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Leading Urban Districts

Robert PeterkinSeventeen years ago, the Urban Superintendents Program (USP) was created at HGSE, in part, as a reinvestment in school leadership preparation and practice. Today this rigorous course of study, designed for professionals who have worked innovatively and effectively in metropolitan school districts, offers a unique and thorough program that prepares these educators for the next stages of their careers and builds a nationwide network of urban superintendents.

Professor Robert Peterkin, director of the program and a former superintendent of Milwaukee and Cambridge schools, stresses the importance of teaching and learning as the underlying goal for all USP students.

"Making good teaching happen for every child, every day, in every classroom, is the single most important means by which public schools can deliver on their promise to enable all children to learn and achieve at high levels," Peterkin says. His research focuses on the restructuring of urban public schools for educational equity and higher student achievement. Here he discusses the USP today.

What is the most pressing issue in public schools today?

The issue is whether or not public schools, as currently constituted, are going to be able to educate all students at a preparatory level for college. Public education has not been designed to handle all students at high levels to be prepared for college.

Until the 70s, we had "tracks" that were clear at the high school level. For instance, students could take general, business, secretarial, or college studies. However, that has faded and turned into general and college tracks. In the past 20 years, the issue with the waves of school reform have been basic skills, graduation stands, performance and the accountability movement. The main issue for all schools, but especially urban schools, is whether or not these large institutions are going to be capable of changing themselves rapidly enough, and fundamentally enough, to fill the job of preparing all students for college.

What are the challenges facing urban superintendents today?

In my colleague Professor Susan Moore Johnson's wonderful book, Leading to Change, there are 12 superintendent case studies. She examines leadership as having three strands: educational, managerial, and political. The challenge for the urban superintendent is knowing enough about the managerial and political arenas and having the skills to improve the instructional program over time. My students use these leadership dimensions to develop theory of action for their schools or school districts.

We stress that our students are honed to the highest level in all three of those frames so that they have the time, the vision, and the strategic skills to implement their plan in a highly volatile political situation where the standards are as much political as they are instructional. For example, Arlene Ackerman [Ed.M.'93, Ed.D.'01], USP graduate and the former superintendent of San Francisco Public Schools, was faced with underachieving schools and a deficit. She realized she had to take care of the deficit before she could spend money on innovations. She had to have the managerial and political skills to say, "I'm calling in the Federal Bureau of Investigation. I'm getting an audit. I'm going to meet with the mayor. At the same time, my people are going to work on the design for these 'dream' schools." The combination of that leadership allows someone like Arlene to [hold] her position for six years. You make changes over time.

How does USP prepare students for the important role politics play in superintendency?

The cornerstone to our program is improving instruction. It's what sets us apart from all the other leadership programs in the United States. But if superintendents don't know enough about the political situation, they're going to fail. Mayors want to run the schools in just about all the large cities in America. If you don't know how to deal with that, then you're going to lose. It's going to be a power play. It's going to be all about everything except instruction.

The USP internship provides students an opportunity to put everything they learn to use. For instance, a USP student takes a politics and policy course from [Professor] Richard Elmore, one in teacher unions from Johnson, and they take school financing from [Senior Lecturer] James Honan and learn about budgeting, and an instructional improvement course from [Lecturer] Kitty Boles. Finally, my proseminar course helps to bring everything together. The final step is spending six months in a city as an intern with the superintendent and completing projects that use the skills they develop. The internship and the quality of our faculty is what sets this program apart from all the rest of the programs in the United States.

Who is the typical USP student?

One similarity that USP students share that's no longer a requirement in some of the other leadership programs — or in any of the programs that have been developed outside of colleges — is that they have all taught in urban public schools. I want them to have demonstrated leadership as teachers or school leaders. I'm not as concerned about them having administrative backgrounds. I'm more concerned about demonstration of leadership and an unflinching commitment to children. For instance, before Arlene Ackerman came here to be a student, she was fired. She was fired for fighting with her district to try to figure out how to get an adequate education for African American boys. She was the perfect candidate to me. USP students are risk takers. They demonstrate a keen sense of commitment to students and changes in the educational process. They're willing to go through this program. They take two years of coursework in a year, then move to an internship. USP students from the start have had what you call a "fire in the belly." They all have this fire that can't be extinguished to deal with the problems of urban education.

Do the myths and media's negative attention on urban schools/education affect the superintendents?

No, we don't worry about that. We believe there are ways to change the conditions. We know more than we ever have about how to do that. We call on our students to develop a 'theory of action' about how they're going to make those changes. People will tell you that urban schools are failures. My students don't believe it and won't accept it. They keep working on a theory, taking into account, but not accepting as excuse, the conditions in which the students and the schools come to you. We spend a lot of time talking about the fact that these myths exist, but we don't spend a lot of time trying to defend schools against them. We are results oriented. When the conditions of the schools change, then people's perceptions will change.

We also spend a lot of time on how to deal with the media. A consultant coaches students on how to speak, present, condense arguments, and create arguments. We spend a lot of time talking about telling the truth and how you tell the truth. You don't defend a myth if, in fact, it's a reality.

How can superintendents stay in touch with what's happening in the classroom?

Superintendents must do what's important to them. I visit a lot of school systems and there are superintendents who go to schools on purposeful walk-throughs. In other words, going in and looking at instruction two or three times a week. There are others who don't go in schools for weeks on end. USP thinks it's important that leaders be in classrooms. If you visit our superintendent graduates, all of them will be in classrooms to some extent, but probably not as much as they originally intended.

When I was a superintendent, Tuesday mornings were my school visit days. I didn't go to the office. You couldn't find me because there were no cell phones. So I would get my two or three hours to go to a couple of schools that my predecessor had not visited in 13 years.

Sometimes there are a lot of things going on that prevent a superintendent from being able to do everything. It's important to have somebody like a chief academic officer, who can take care of instructional business and keep you aware of what needs to happen. But, it's also crucial that you let someone take things off your plate. Leadership includes teamwork.

How is USP impacting education?

USP impacts education by preparing candidates for leadership who are instructionally focused, increasing the number of women and people of color in senior educational leadership, and sharing the lessons learned over almost two decades with other groups and institutions that wish to tackle large scale issues in urban school districts.


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