Guest Column

Sometimes You Must Act a Little Crazy

by JOSEPH P. BATORY

Before I ascended to the superintendency, I had a great mentor. My predecessor, Mike Maines, was a philosopher superintendent who regularly offered me unusual tidbits of modus operandi advice. One of those memorable gems was that if you really care about something and if things are going badly for that something, then act like a madman in its defense. For heaven’s sake, give a darn and do something!

When I eventually became a superintendent during the 1990s, public education bashing was commonplace. Public schools regularly were maligned by politicians, the news media, right-wing think tanks, the private sector and a host of biased talking heads on television and radio. I didn’t like it. I remembered the advice of Mike Maines. I was more than a little crazy hearing all of this negativism and slander regarding an institution I felt was trying to do its best. And so I decided I might be better heard as a mad scientist rather than a school superintendent.

I wrote a tongue-in-cheek speech in which I documented my many hours of medical research laboring feverishly in the darkness of my office laboratory to isolate and analyze three diseases pervading America. Truly, the fallacies, irrationalities and outright lies of so many governmental and corporate leaders about public education indicated their minds had been poisoned by the pervasive mental illnesses I had discovered.

Raging Illnesses
Like any Nobel Prize hopeful, I perfected the descriptions of my three newly discovered diseases:

• Perverted Distortionism.
This is a disease of organizations and individuals bent on destroying public schools. Many of those afflicted are right-wing extremists who would impose their sectarian beliefs on everyone. Still others are infected by their conviction that public education is some government plot to destroy organized religion and the American family. These divinely inspired souls believe they have the monopoly on their version of God who directs their efforts. And finally, some people with this illness are delirious with the idea of privatizing the public schools to make tons of money.

• Quantification Syndrome.
This fever mostly affects governors and U.S. presidents as well as a host of other elected officials who think that you fatten the cattle by weighing them over and over again. The sad effect of this hallucinatory disease is that U.S. students are already the most overtested in the world. The tragedy is that all of those billions of dollars spent for testing could be so much better applied to teaching and learning and enrichment initiatives.

Simple Simonitis.
This serious brain disorder has infected people from all walks of life in every corner of America. For some strange reason corporate executives are especially vulnerable. This illness causes its victims to see public schools in a vacuum. These persons pretend not to have any idea of the societal turbulence that is altering American culture, such as poverty, materialism and valueless heroes and heroines that surround our young people. Meanwhile, while money drives everything in the private sector, for public schools money is never the answer. Illogic rules!

Extreme Reactions
I initially tried out my Insanity Speech on a friendly audience of middle school-level educators at a large statewide conference in Harrisburg, Pa. Of course I elaborated at length on the three diseases, naming names, citing examples and taking no prisoners, speaking for about 20 minutes. Five minutes into the address, the audience finally realized I wasn’t an institutional escapee. They caught on to the fact I was conveying a serious message. When I finished, the appreciative teachers and school administrators gave me a standing ovation. It encouraged me to carry my medical research to the multitudes.

I next delivered my Insanity Speech to a select committee of elected officials gathering data on public education reform.

At first, based on their lack of reaction, I figured this group was not very bright. Perhaps they thought I had a few screws loose. They just listened to me with glazed-over eyes. Maybe they just didn’t get it. No, they understood the point—especially the lines about government officials being obsessed with standardized testing programs as the ultimate magic wand for public schools. These politicians were seething. They responded to the end of my speech with stony silence!

My next speaking adventure was before an audience of school board members from across Pennsylvania. My Insanity Speech provoked this group. During the Q&A period, some board members proclaimed me to be an idiot. Welcome to my fan club. Many others rated my remarks as brilliant. Given the disparate views, some skirmishes broke out in the crowd. It was all quite exciting. There was yelling and screaming. I found it so nice to see everyone involved in an intellectual discussion. At least I wasn’t boring.

When I finally departed, one red-faced school board type from a rural part of the state had to be restrained from coming after me. It turned out he was a medical doctor. He had gone ballistic when I quoted an ABC News report on the U.S.’s high infant mortality rates among industrialized nations. I used it to make the analogy that this “test score on infant mortality” could be unilaterally used to evaluate the American medical establishment as a colossal failure. I was just baiting the audience to make a point. Measuring quality can rarely be accomplished with a simple quantitative indicator that does not take into account all the variables affecting the situation in question. Just putting the shoe on the other foot for once. And judging by this physician’s reaction, my message certainly hit home.

Never Dull
The point of this is that sometimes a school superintendent has to appear to be just a wee bit crazy to make the case for something important. My Insanity Speech launched my career as a radical. I became known as a troublemaker. I was outspoken and often confrontational, supposedly not good for the image of an educational leader. But one thing was certain: I now had people listening!

Some of my superintendent colleagues viewed my strategy as a recipe for career disaster. But, I would ask, is the superintendency primarily about shaky-knees caution or for standing up for what is right?

Throughout my 15 years as superintendent, I carried many out-of-the-mainstream messages in support of public education to the friendly and the hostile, the conservative and the liberal, the corporate and the plebeian. It wasn’t about me. It was all about issues. And it hardly was for fun. But it mattered. And at least some day in the future when I’m on my deathbed, I won’t have to wish I had stood up and taken a stand for what I believed.

The advice of this old dog to current superintendents: “Pick your spot—some important issue that really matters to you. Take your time and plan out an out-of-the-ordinary strategy. Be creative. Get a little crazy. If you have to, act like a madman! Make the difference whatever way you can.”

Joe Batory, who retired as superintendent in Upper Darby, Pa., after 15 years, can be reached at 2601 Pennsylvania Ave., Suite 608, Philadelphia, PA 19130. E-mail: BatoryJoe@cs.com. This article is adapted from his second book, Joey’s Story, published by Scarecrow Education.