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Big City Superintendents: Dictatorship or Democracy? Lessons from Paulo Freire

by Bob Peterson

During my teaching career I’ve worked under nine different superintendents. I’ve taught for nearly 30 years, so the average reign of a Milwaukee superintendent has been a little over three years, about normal for big city school districts.

While some people, including U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, decry these short tenures as a serious problem, most teachers see the quality of the leadership as more of a problem than the length of the stay.

No amount of rhetoric about “transformational leadership” or “collaboration” masks the habitual anti-democratic and anti-worker approaches of most superintendents I’ve experienced. Top-down “reforms” are cycled through our district more rapidly than the superintendents themselves, and it’s rare that teachers and parents are genuinely involved in the creation of such initiatives.

In the last decade people who have promoted top-down school “reform” initiatives—such as No Child Left Behind—are some of the very people who have pushed for top-down approaches to district governance: state takeovers or imposition of mayoral control. State takeovers of the Newark, Philadelphia, Oakland, and St. Louis schools were followed by significant privatization and charter attempts, as were mayoral takeovers in Boston, New York City, Washington D.C., and Chicago.

President Obama’s appointment of former CEO of Chicago’s schools Arne Duncan as secretary of education signaled that many people in power see the all-powerful superintendent as a central ingredient in solving the urban school problems. Duncan told the Associated Press that “he will have failed” if he hasn’t significantly increased mayoral control of school districts.

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