Public Schools for Tomorrow
thoughts on being chosen new york state superintendent of the year
by Michael V. McGill

First, let me express my deep gratitude to Jim Mills and the members of the selection committee, to Les Loomis, our leader, and to all of the NYSCOSS membership.  They say that the greatest of honors is to be recognized by your peers, and by honoring me in this way, you make me truly fortunate.

Second, I feel a little like John Kennedy who, when asked how he got to be a war hero, said, “It was involuntary.  They sank my boat.”

Scarsdale has long been very much in the educational mainstream and at the same time a bit of a maverick.  In the 1930’s, it was a leader in the progressive education movement.  The High School was one of the first in the country to eliminate class ranking; for many years it offered a local course of study, as distinct from a Regents program.

In my own years, we’ve questioned certain aspects of standardized testing, and more recently, the merits of the Advanced Placement program for our students.  This among other things has gotten us in the newspapers and a certain sort of notice in Albany, and the experience has led me sometimes to feel a special sort of affinity for the late President.

Actually, I mention this history not to emphasize past disagreements, but to lend context to what I’m going to say.

Perhaps the most pressing visible concern in public education today is to redress the wide disparities between different conditions of people: rich and poor, those of color and whites.  The educators who deal with the most severe of these challenges day after day, often in cities and in areas of rural poverty, deserve their nation’s deepest admiration and thanks.

Often, high performing districts like mine are pictured as separate and sometimes hopelessly disconnected from that real world. Sometimes, the face we present to others does us little favor in this regard.

Meanwhile, in one way or another, all of us here actually struggle with many of the same issues: ethnic and cultural frictions or the diverse academic and personal demands of our students, for instance.  Then, too, working with young people in complex institutions anywhere involves certain age-old constants: the anxiety, the inevitable defeat and pain, the surprises and joys of growing up and of being human.

What actually may be unusual about districts like mine is that we have the privilege of being able to look beyond many of the pressures and demands of the moment.  This gives us the responsibility to think about what public education should be and to try, as best we can, to embody a better vision of it.  Further, we have a special opportunity and a particular obligation to advocate for all children, so all will ultimately have the advantages traditionally reserved to a relative few.

Today, the imperatives of accountability, tests, and data use have become everywhere a paramount concern.  Those developments are not entirely bad, and I’m not here to speak against them.  I do want to propose that public education has a more profound mission, however, one that calls us to aim at a more distant star.

If we’re to prepare young people for the interdependent world in which they live, schools must attend to dimensions of learning beyond a preoccupation with scores or numbers or even with “achievement,” narrowly defined. Can our graduates think independently and originally?  Can they apply complex knowledge to new situations?  Do they want to go on learning?  Are they disposed to be contributing citizens?

These kinds of questions point to an education that’s deep and rich, motivating and fulfilling. To answer them positively, to be great, that is, schools must be places where personal moments matter and where the encounter between student and teacher is of paramount importance.  My daughter, currently working in a failing school in the Bronx, worries, for instance, about what will happen to the eleven year-old whose poetry is the only thing that keeps her connected to any kind of formal learning.  Data-mining is not synonymous with, nor a substitute for, fine teaching.

Great schools will also act on the principle that students and those closest to them – teachers, parents, local communities – possess significant wisdom about the child’s education and all bear responsibility for it.  This principle of personal responsibility is an increasingly important counterbalance in an institutional machinery too often oversteered today by political interests, bureaucracy, centralized authority and mass systems.

As school leaders and seasoned educators, you know what makes educational sense.  We are a force for intelligent change that balances out the swings of politics and practice, change that’s public-spirited and wise.  Our solemn duty in this process is to be the true voice for children, both in our school halls and in the halls of power.

My father was a New York State school superintendent, and I know from growing up in our home that there was no golden age of school leadership before the current era.  The superintendency of 1986 or ’66 was not free from pressure, nor was the work ever easy.  The day-to-day and yearly rhythms were much the same then as now.

But as superintendents, we do increasingly concern ourselves with a full range of students in a more diverse population.  We require broad knowledge about learning and pedagogy, much of it relatively new.  We employ “metrics,” for better and worse, to assess and develop programs and people, and we’re accountable for their performance according to measures of sometimes dubious rationality.  We develop and manage financial plans remarkable for their constraints and mandates.  We negotiate decisions and lead in a highly demanding environment of conflicting professional and personal interests
This is why the work stretches us and why it’s endlessly fascinating.

In this context, the superintendent more than ever requires wisdom, a moral compass, resiliency, political acuity, professional skill and a capacity to build trust among colleagues and within the school community.  She or he deals with externally-generated diversions and peripheral issues, while trying to keep the institution focused on what’s truly essential.

The basic tension isn’t new, but it is intense, a reality with human consequences.  I remember watching my father some nights when he’d come home after a late meeting.  He’d be tired and also unable to go to sleep the way we often are after one of those marathon sessions, and he’d be so tightly wound, his head would have an almost imperceptible tremor, like that.  The job had a price, and he paid it.

But I remember his talking with pride about his craft.  “I’m responsible for children’s education.  There’s nothing more important,” he’d say.  And there was not.  For at the end of the day, what is more worth doing?  How else will we improve the human condition in the long run?

For amidst confusion and self-service and selfishness and short-sightedness and all the world’s other imperfections, we here are the custodians of civilization: leaders of an institution that ekes out what wisdom it can gather, builds upon it, passes it from one generation to the next.  We are safekeepers of the democracy, guardians of the future.

You honor me with your recognition.  What makes that honor especially profound is what it signifies: that I literally represent you.

I have a friend, a Frenchman, who became a member of the Legion of Honor a few years ago.  While participation in the Legion is not bestowed indiscriminately, any citizen may qualify by providing distinguished service to the nation. They gave him a small red rosette for his lapel, which he sometimes wears.

We have no such thing in America.  It’s somehow unfitting in our culture.  But if we did, and if this symbol of our shared contributions were properly distributed, each of you would be a Legionnaire.  And so I picture you each, with a badge of honor on your lapel.

Thank you.   

Albany, New York                                                                                22 January, 2007