Executive Perspective

Let’s Assume the Identity of Transformers


More and more we have two opposing sides being defined in the public education debates.

The traditional educators, the establishment, are on one side. On the other side are the reformers, the proponents of choice, charter schools, vouchers, virtual schools, privatization and so on. It is a side that has gained momentum due to the favor the reformers curry with the current administration.

Dan Domenech Official PhotoDaniel A. Domenech, Photo Courtesy of Lifetouch Inc.

Having been in education for most of my adult life and a superintendent for 27 years, I suppose I would be considered a traditionalist, part of the establishment. However, I always thought of myself as a reformer. Back in the ’70s, when I first became a superintendent, I reorganized my district into K-3 primary schools, grade 4-7 intermediate schools, an 8-9 middle school and a 10-12 high school. I reorganized my next school district the same way, but I introduced prekindergarten, full-day kindergarten and child care.

In the mid ’90s, I was asked by the New York State Education Department to take over the troubled Roosevelt School District on Long Island. I had serious talks then with Chris Whittle, founder of Edison Schools, about his taking over several of our schools. Back in those days, however, the state education department was not yet ready for charter schools.

Successes Overlooked
When I became superintendent in Fairfax County, Va., the 12th-largest school system in the country, I established several nongraded elementary schools, introduced systemwide accountability prior to No Child Left Behind, opened more than 20 year-round schools and put in place a bonus, pay-for-performance plan in our low-performing schools. I mention these changes in an attempt to establish my bona-fide reformer credentials. I was far from being the only superintendent attempting to reform the traditional K-12 school system.

Today, you will find superintendents like Jerry Weast in Montgomery County, Md., Beverly Hall in Atlanta, Carlos Garcia in San Francisco, Betty Morgan in Washington County, Md., and many others still going about the business of reforming public education — with great success, I might add. Yet those of us in education with proven track records are made to feel as if we have nothing to contribute. If we are part of the establishment, we are part of the problem. Only those outside the system can be part of the solution.

Add to this conundrum the fact that the bottom 5 percent of low-performing schools in the country are defining the public education system in America. It is no wonder we have this hue and cry throughout the land that America’s public education system is an utter failure. Never mind that among the remaining 95 percent are some of the best schools in the world.

I have decided that if the reformer label has been taken away from those of us who are part of the establishment but are still trying to change it for the better, then we will take on a new label. We are the transformers. We are not content with simply adding Band-Aids to the broken parts. We want to transform the entire system.

It occurs to me the reformers and transformers share the same goal. We all are trying to improve our public school system, particularly for second-language learners and students of color and in poverty who comprise the demographics of most of our failing schools. Why then are we at odds with each other? Why do the reformers look at us in the establishment as if we have nothing to contribute when nobody knows the system, from the inside out, better than we do? And why do we, the transformers, look upon the reformers with annoyance as if they have absolutely nothing to bring to the table?

Join Together
This squabble would be meaningless except for the fact we educators/transformers have some real failures that need to be addressed. We transformers get our backs up because the reformers are winning the public relations battle by convincing the business community and those Americans without children in school that the entire public school system is bankrupt. The news media are all over that claim, harping on the failures without acknowledging the overwhelming number of successes.

There is a reason why the latest Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll shows a steady growth in the percentage of parents, up to 77 percent now, who assign a grade of A or B to the public school attended by their child. We could not have achieved or maintained our position as leaders of the free world without the contributions of our public school systems.

Conversely, the 50 million students in the 14,000 school systems across America will not be provided to a better and higher level of education until the innovations become part of the establishment. That is how it always has worked, and that is how it will be unless we do away with our public schools to replace them — but with what? Will we have a constitutional amendment to do away with the current obligation of each state to provide a system of public education?

So what do you say we stop the squabbling and work together to address the needs of our underserved students? To the reformers and transformers, the Mile High Summit in Denver, Colo., on Feb. 17-19, will provide us with the opportunity to do just that. To register, go to www.aasa.org/nce.

Dan Domenech is AASA executive director. E-mail: ddomenech@aasa.org