“Dr. Merrow, I have just one more question for you. We’re pretty conservative here, pretty slow to change. If we hire you to be our School Superintendent, what’s the biggest change you would want to make in our schools?”
“That’s a great question, sir,” I replied, my brain whirling and spinning and searching for a suitable answer.
His question feels as fresh today as it did in 1973 when I was living on Nantucket, a small island off the coast of Massachusetts. I had just received my doctorate from Harvard, I was unemployed, the schools were looking for a superintendent, and the minister at our church happened to be on the school board. Thus I was asked to apply, which culminated in that great question….which proved to be my downfall.
I settled on an answer, which went something like this. “I strongly believe that reading competently with understanding is the foundation of almost all learning. Therefore, I would institute a clear policy: no one advances to fourth grade until everyone can read.”
To my surprise my questioner, an elderly white gentleman, expressed his support. “That’s not radical, Dr. Merrow. That’s just common sense.” He paused. “After all, nobody should be promoted to fourth grade until he can read.
“With all respect, sir, that’s not what I said. Under this policy, NOBODY goes to fourth grade until EVERYONE can read. Your neighbor’s son isn’t promoted until YOUR daughter is reading, or vice-versa.”
I still remember the stunned looks on the faces of the School Board members. As I recall, I qualified my position with some loopholes for children with disabling conditions, but that didn’t matter. The interview was essentially over, and I wasn’t asked back for the second round of interviews.
So, 47 years later and in the midst of a pandemic, how would I answer that question?
Actually, I would ask for even bigger changes, starting with these eight:
1) Suspension of all high stakes machine-scored bubble tests for at least two years. Use the savings for teaching materials and teacher salaries.
2) Frequent measurement of academic progress, led by teachers, guided by an “assess to improve” philosophy. That is, lots of low-stakes assessments.
3) End-of-year testing of a randomized sample of students, which would produce a reliable analysis of how the entire student body is doing. Sampling is done in every other aspect of society (including when your doctor withdraws a sample of your blood!). It’s far less expensive and highly reliable.
4) A rich and varied curriculum that includes at least five short breaks for recess every day in all elementary schools. Play is essential!
5) A strong commitment to project-based learning, preferably involving students from other schools (perhaps in other states and countries).
6) A school environment that celebrates accomplishments of all sorts–and not just athletics!
7) A school environment that promotes inquiry, one in which it is safe to say “I don’t know” and praiseworthy to be curious. It’s not enough for schools to be physically safe for students. They must also be emotionally and intellectually safe.
8) A public rejection of the philosophy of ‘sorting’ because our economy and our democracy need everyone to be educated to their fullest capacity. Ideally, schools will seek to ask these questions about every student: How Is This Student Smart? What Are His/Her Strengths and Interests, and How Can We Respond Appropriately?
I might not make it to the second round of interviews again, but there would be an interesting discussion at the Board meeting.
And you? What big changes would you ask for if you were being interviewed for a school superintendency?