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Not so-super superintendents.

Not-So-Super Superintendents

The 121st convention of the American Association of School Administrators (AASA) in Orlando, Florida, had it all: appearances by Mickey Mouse and Shamu, racist jokes by one keynote speaker, and imitations of a cerebral palsy victim by another. For the 122nd convention, in San Francisco, the cast of characters changed slightly, but the message remained clear: If you want to get school administrators into the convention hall, you'd better have a sports figure. In 1989, George Steinbrenner, in 1990, Roger Staubach.

For card-carrying AASA members, the convention fee is $280, for nonmembers it's $380. Not that the prices mean much to the attendees--they're on the expense account all the way. To help justify that, the AASA calls the fee tuition.

When I phoned AASA headquarters for help in finding accommodations, a very pleasant person asked me if I wanted an inexpensive, moderate, or quality room. When I replied, "As cheap as possible," she sighed. "That's good. We're running out of the deluxe--$150 and up." When I expressed surprise, she let down her hair and said, "You should hear these guys. They phone up and say, 'I don't want to be stuck in some dump like the Radisson.'" Laughing, she said, "Who do they think they're kidding? Do you think they'd stay in a place as nice as the Radisson if it was coming out of their own pockets?"

For $70 you can get a one-day pass into the AASA exhibition hall, a stunning sight for a first-time visitor. When I walk into a room filled with buses and bleachers, I figure I'm in the wrong place and start to leave. Then I realize the buses are yellow, so I look around some more. I get so caught up in the stainless steel recessed handles for lockers (in 16 designer colors), circuit-training obstacle courses, and toilet paper dispensers promising 50 percent savings on tissue consumption, that it takes me quite a while to realize there are almost no books in the place.

Of the more than 250 exhibitors showing their wares, 53 are selling athletic equipment, bleachers, and gymnasium maintenance products; there are just three companies selling textbooks. Now that's not surprising, since superintendents don't choose school-books--that's usually done by teacher committees--but one look around the exhibition hall makes it clear that basketball salesmen think superintendents care a lot about basketballs.

On the other hand, Cliffs Notes is here. Judging by the "Exhibitor's Directory," AASA must believe Cliffs Notes does it all. The company's products are mentioned under Books, Magazines & Periodicals, Curricular Materials, Reference Books, Teaching Aids & Materials, and Textbooks.

License to sell

The AASA convention is a cheerful place. The 17,000-plus administrators gathered hee seem to be having a whole lot of fun looking at synthetic turf, choral risers, pre-portioned school lunches, cast vinyl multipurpose sport flooring, wrestling-mat holders, and electronic scoreboards.

But does any of this explain why a teacher must obtain a special license to be an administrator? Are there graduate courses in trench drain specifications? Courses in how to choose an intercom system? Lab classes providing training on selecting basketballs, file cabinets, and venetian blinds? Has anybody ever questioned why a school district needs to send its leader to Florida one year and San Francisco the next to look at toilet paper dispensers?

Somebody has to choose this stuff, you say. But should school districts be paying that somebody $80,000 a year--to select basketballs?

An examination of the "Job Bulletin" section of the AASA newspaper, Leadership News, raises certain questions about just what districts expect from their superintendents. The qualifications listed most often in job ads are "administrative experience" and "doctorate preferred." Despite superintendents' pivotal roles, I came across only one ad that asked for "thorough knowledge of curriculum/instruction, current research, and human growth development."

Scanning these listings reminded me of an interview I once had with a district superintendent for a job teaching remedial reading to inner-city seventh graders. The superintendent satisfied himself as to my qualifications by my affirmative reply to his question, "Would you be willing to teach colored kiddos?" Then he got down to important matters: deciding where I should be placed on the salary scale. It didn't faze him that my master's degree was in medieval literature or that I'd never had a course in how to teach reading.

As a longtime teacher, I am struck by how much higher the stakes are at AASA conventions than at the meetings designed for teachers. At the main annual meeting for reading teachers, educational consultant Lee Canter hawks his assertive discipline teacher guides for $7.95. But at the AASA conventiion, Canter's selling his video package, Assertive Discipline for Bus Drivers--for $349. There's also The Caring Administrator Positive Resource Guide, containing samples of such essentials as notices for teacher appreciation day, acknowledgement of a faculty member's marriage, and so forth. Price tag: $49.95.

