As you’ve probably heard, Connecticut has been struggling with the implementation phase of a statewide education reform movement. Critics have voiced concerns about Commissioner Pryor’s leadership, based upon the frustrations of educators facing the difficult implementation process. Change is really hard. But I keep wondering why we attack the leaders who put forward bold agendas for improvement in Connecticut. Can the system really get better if we keep putting districts and the state through these interruptions in leadership?
“This too shall pass” is a phrase I heard often during my six years as a district superintendent. I learned early into my tenure that most employees-teachers and administrators alike-had grown accustomed to the revolving door of leadership, and with it, the associated change in district initiatives. The strategy for dealing with change was very simple: if any particular initiative isn’t going well, simply hunker down and wait for the leadership to change. Why become invested in a reform strategy that is going to be abandoned when leadership shifts?
I’m noticing echoes of that approach throughout Connecticut’s education landscape these days. Although most of us recognize that systematic change is needed in public education-and although we probably all inherently know that system-wide change is hard and takes time-we’ve grown all too fond of quick fixes and all too impatient with leadership. Yes, we need to ensure that everyone in the system is accountable, including our leaders. But systemic change takes time and measuring the effectiveness of change is equally time-consuming. Let’s hold our leaders accountable for making decisions that best serve our children, not for serving political interests. Let’s give our leaders a reasonable period of time to produce results, rather than rushing to premature judgements.
A couple of years ago, Paul Vallas was brought into Bridgeport. Bridgeport is one of the lowest-performing districts in Connecticut, and it needs a massive, system-wide change in order to improve. Vallas had an impressive history of reforming public education systems in Chicago, Philadelphia, and New Orleans.
But rather than allowing a transformative superintendent to comprise and implement a plan for district-wide reform, we effectively chose to put the district through years and years of shifts in leadership. Following a period of strong resistance to his reform efforts and emphasis of bureaucratic trivialities associated with his certification, Vallas is now set to leave Bridgeport in March-before his job is done. The interim superintendent slated to take over will only fill the position temporarily; in fact, one of her objectives on the job will be to help the school board find the next permanent superintendent. Is this really what’s best for Bridgeport?
Similarly, we saw the Hartford Board of Education reject Christina Kishimoto’s request this past summer for a two-year contract extension as superintendent. Kishimoto was selected in 2011 precisely for the purpose of continuity-to implement the “portfolio strategy” that had been put in place by her predecessor, Steven Adamowski. That reform model has increased the number of innovative schools in Hartford, increased families’ choices in schools, and begun redesigning chronically low-performing schools. No wonder it didn’t take long for the Gilbert school system in Arizona to snag Kishimoto as their new schools chief!
We’re forcing leaders out and calling for resignations all over the state, ignoring the reality that leadership continuity is critically important if we want to create lasting change. A 2006 study found a positive correlation between the length of superintendent service and student achievement. The study explains, if superintendents aren’t in place for long enough, they don’t have time to implement their plans and produce improvement.
Connecticut’s public education system is currently going through a difficult transition period as it attempts to establish both statewide and district-wide accountability structures. But a period of systematic change is going to be difficult and see some bumps in the road no matter who is in charge. That’s just reality. Whether we can get past this rough period depends on our resilience and capacity for collaboration. What Connecticut needs right now is strong leaders who are supported by their communities and faculties, and who are collaborating to ensure that all children learn at high levels.
Commissioner Pryor has been a major advocate for these reform efforts and has accomplished a great deal to benefit our children over the last two years. It’s obvious that implementation has been imperfect. But we need to be smart and to think about the long-term results, not the short-term distractions. Let’s give Commissioner Pryor the opportunity to see this process through.
Jeffrey A. Villar, Ph.D.