Local problems in a national perspective

I spent several days in late July at the Education Writers Association’s annual conference in Orlando, a hideous time and place for what is always a very edifying event. I’ve been attending EWA events for eight years — about as long as I’ve been covering education — and have been reminded each time that in many cases, what feels like a Rochester-specific story in fact fits neatly into the national picture.

For example, the Rochester City School District has come in for fierce and specific criticism around its inability to retain teachers and other employees; its failure to address mental health and behavioral challenges coming out of the pandemic; and its plummeting enrollment, including in losses to charter schools. I’ve written stories about all those things. And yet each of those topics warranted its own session at the EWA conference, with journalists from across the country sitting in to gain some insight into their own local situations.

As I wrote in my book:

“Rochesterians, meanwhile, should bear in mind that the inequity they see in their community is the product of far-reaching influences. Purely local reform-based solutions — firing the superintendent, cutting teacher salaries, voting out the school board — fail to acknowledge the full scale of the problem.”

This recurring lesson was particularly timely this year, of course. Two days before leaving for Orlando, I learned that the Rochester school board intends to negotiate the departure of Superintendent Lesli Myers-Small just two years into her four-year contract. The board members made that decision, I was told, after giving Myers-Small uniformly negative performance reviews and losing confidence that she could improve on her flaws.

Source: Rochester City School District

This news was greeted with a predictable chorus of condemnation of the school board, which was accused of running yet another leader out of town and thereby worsening the district’s chronic instability.

It’s not my intention here to judge whether the board or Myers-Small herself is more to blame — though it’s worth noting in this case that several of the board’s grievances with Myers-Small were co-signed by State Monitor Shelley Jallow. Instead, I’d like to suggest that more than one thing can be true at once.

Certainly Myers-Small made some mistakes. Certainly the school board (and the unions, and the central office administrative corps, etc.) deserve some share of blame. But it’s also the case that recurring superintendent turnover is a plague on urban school districts across the country.

A 2014 study by the Council for Great City Schools concluded the average tenure for a superintendent in a large urban district was 3.2 years. In 2018, the Broad Center found an average of just under five years for the highest-poverty districts — and also found that female superintendents like Myers-Small pay an additional penalty of 15 months, on average.

Rochester has come in below those averages with its last few superintendents. Myers-Small stayed two years; Terry Dade stayed less than one; Barbara Deane-Williams lasted just more than two years. You have to go back to Bolgen Vargas to find a superintendent who persisted long enough to sign a second contract.

But the pressures that pushed those leaders out are fundamentally non-local in scope. Racial and socioeconomic segregation has resulted in urban school districts with sky-high rates of poverty, homelessness, students with disabilities and English language learners, while property tax-based school funding mechanisms favor suburban school districts. None of that is the fault of Lesli Myers-Small or the Rochester school board.

To repeat, there’s no question that local actors bear responsibility for what happens on their watch in their jurisdiction. And I recognize the appeal of a nearby target for parents’ and employees’ well warranted frustration. But to leave the analysis there without also acknowledging the fundamental futility of the task that segregated urban districts face is a disservice to the children in them — and, ultimately, to children everywhere.

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