Finding My Answers in Oppositional Moments

by Michael V. McGill

Asked how he became a war hero, John Kennedy famously said, “It was completely involuntary. They sank my boat.”

The young president’s cool irony probably masked the fact he didn’t feel much like a hero. Rather, from what we know, he was acutely aware of his own vulnerabilities. He’d just done the best he could with a rotten situation. There was no way for him to explain things that didn’t bear explanation.

To paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen, I’m no Jack Kennedy. If there is a parallel, however, it’s that in my 30-some years as a superintendent, there’s been little magic. I’ve done the best I could with the situation (and more dumb things than I want to think about). I don’t consider myself a contrarian so much as the real mainstream.

Scarsdale, N.Y., where I’ve served for the past decade, has long been a sort of icon of the American Dream as lived out in our nation’s favored suburbs. Although the community has some ethnic diversity, its homogeneous economic profile could suggest that it’s somewhat otherworldly or an epicenter of elitism.

It turns out, however, that human decency and venality, fallibility and generosity have been distributed in pretty much the usual proportions. Yes, there’s authoritative opining, and you hear about entitlement. But when things go bad, everyone usually pulls together. Most parents and their offspring are civil, thoughtful and articulate, and they display an encouraging variety of views.

Independent Thinkers
What is unusual about Scarsdale is that most people initially move here because of the schools. A common goal is to learn or to promote learning. The community invests substantially, though not unquestioningly, in education.

Unsurprisingly, shared mission, wise governance, a fine professional staff, good resources, strong expectations and motivated kids produce high-level learning. This shows up on the usual measures and in other, more important ways. Students write very well. They’re eager and intellectually curious.

Scarsdale is also independent-minded. The usual style of the schools is to adapt best practices after they’re established. However, the district has always marched a bit to its own drummer. It adopted a contract learning plan in the 1920s, helped lead the Advanced Placement movement in the 1950s and gave essentially no state tests until they were mandated in the late 1990s.

In short, the place has long tried to pursue intelligent education policies that would be best for students, whether or not they were the flavor of the month.

A Test Boycott
This profile helps to understand why parents’ decision to boycott state tests in 2001 and the district’s 2007 decision to move away from the AP program were consistent with community values. Scarsdale being what it is, both events also prompted controversy.

The test boycott was a parents’ reaction against new Grade 8 state exams.

Both the school and district had spoken with state officials and made no secret about what they saw as imprudent state policy. The time devoted to test prep, teacher training, administration and correction took significant time from learning. The exams forced undesirable curriculum changes and had little evident educational benefit locally.

A large majority of parents told their middle-school children not to take the tests. According to normal school procedures, there was no penalty for the students. State exams had never counted in their grades. It seemed wrong to give a child detention for a parent’s decision.

Although some residents argued that the state was right, the board of education supported the parents’ approach. Faculty should stop teaching to the test, continue to provide a deep, rich education, and let the scores take care of themselves.

The district’s actions displeased the commissioner of education and excited certain tensions with the state. The middle school thereafter appeared on a list of schools needing improvement. Ultimately, and amidst the inevitabilities of NCLB, local resistance to the tests dwindled.

The logic for moving away from Advanced Placement was in many ways consistent with that of the boycott. Concerned that many AP classes had become “a mile wide and an inch deep,” the high school faculty in 2005 began to consider the benefits of a local, college-level course of study. Teachers spoke with professors from Brown, Columbia and other universities about how to do a better job of preparing students for the expectations of college.

After communicating with independent schools that had moved away from AP, faculty members broached a so-called Scarsdale Advanced Topics proposal with parents. These initial exchanges were almost non-events, but as the reality of change came closer, reaction to the proposal grew more intense.

Supporters saw an opportunity to enhance learning and love of learning. In a community where competitive colleges are the ultimate goal, however, opponents objected vigorously to “fixing what wasn’t broken.” Of particular concern was the seeming threat to college admission or advancement credits. Tempers flared. School board and special meetings featured heated exchanges. The president of the district-level parent organization protested by resigning her position.

At the end of 2006-07, the Scarsdale Board of Education approved a gradual rollout, subject to evaluation. That process continues, as does community sentiment on the topic.

A Prevailing Nature
What was my part in these efforts? What did it feel like to be in the center of controversies? What have I learned? Do the experiences have any relevance for anyone else? Were they worth it?

Scarsdale prides itself on being collaborative. Ideas can come from any place, but it’s hard for significant initiatives to go forward without everyone affected, from student to board member, offering some opinion.

As superintendent, I am part of a conversation. Typically, I try to ensure initiatives are consistent with the district mission, to articulate values that bear on the topic, to frame issues, to facilitate communication and to offer whatever wisdom comes with experience and the unique perspective of my position.

Some people like to be in the middle of controversy. It’s never been my favorite.

I am more centered about conflict now than I used to be, though. I think there may be several reasons. For one, I’m more able to see difficult situations as interesting problems. My job is to use ingenuity, experience and an ethical compass to find solutions. Also, life has taught me I can endure searing experiences and still prevail. Then, too, maybe this is just what happens after too many years of getting beaten up by too many people.

Age and perspective teach that crises are rarely as monumental as they may feel at the moment. And no matter what your ego says, you’re probably less important in the whole dynamic than you think you are. That knowledge gives you flexibility to look for unexpected answers, especially if you can draw on other people’s ideas and strengths in the process.

So to the extent conflict is less troubling for me, it’s because I’ve been able to locate an internal anchor that helps keep me from feeling adrift and rudderless. I go with my gut sense of what’s right for kids and focus on what will advance our mission: to provide our students an exemplary public school education in the liberal arts tradition so they’ll lead lives of contribution.

But conflict is still no fun. And it’s a lot easier when I know I’m right than when I’m out there in the gray ocean of uncertainty.

Application Elsewhere
It’d be easy to conclude that Scarsdale’s experience, or mine, has little relevance for others. I don’t think that’s so. A highly engaged and high-functioning school community does have certain advantages. Its students’ performance enables Scarsdale to speak out on issues like testing without sounding as if it’s trying to escape blame for its shortcomings, for instance.

A flip side of these strengths is that other people’s less-controversial topics are the object of passionate feeling here. And we can be (and are) accused of being elitist, even when our arguments stand on their merits. Although specific issues differ from community to community, I suspect all superintendents need similar skills and much the same internal resources to speak up for what they think is right.

Is the effort worth it? Ours is the most important profession there is. As the ancient saw goes, we touch the future — of individual human beings, our nation and our world. This does make the struggle worthwhile, whether we’re standing up to a bullying citizen, telling an unpopular truth to a school board, speaking out against a questionable state policy or challenging established practice. In that sense, we’re all contrarians.

Michael McGill is the superintendent in Scarsdale, N.Y. E-mail: