Politicians Need Not Apply

The following is an excerpt from the solutions-based book “Why We Failed: 40 Years of Education Reform.” It’s available on Amazon click here.

Tom Galvin and I first met at a sectional finals boys’ basketball game when we were both high school principals. He was in his fifth year as principal of Rosemont High School, and I was a principal in year 12 at a high school 30 miles east of Rosemont. Neither of our schools’ basketball teams had made it to the sectionals, but we both knew the rival principals whose schools were playing so we came to the game to see how the contest would turn out for our colleagues’ schools.

Tom was the adult version of “big man on campus.” With his six foot three inch athletic frame, wavy black hair and good looks, he was a charmer with an Irish sense of humor, a natural born leader, if such a thing exists. He kidded loudly with the other high school principals sitting together in the stands as he made fun of our teams’ athletic ineptitudes and coaching disasters that had led to our status as spectators at this game. What made his kidding tolerable was the way he made comments about his own team’s missteps with the same gusto that he criticized ours.

The next time I saw Tom was 10 years later at a superintendents’ statewide conference. I was heading toward an early retirement from my superintendent duties precipitated by my first heart attack and heart surgery, and Tom was in the middle of his seventh year as a superintendent at Rosemont where he had moved up to the superintendent position at age 39 directly from his position in the district as high school principal. We ended up at dinner together with a bunch of other superintendents with Tom seated next to me. He still showed the same wit, charm and people skills I had seen much earlier in his career, but he seemed more subdued, not as engaged in the conversation as he was 10 years earlier at the basketball game.

He asked if we could meet for lunch on the next and final day of the conference so he could get my thoughts on “some issues in my district,” he said. As one of the senior superintendents with one of the largest school districts in the region, such requests were not unusual.

Solving the wrong problem

At lunch Tom opened up more than he had in our previous encounters. He had been an excellent high school athlete in football and basketball and captain of both teams his senior year in high school. He had gone to the State University of New York at Cortland and majored in history and social studies education while playing football on their very competitive Division III team. His simple career plan was to become a high school social studies teacher and football coach.

When Tom entered the teaching profession in 1978 his skill set and aspirations lined up nicely with the needs of a number of suburban school systems like Rosemont and he landed his dream job that summer. For 10 years, Tom was a successful football coach. He was also a respected social studies teacher for the first seven of these years and then assistant principal for the last three of these years. In his 10 years of coaching, Tom’s football teams had winning records every year, made it to the sectional playoffs eight of the years and won the sectional B class title twice, something that never happened in Rosemont before Tom’s arrival.

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Tom loved coaching football but in the end he took the promotions – first to principal and later to superintendent – because he wanted the extra pay and in part because he felt his close friend and trusted assistant coach, Kevin Talbot, was ready to step in and take over the leadership of the football program.

Unfortunately, 10 years into this arrangement Kevin had fewer than 50 percent wins and only one playoff appearance to show for it, which prompted Todd Morgan to run for a seat on the school board.

Todd Morgan’s son, starting tailback on the Pop Warner football team, would be on the JV football team next year and Todd wanted to be sure his son received lots of positive publicity as a varsity football player at Rosemont that might lead to a college scholarship.
Tom was clearly torn between his loyalty to his former assistant coach, Kevin, and his disappointment in the team’s recent performance, not to mention the conflict it would cause him with this new school board member. Tom’s question for me, “What would you do with Kevin and the football coaching position?”

I tried to steer Tom away from his question with some questions of my own about the academic success of the high school, Kevin Talbot’s teaching skills and the goals of the school board in his district, but Tom was persistent: “What would you do about Kevin?” he asked again.

In the end, I told Tom that football was important but not that important and it was distracting him and his school board. Kevin had his chance, time for another coach. See if Kevin will resign so you won’t end up with a public relations mess because he surely has supporters after all these years with the football program.

The bad news

The bad news for Rosemont High was that Tom Galvin was ever even considered for the position of superintendent. Tom was one of the good old boys (and girls as this type of leadership weakness is clearly not gender specific) that populate too many of the school superintendent positions in the U.S. He was endowed with the outward characteristics of wit and charm – two attributes that serve one well in interviews for superintendent positions but do little for the school district down the road.

School board members immediately understand superintendent candidates like Tom who make them feel comfortable and secure. Meanwhile, they’re completely unaware that Tom totally lacks the necessary ethics, attention to detail, high expectations for staff, curiosity and the ability to simultaneously maintain both a holistic perspective on the issues facing the district and a detailed perspective on leadership challenges critical to effective leadership.

The Tom Galvin’s of the education system are first and foremost political survivors who can read the political winds and find a way to stay ahead of them so that they may keep their jobs.

While the School Superintendent was tackling the problem of how to win more football games, a new high school principal, Debbie Fortunato, was trying to raise the visibility of academics.

Principal Fortunato and the mysterious dropout rate

I first met Debbie Fortunato after I had retired. I volunteered as a panelist reviewing an oral presentation of an educational doctoral dissertation by a State University of New York at Albany graduate student. Debbie was a member of the audience for the presentation and a doctoral student herself. When she found out who I was she approached me during a break in the action with a request to meet and discuss her career options?” As with Tom Gavin, I agreed.

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We met at a local Starbuck’s where she gave me an hour-long earful on life and on education. She seemed to have what it takes to be a great principal and eventually an outstanding superintendent.

