President's Corner

Something to Ponder


When education historian Diane Ravitch spoke at this year's AASA National Conference on Education in Denver, she electrified the room with her candid and compelling criticisms of today's school reform efforts, including No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. She was rewarded with what legendary education leader Bud Spillane declared the longest standing ovation in the 40 years he has attended AASA national conferences.

Edgar HatrickEdgar B. Hatrick

What magic caused us to interrupt her speech with applause over and over and then stand for several minutes at its conclusion to show our appreciation? Ravitch spoke plainly and forthrightly about where our public education enterprise needs to be going. She didn't hesitate to call out those who mislead either intentionally or from lack of understanding. She recognized the cruel role poverty plays in the lives of too many of our children. But most importantly, she spoke with heartfelt spirit and provided rock-solid data to support what she said.

And isn't that what each of us needs to do as we lead America's school systems? My school board chair reminded me recently, "Data is not the plural of anecdote." As I listen to politicians who seek to direct our work, I continually hear anecdotes presented as -- and confused with -- proof. As one researcher at the national conference reminded us, even data can be (and are) manipulated to prove political positions.

If data are so easily misused, consider how much greater the opportunity for misdirection, and even fraud, when we depend on anecdotal "evidence" in our decision-making process. When we use a small sign of success as the reason to redirect a whole program, it's the students who lose when the revised program fails to deliver.

As leaders of American public education, we are responsible for sorting out the false promises, quick fixes and sleights of hand that endanger student learning. It is also our responsibility to constantly encourage those with whom we work in our communities, our districts and beyond to explore the benefits of genuine change based on genuine data.

I recently testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and the Workforce about the onerous burden federal reporting places on America's school systems. Although I was asked to speak from the perspective of a 63,000-student school system that has a research office and data analysts to help with this burden of reporting, I emphasized the plight of the 70 percent of American school systems that enroll 2,500 students or fewer and have the same reporting requirements but lack the staff to support the superintendent. This reporting ultimately takes time from our core mission: educating our students.

Of course, the ultimate question is, "How do the data we provide even get used?" Could our own staff ask the same question of us? Should part of our leadership role be to demand an audit of the reporting requirements from state and federal governments?

Each year in May we reflect on the academic term soon to end. That review is always a mixture of joy and sorrow -- joy for the successes of our students and sorrow for those whose needs we could not or did not meet. As we consider the successes and disappointments of this school year, we also should consider whether the data we collect really make a difference for all our students. If not, how can we make it so?

When I think about the important role school system leaders play in guiding American education, I realize our enterprise is bigger than any of us alone. We must pull together and work together. Leading America's public education is not a task for the timid. The future of our country depends on us.

Edgar Hatrick is AASA president for 2010-11. E-mail