Superintendents' and Principals' Forum:Discussion

Thomas Persing and Charles Serns each led the Editorial Board in discussing the issues they had raised. We bring you only a few highlights from what was often a free­wheeling and hard­hitting discussion:

PERSING: The superintendent must acknowledge the importance of collaboration. Quite frankly, many of my colleagues have no idea beyond what happens on a day­today basis within their own little fiefdom, one of the eighteen or fifteen thousand or so school districts in the United States. You must remember that we have outlived, in my judgment at least, the importance of local control. In order for a superintendent to get beyond the confines of a school district and start to think or acknowledge or wonder whether there is a life beyond that, they've got to have a board of school directors that in turn will encourage and maintain and sustain that. The superintendent must try to get them to recognize that it's a source of academic and intellectual growth. The guy wants gutsy stuff, we can give it to him if we start with this.

JULES PROWN: May some superintendents feel that collaboration is a threat to their authority?

PERSING: A good point. You know, the problem with so many of my colleagues is that they don't understand that the best way to get power is to try to give it away.

SERNS: The same is true of principals. If you can overcome that, and see the collaboration as a form of empowerment, it would be very healthy.

EDWARD KISAILUS: Is there something like a principals' school or a superintendents' organization where they can come together and discuss the state of public education?

PERSING: There are ways by which it can be done. But there are some districts that prohibit people from getting out of their school district.

MANUEL GÓMEZ: There are some board members in California who are publicly attacking the words "collaboration" and "partnership," board members who are indicating that this undermines the authority that they legally have as duly­elected trustees of their school district. They do not want that authority undermined or eroded by entering into arrangements with universities or other institutions that, in their perception, might be more powerful and want to take over.

JAMES VIVIAN: This really points up to me the value of this discussion for the upcoming issue, "Educational Organization and Change." Without the active engagement of superintendents and principals, the collaborative project is not going to have an organizational influence in the schools.

JAY ROBINSON: Have there been any articles addressing the issue of educating boards on the values of collaboration? Ways in which the superintendents and principals and teachers can involve themselves indirectly, because by education you can perhaps generate support for the idea.

PERSING: My strategy has been to get superintendents to understand that it is in their personal interest to get involved, that it is an opportunity for them to grow. And then they discover that it is not only their personal gain, as they start to influence more people, and they bring a lot more back to the school district.

JAMES VIVIAN: One of the things our present superintendent stresses when he is talking to principals is much in the same vein: it is not something extra or added that he is asking people to do; rather it is a powerful means of accomplishing what he has already asked them to do.

ROBINSON: You know, we ran a project called the Superintendents Study Group for three years, with external funding. There were 26 superintendents, who wrote the rules for what they wanted to do and came to the University of Michigan campus on a Friday afternoon. After listening to a speaker, and discussing the talk, they came together for a day as an informal network group. The superintendents quickly saw the advantages of it.

VIVIAN: Perhaps we could get a phone conference going, structured around the topics as Thom has framed them here, so that there was a conversation with participants from different areas of the country about how we might persuade superintendents that partnerships are in their own interest, and in that of the school district.

SERNS: Another issue: I think it is rare that the head of the public school institutions and the university organization see that they truly are connected, and I don't know how to foster that connection. The superintendent that talks to the university is rare; the college president that seeks out the superintendent on issues of teaching and learning is even a rarer bird. I have always found it amazing that your president would speak so favorably about the Institute. I doubt if our university president knows that there are collaboratives.

KISAILUS: I should think universities would want to be involved with the local school districts, especially if they are drawing students from those districts. But it just doesn't seem to happen.

GÓMEZ: I think this is happening more and more. I am surprised that this concept of partnership continues to grow in power, and continues to get the support of more and more powerful individuals in higher education. I think this trend is related to the continuing attacks upon education. As a case in point, the president of the University of California, President Atkinson, just convened a major high­level task force on the concept of collaboration and outreach, with chancellors and regents. It began as a direct outgrowth of the regents' resolutions regarding UC admissions, but nonetheless, they are speaking with business leaders, CEOs, and others to try to figure out how to connect more effectively to public schools.

SERNS: We should recognize that principals are as isolated, at least at the elementary level, as the superintendent or the president of a college. The system doesn't see it as important for principals to get together and talk with one another. The mechanics of partnering are complex and often the principal is not even in the loop.

THOMAS WHITAKER: How can a principal, in contrast to a superintendent, take initiatives in facilitating partnerships?

SERNS: I have tried very hard with our staff to use partnership activities, which are limited in our district to be part of the evaluation process and to do that in a way that hopefully breaks down the isolation of a teacher in a classroom and recognizes that expertise shared is stronger than expertise isolated. I've encouraged teachers to accept student­teacher roles, becoming part of the university' s writing institute, and having that be part of their evaluation. The evaluative process every year is a natural way of going into that. But of course, when the possibilities of a particular university/school collaboration are limited, I am limited. There are occasions when we can talk to teachers to try to have the university come together with the schools. But the isolation of a teacher makes it their first job to teach children; collaboration is not high on their list of things they want to take on and champion.

VIVIAN: A rather different kind of question occurs to me with respect to principals and superintendents that I would put under the heading of "the helping hand strikes again." Are there universities and corporations that come to you seeking some role in your school, and that may not be at all on your agenda, but there may be some political necessity to be welcoming to that organization? Are there ways to turn those initiatives from outside groups to your advantage so that they are more responsive to the needs you identify through the school?

SERNS: I see it as a question of prepositions and the question is: Is it "done to" or "done with"? The partnerships I've been involved with have been "done with," and there is a tremendous amount of strength in doing it with one another. The material is gone back to, the articles are re­read and re­thought about, the units developed are reused and refined, whereas the kind of canned stuff that a lot of companies come up with, about how to teach kids better, that gets lost pretty quick at least that's been my experience. But I think corporations now are much more willing to say, "Well, we don't have the answer either, but we're willing to work with you to find the answer," and I think that's a more positive environment.

PERSING: In closing, Jim, may I say one thing about how you get it done. One of the techniques that I have used is to have the president of the university or college come and address the board at a public meeting for five minutes, on record before a live audience, to tell the public and the board of school directors the importance of collaboration. Every time I was able to do that, the collaboration was successful.

Back to Table of Contents of the Spring 1996 Issue of On Common Ground

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