Tuesday, July 05, 2011

C-J's on Berman's legacy

This from C-J:
Sheldon Berman has completed his four-year tenure as superintendent of the Jefferson County Public Schools.

Just as the arrival of Donna Hargens to replace him should be a time for all in the community to welcome her and wish her well, Mr. Berman's departure should occasion gratitude for his substantial good work here, even from those who agreed with the school board's decision not to renew his contract.

This is a time when public school administrators, principals and teachers often are treated as political ping-pong balls, batted around mercilessly both by those who have understandable frustrations about the contemporary challenges in educating children, as well as by those eager to exploit ideological divides by superimposing on schools broader debates that range from government spending to race.

It is tempting to say that theirs is a thankless job, except that remarkably so many of them don't find it so. They instead take deep satisfaction every time a child excels, becomes excited by learning or overcomes an obstacle.

In such an environment, Mr. Berman's special talent was to see the need for deep systemic change in the JCPS system, to define a clear vision for long-term improvement (as opposed to obsessing about the next round of standardized test scores) and to emphasize teachers' professional growth. He found strong partners in this venture, achieving the most productive relationship in memory with the teachers' union and attracting teachers and staff to persistently low-achieving schools with the strongest commitments to quick turn-arounds.

Mr. Berman's tenure was cut short for all the wrong reasons. A largely dysfunctional school board — motivated in some cases by personal grudges and agendas, spooked by a noisy minority opposed to transporting students to achieve diversity and equal opportunity, and rattled by the low achievement scores that bedevil every urban district in the nation — seemed incapable of working with the superintendent on a common strategic plan. That will have to change for Ms. Hargens to have a chance.

Deep change in the direction and culture of an entire district takes time. Mr. Berman wasn't given time, but he leaves behind a strong platform — a new framework for teachers to design lessons with rigor and meaning, sophisticated methods to measure performance, reduced class sizes and dropout rates, freshman academies, new magnet schools and career-themed high schools, and much else.

It is unfortunate that Mr. Berman must move on to Oregon. But the loss will be greatly magnified if the school board and the new administration reflexively dismantle a structure for progress that has been so thoughtfully constructed and that holds such promise.

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