Guest Column

Running Out of Stories

by RALPH A. CAIN
After a highly successful career that included a MacArthur Fellowship and the creation of three elementary schools and a secondary school in East Harlem, Deborah Meier retired from the New York City school system in 1995 and became a senior fellow with the Annenberg Institute for School Reform. This position allowed her to lecture, write, visit schools and be an advocate for teachers, students and their families.

After two years Meier moved to Boston to start another small elementary school. One evening over dinner, she asked: "Paul, do you know why I decided to go back into a school?"

"Why?" I asked.

"Because I've run out of stories," she said. I knew exactly what she meant.

Joyful Discoveries
For the past two years I served as the principal in residence in the U.S. Department of Education. I was removed from the real world of the classroom and the principal's office. By this fall, I was eager to return to school.

Don't get me wrong, my two years at the department were a wonderful experience. I had a chance to catch my breath, reflect on my own leadership abilities, read and write, visit schools and leadership development programs all over the country and talk with many educators. But after two years, I discovered my speeches turning stale, my examples old and my references to teachers and classrooms outdated.

During my last months as principal in residence, I had the opportunity to visit five old friends, all of them nationally recognized educators who had resumed careers as school principals, including Meier, who is principal of Mission Hill Elementary School in Boston. The others: Ted and Nancy Sizer, who took over as interim leaders of the Francis Parker Charter School in Fort Devens, Mass.; and Dennis Littky, who with long-time colleague Elliot Washor, serve as co-principals of The Met High School in Providence, R.I.

After my trip I had the luxury of reflecting on what I had experienced. The educational ideas they were putting in place were fresh and reassuring. The Met is pioneering an innovative secondary structure unlike anything I know of in the country. I saw evidence of the strength of these reformers’ ideas in the form of students' exhibitions. At Mission Hill the staff is involved, not surprisingly, in creating an accountability structure that holds each student to high standards without standardization.

I also found a joyfulness in the work taking place in these schools’ classrooms. Parents were delighted at an assembly at which the students demonstrated through music and dance what they had learned in their social studies courses. This was especially refreshing in today's sometimes grim world of tougher standards and calls by politicians for the elimination of kindergarten recess to cram an extra 45 minutes of reading drills into each day.

At the Parker School I watched as the entire staff sat for two full hours without break to work diligently on the next year's curriculum. It was very tough going but they hung in and their attention never flagged--and this after a full day of teaching. It’s a living example of a real learning community.

Sustained Contact
But what made the biggest impact on me were the leaders of these three small schools, each of them a national figure in education. None was in a school three years ago. They were consulting, speaking, writing and advocating. Now each was focused on teaching and learning in a positive, healthy and productive way.

Certainly we got a chance during my visits to talk about the larger world of education--the state of the standards movement, who would be the next commissioner or chancellor or superintendent and discussion of a new book or research finding. That larger picture, however, always was encircled by anecdotes and personal observations from that week. Our conversations began and ended with real kids and real teachers and that seemed to me to be as it should be.

For the past two years I visited dozens of schools and spoke to thousands of people. I have been present at the highest levels of policymaking at the national level and have had my voice heard there. I leave that world now convinced that educational leaders at the district, state and national levels as well as leaders in schools of education at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels face one essential task--to create structures that require regular sustained contact with real kids and real teachers.

I don't mean staged events complete with photo opportunities (I’ve seen my share of those in Washington) or drop-in visits that last an hour. I mean structures that immerse educational leaders into the real culture of schools. Education looks easier and simpler from the outside. New initiatives, programs and assessments will be more effective and better received if they are promulgated by leaders who struggle themselves with the slippery and wonderful reality of elementary and secondary education and the complexity of individuals in those schools.

A school district policy mandating that every central-office employee spend 10 percent of his or her time in a school would be a good starting point.

Paul Schwarz, former principal of Central Park East Secondary School in New York City, is leadership program director at Columbia University’s Teachers College, where he is developing plans to start a charter school. He can be reached at 305 Riverside Drive #4-C, New York, NY 10025. E-mail: pschwarz@exchange.tc.columbia.edu