fault of the superintendent, but also the fault of those who hire someone thinking that one person can fix anything. Why we don’t hire someone FROM PHILADELPHIA who has taught in the schools, knows the teachers, knows the staff, is a mystery to me. Why these people come and get rid of valuable people who can help them understand what they have walked into is also a mystery.

    I wish I knew more about those ‘marathoners,’ but in large, urban districts, these are few and far between. I hope that people stop by and comment about some they’ve come across! Thanks for sharing the Cuban post.

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