President's Corner

In Black and White, Two Views of Our Role

by John R. Lawrence, president, AASA


My typical day begins pretty much the same every morning. I wake up, say good morning to my wife, look in the mirror, frown at what I see and then walk to the end of my driveway to pick up what at 6 a.m. is the most important document of the day, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

It’s a great newspaper. I start by glancing at the lead stories on the front page. If a headline catches my eye, I read the article. If not, I read the front page later. It includes a comics section, which I never read, and a sports section, which I always read. Although it is a little known fact, I find it essential to keep up on the day-to-day activities of the professional sports teams in St. Louis. The managers and coaches of the Cardinals, Rams or Blues never have called for my advice, but someday they might. If they do, I’ll be informed.

However, over the past couple of weeks two intriguing yet quite different articles appeared in the Post-Dispatch related to our profession. As both dealt with public education, I read them first. The Cardinals could wait. In fact, the first reading of the articles led to multiple re-readings. The articles grabbed me not so much because of their interesting content, but rather because of a single striking quotation, both one-liners, that appeared in the text of each.

The first quote was attributed to Bill Roberti, superintendent of the St. Louis City Public Schools. In an earlier life Roberti worked as the CEO of a large private corporation. Often educators hear only skepticism expressed by those who live and work in the corporate world. Yet after walking a mile in both private-sector and public-sector shoes, Roberti was quoted as saying, “I’ve been a CEO, and I’ve been a school superintendent. Believe me, being a CEO is a walk in the park compared to being a school superintendent.” I found those are words worth re-reading, reconsidering and re-quoting.

The second quote came from Rod Paige, U.S. secretary of education. Previously he served as an urban school superintendent and a school board member. Paige was quoted as saying, “Public schools exist to benefit the public. That’s different from public schools existing to benefit people in public schools.” Hmm. You also may want to re-read his quote for those are words clearly worth re-reading, reconsidering and re-quoting.

In fairness, perhaps there was an unseen context in which the profession’s most identifiable leader made his comment. You can be your own judge of that. But this much is certain: In a recent interview with The School Administrator (December 2003), Jim Collins, author of the best seller Good to Great, said, “I genuinely believe that being superintendent of a large school district is more difficult than being CEO of a Fortune 500 corporation.”

In truth, I don’t have a clue how difficult managing a private corporation is. I’ll bet it is pretty demanding. I do know that leading a public school district is demanding. It is also a cherished calling. The men and women who work in democracy’s greatest institution receive many benefits but they are almost always intrinsic and almost never materialistic. The service you provide is to benefit others and any thought or implication otherwise is unacceptable. I know that. You know that. Those appointed by those elected need to know that also.

John Lawrence is president of AASA.