A Psychologist’s Perspective of Schooling by JAY P. GOLDMAN

Joe Onosko, a professor at University of New Hampshire, was leading an in-service workshop for social studies teachers late one Friday afternoon during which, he recalls, he had to do everything possible to fend off a barrage of questions and suggestions “coming from a guy in the back.”

“They were good challenging questions,” says Onosko, who learned a few years later that the constant contributor was a school guidance counselor, Charles Ott, who had no requirement or specific need to be there. “It showed just how much he wanted to relate to the lives of students in any way he could.”

Ott spent 20 years in counseling and school psychology roles before finding his serendipitous way into central administration. Since 2000, he has served as superintendent of School Administrative Unit 56 in Somersworth, N.H.

Rather fortuitously, while pursuing an Ed.D. in school psychology at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Ott studied a branch of the field that applies social psychology to systems thinking in education. “I long ago abandoned the ‘illusion of control’ and define my role as working with others to create the conditions for professional growth and student achievement,” he says.

From his work in psychology, Ott came to a core belief that now guides the schools’ efforts to affect the growth of roughly 2,000 students. “Learning is chiefly the result of productive relationships,” he says. “A superintendent is the chief steward of these relationships. Good things happen when people cooperate.”

To Ott, that means a democratic process must govern the key decisions involving curriculum, instruction and assessment. In SAU 56, a 21-member Curriculum Council, consisting of educators, parents and community representatives, recently took the first step to ending social promotion as part of a broader initiative shaped by Ott known as Bridges to Success. Any council member can propose a change but it takes four votes for a proposal to receive serious consideration.

“The ethos of the district is glasnost or openness,” he says. “We’re not going to evade any problems we face.”

Just the fact that Ott didn’t consider a veto to the end of social promotion suggests how open-minded he is. “As a school psychologist, I used to rail against retention. I wrote articles, I spoke out at conferences. Now retention is back on the table. But ending social promotion is not the same as reinstating retention.”

The district is offering afterschool instruction and summer sessions to turn around students likely to fail and to make further in-roads on lagging test performance and a high dropout rate.

His psychology training also has given the superintendent a leg up on applying educational statistics. With training from AASA’s Center for Accountability Solutions, he and his so-named Data-Based Tigers are looking at the facts and figures to define a systematic course of action and to resist the temptation to rush in new directions every time the state test scores are released. Ott created one arresting moment for the public by projecting on a screen the data showing that 25 percent of all 9th graders in the district had failed two or more courses.

“There was no way to squirm out of that. It was a turning point for us to say, ‘We can change this,’” says Ott, an assistant superintendent for four years in Portsmouth before moving a few miles north into the superintendency overseeing the small city of Somersworth and its neighboring town of Rollinsford.

Gentle by nature, Ott has nonetheless taken a passionate and outspoken role in fingering the unintended ramifications of the No Child Left Behind Act, which he says usurps state and local board control. After the school board went on record to raise concerns about provisions governing yearly progress, student testing and research-based programs, Ott and his board members asked school boards and their superintendents statewide to do the same.

Next to his tenure as a psychologist, he is guided in such views by his two-year Peace Corps stint in Sierra Leone, West Africa, shortly after college. “That’s been a backdrop or motivation for me not to take for granted what we have,” Ott says.

Jay Goldman is the editor of The School Administrator. E-mail: