NCLB and the “Sprinter” Superintendent

I recently read an article by Larry Cuban about the difference between “sprinter” and “marathoner” superintendents. In his exposé on managing school districts, Larry contrasts the strategies of “marathoners” and “sprinters” in how both of them react to problems in their respective school districts.

“Sprinter” superintendents go for the temporary quick fixes, firing both teachers and principals left and right, forcing reform and evaluations down education’s throat, while in the process, alienating teachers, the pieces in the puzzle of reform who are the most influential and the most important when attempting to bring about reform. One of these superintendents, Michelle Rhee from Washington, D.C, chose to drive her reform through strenuously evaluating teachers through principals and “master educators. She followed a mantra of “no excuses” when it came to low student performance, and it showed in how harshly she pursued reform within the first two years of her career as superintendent. Of course, her appointer, the mayor, lost his next election, and many D.C. teachers worked for his opponent. Once Rhee realized her blunder in ostracizing the teachers of D.C, she resigned.

What really makes me wonder is what in the ever-lovin’ reformist world were these “sprinter” superintendents thinking? Going into a machine and immediately tearing it apart is never a good idea, especially considering that these are human beings you’re working with, essential to what you’re trying to do. Reform can only come about by cooperating and working with teachers, shown in how “marathoner” superintendents like Carl Cohn and Laura Schwalm in California worked their reforms out over a long period of time. While these changes were never completely 100% popular among the teachers’ unions they worked with, overall, the reforms had the support of teachers they were dealing with. As Larry Cuban puts it, these reforms “barely toggled the Richter scale of reform,” whereas the “sprinter” superintendents’ reforms “translated to major earthquakes of 7.0 or above. No changes that registered as tremors.”

Larry sums it up best in this quote from the beginning of the article:

Sprinters want 180 degree change fast; in doing so, they rarely gain respect and confidence of teachers; marathoners work with teachers steadily from day 1 of their tenure.

But then again, maybe it all goes back to No Child Left Behind, like always. Funny how things do that, isn’t it? Urban reformer superintendents like Rhee were undoubtedly under pressure from federal funding to bring schools up to standards set by NCLB, and therefore tried to force reforms to quickly fix schools that were “failing,” in order to maintain Title I funding. However, “sprinters” bought in to reform by way of NCLB in order to conform to it. Makes sense, but at the same time, “marathoners” succeeded in bringing reform to their schools, but at a much slower pace. Perhaps “sprinters” should look at the example set by their much less vigorous and less gung-ho counterparts and follow the strategies that are proven to work, and – oh hey, wouldn’t you know – gave the superintendents job security, with a long career. Funny how working with your coworkers and those under you can give you benefits when you’re trying to implement changes of your own.



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One Response to NCLB and the “Sprinter” Superintendent

  1. leighahall says:

    I think we have a lot of sprinters in education reform! I also think we have not just marathon runners but ULTRA-Marathon runners (meaning I think in some cases we move too slowly).


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