Two weeks ago while I was browsing the Education section of Barnes and Noble looking for activity books with my 5 and 7 year old daughters, I stumbled across a very new book by Larry Cuban called, “As Good As It Gets: What School Reform Brought to Austin.” There was a single copy sitting randomly amongst a hodge podge of math facts, abc’s 123s, make a rocket out of a 2-liter bottle books for kids.
I pounced on it then spent the next few days harmonizing with the content as my head bobbed and highlighter sprang to action in agreement and familiarity of the observations Cuban presents. I am very familiar with large, urban school districts in Texas as I’ve spent much time over the past decades visiting with them and working on districtwide systems for Special Education.
Over the next few weeks, because there is so much great content in this book, I’m going to make several posts that highlight different quotes from Cuban’s writing and my own related commentary. To start, here is a gem of a quote from Chapter 2, page 82, of Larry Cuban’s “As Good As It Gets: What School Reform Brought to Austin”:
Readers need no reminder that urban school systems like AISD [Austin Independent School District] are large bureaucratic organizations whose leaders, through coercion, incentives, and persuasion, try to steer hundreds of administrators and thousands of teachers toward improved practices aimed at achieving district goals. Yet as independent and powerful as these boards and superintendents seem to groups in the community, they are totally dependent upon the political and financial support of parents, community leaders, and state officials. When organized groups of citizens demand changes in policy, school boards and superintendents often respond… Or when the state alters its funding formulas to give low-wealth districts more money, wealthier districts suffer from leaner budgets and reduced programs (as when AISD cut art and music teachers in 2003).
Moreover, economic recessions, demographic changes, and unexpected events (the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001; hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005) can shatter the shell of control and rational action that district leaders project to the community… District leaders, then, while appearing as rational actors in charge of organizations governed by rules and bureaucrats, often act in political and nonrational ways.
I highlight this quote because I have encountered how disrupting uncontrollable events can be on a school district and how great leaders can get derailed from their worthwhile agendas. During the decade of reform in AISD that this book studies, I personally witnessed the struggles of large, urban school districts in Texas. In a single 10 year period, these school districts faced the abnormally complex issues that have come with such disruptions as the ‘dot com’ bubble burst, 9-11, two hurricanes that displaced thousands of students into the urban school districts in Texas, Texas school finance reform and the court rulings on the ‘Robinhood’ laws, a huge increase in English-language learners, the complete restructuring and deployment of accountability systems due to state legislation and No Child Left Behind, and, most recently, an economic downturn affecting school budgets in virtually every corner of the nation. These are all extreme forces that affected, and still affect, political and functional stability within these school districts. I am sure I am overlooking other events of equal effect.
In a few words, I don’t envy the leaders of our large, urban school districts and Cuban’s writings may explain to us all why their jobs are so difficult. I will continue to highlight excerpts to learn from and I hope my posts encourage someone to read the book.
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