When Debbie Fortunato was hired as principal of Rosemont High School, Tom Galvin’s school district, a few of the teachers on one of the interview committees and some of the school board members who interviewed principal candidates made it clear they thought Rosemont High School needed an academic shot in the arm. The curriculum, schedule and teaching methods were essentially the same as they had been 30 years earlier when Superintendent Galvin was a social studies teacher. Hiring from outside was rare for this district, but the previous principal had retired suddenly because of a health problem and no one had been groomed for succession.

In her interviews, none of the interview team members mentioned test data, but Debbie had done her homework and she knew the test scores were weaker than she would have anticipated for this mostly high rent suburban district. Also, fewer Rosemont students took AP tests than she would be expected given the district’s demographic data.
Furthermore, more Rosemont students failed required end-of-course Regents exams and fewer Rosemont students scored at high levels on these tests, as compared to similar districts. Also, fewer Rosemont students went on from high school to competitive colleges, SAT scores were lower than a trained observer would have expected and the number of graduates didn’t match up with the number of dropouts listed. Either some students were missing in action or the dropout rate was worse than reported.

In Debbie’s interview, Tom Galvin made it clear he thought academic improvement was important, but he also thought the crux of the problem was poor public relations. The district needed to polish its image.

After she was hired, Debbie analyzed the academic performance data in depth and presented her findings to Superintendent Galvin. Her data showed that the mysterious dropout rate data issue was caused by 15 to 20 students per year who were transferred into a local GED program where they never achieved a diploma. These “transfers” artificially kept the dropout numbers down.

“You can transfer them anywhere you want on paper but they’re still dropouts,” she said.
Meanwhile, according to the state education department, these transfers should actually be counted as dropouts. Debbie asked Tom Galvin how she should handle it, but she received more of a warning than a response.

“The school board knows about those transfers,” Galvin said. “We certainly don’t need bad public relations about more dropouts. We need to pass our budget in May and if we don’t, you’ll take the heat.”

When Debbie raised concerns about the AP program with too few students taking the challenging AP tests and Regents and SAT scores that were too low Tom Galvin said: “I’ll support any changes you need to make to improve the high school academic results as long as you can do it with the existing budget. Just let me be the one who talks to the school board about it. Don’t contact any of the board members, and if one of them calls you or emails you or tries to meet with you just tell them to contact me immediately. Understood?”

Hiding the data

Tom Galvin didn’t want to see the real data, and he made sure the school board felt the same way. Superintendent Galvin, fearful of how this performance data would reflect on him personally since he was the principal while this data was turning sour, relied on his political skills to, well, sweep it under the rug.

School superintendents who rely exclusively on their political skills, while ignoring important data, delegating critical leadership tasks and failing to communicate effectively with the school board and the public about these issues, set the stage for chaos among school board members. Think of the most ridiculous day on the floor of the U.S. Congress. You get the idea, in microcosm, multiplied by far too many school districts in the nation.

Ignoring the tools at hand

Making sure the trains run on time and on the best possible schedule for the riders (in the case of schools, students) is one of the essential skills for education leadership, and it requires values such as patience, persistence and attention to detail. For example, the task of building the high school master schedule presents a great leadership opportunity for the high school principal. Unfortunately, it’s usually delegated to someone who can be manipulated by adults looking for the easiest schedule possible.

The impact of delegating the high school master schedule is twofold: There’s no innovation (not even good management for the benefit of the students), and the staff who know how important the schedule is become disenfranchised by the leadership’s unwillingness to recognize its importance.

Meanwhile, a 30 or 50 hour time investment developing a brand new master schedule that assigns the time blocks, rooms and teachers for classes results in fewer students losing courses due to conflicts.

Simply reusing the previous year’s master schedule and just making a few tweaks means the schedule moves further and further away from the ideal every year. Most principals just use last year’s schedule and assign to another employee – a guidance counselor, an assistant principal, a secretary – the responsibility of making a few minor adjustments to accommodate changes required by new courses, room renovations, teacher retirements, lunch, etc.

And the task of creating the master schedule usually falls to someone who gains an unnatural level of power that can cause problems. And that’s a leadership failure.
If the calculus teacher wants to eat lunch every day with the band teacher because they are friends, they will ask the assistant principal creating the master schedule to ensure this is set in the schedule. If the assistant principal completing the master schedule accommodates this request, a careful analysis of the data will probably reveal that this accommodation increases conflicts for students and three or four students will have to choose between calculus or band or some other course in their schedule.

Ditto for the teacher who wants his prep period at the end of the day so he can duck out early to pick up his son at child care, the teacher who wants her prep and lunch periods together so she can help out at her mother’s place of business in midday. You know the drill.

I’ve met many superintendents and principals who struggle with the intricate analysis of complicated operational, academic and financial data required to make critical decisions in their jobs. Most of them were hired for political reasons and survived by delegating complicated tasks to smart employees who would give them easy-to-understand talking points and key conclusions to guide their communication with students, parents, employees, the school board and the public.

These talking points were designed to hide their ignorance about the nuts and bolts of completing the tasks they had delegated.

Relying on staff in schools for essential detail work has exacted a price paid by the students’ education. The only thing worse than using staff to do this data work is trying to fake it on important data-laden issues, an act I have sadly witnessed on more than one occasion.

Buy the book on Amazon click here.

Author Lonnie Palmer
In 1970, Lonnie Palmer graduated from Union College in Schenectady, NY, with a Bachelor’s Degree in Physics and planned to continue on to a Ph.D. program but was interrupted by a notice from the U.S. Government – a draft notice. Knowing his low number would preempt plans to continue his education, Palmer took a temporary position teaching high school science — and a reluctant education reformer was born. Read more.

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