The line between information and promotion, hazy enough in the AASA program of events, where many of the speakers billed as "Distinguished Lecturers" promote their commercial videos and training programs from the lectern, is completely obliterated in the exhibition hall, where many of the featured speakers set up booths, selling their services as consultants.

And it doesn't seem to hurt a superintendent's standing as an AASA featured speaker and consultant to have been run out of town. After failing to have any positive effect on the disastrous state of the Chicago system, Ruth Love was let go from her job as superintendent of schools there. But she is a staple on AASA programs. Her presentation at Orlando is definitely hard sell. After she acknowledges her introduction as a noted educational leader, Love says, "I can't be every place at once, so I have developed videos which are available to school districts." For those conventioneers unable to attend, Love's lecture is also available on tape cassettes. People who buy the tape get to hear an audio of Ruth Love's video.

Inside the exhibition hall, I'm pushed away from my examination of hardwood floors and U.S. Navy Recruiting Command booklets by people rushing from booth to booth exclaiming, "Got any stickers?" In general, they don't seem to care about the wares the booth's displaying. They just grab their stickers and rush on to the next booth with the same question, "Got any stickers?" I finally found out what was behind the sticker frenzy: Conventioneers who fill a certain card with stickers win the right to participate in a drawing for a free trip to the next convention--not of much direct use since the district pays the administrator's way, but of great use to spouses, who attend AASA conventions in large numbers. And just think--at that next convention, the lucky winner could fill another card with stickers....

Guns and rodents

But even so, the most popular booth here is not the one giving out the most stickers. It's not even the one giving away Coca-Cola. American Air Filter draws the biggest crowd every day with a carnival-style barker who demonstrates the old find-the-peanut-under-the-shell con game.

And yes, the National Rifle Association is here, too. Noting that "with the roles of society changing, educators have found it necessary to establish programs that satisfy the need for lifetime activities which provide enjoyment, relaxation, fulfillment, and meaning," the NRA proposes that schools should institute "shooting sports education programs." To this end, the NRA offers an across-the-curriculum guide for integrating shooting sports into the education process. "With a little imagination," states the guide, the teacher "can link some aspect of shooting with almost every subject taught in our nation's schools."

I wondered if it was only coincidental that the convention was held during National Frozen Food Month. Eating certainly is at the forefront of convention activities, with "food functions" sponsored by everyone from the American Desk Manufacturing Company to Control Data Corporation to the Kansas Association of School Administrators to the Women's Caucus.

But AASA conventions are not just display booths and food extravaganzas. There are also five days of speeches. I guess I wasn't really surprised to see the first general session kicked off by the Magic Kingdom's royal couple, Mickey and Minnie Mouse. This is, after all, Orlando. (There's an entertainment prelude to each general session; later we're treated to the Singing Superintendents joining their voices in "Climb Every Mountain.") After the rodent pair dances a jig and does a spiel hyping the educational benefits of Disney World, the AASA president delivers a message I hear repeated throughout my five days: "We've had too much criticism. We have the greatest public education system in the world." Applause. Applause.

Huge video screens dominate the front of the hall, so you can watch the real thing on stage or the larger-than-life video representations. The audience rises to sing "The Star Spangled Banner," to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, and to hear an invocation. The executive committee of the AASA is introduced. Each committee member and spouse walks on stage hand-in-hand, the woman of the pair carrying a bouquet of flowers. First-time convention attendees are asked to stand and are entreated to strive for the 25-year attendance pin.

Play ball

And then comes the star attraction: introduced as a business man, a fierce competitor, a man who dearly loves our great country and supports our political system, a vice-president of the Olympic Committee, the 1977 baseball Executive of the Year, and "great lover of young people"--George Steinbrenner.

Steinbrenner tells his AASA audience that he recently advised officials at his alma mater, Williams College, "Honor the student like me--the C-, D+ student. Some day I will return here and give you a new chemistry building."

The owner of the New York Yankees goes on to brag about his fines for being a loudmouth--"more than all my players put together--$425,000." He says that when he bought the Yankees, they were such a sorry lot "the team picture looked like a poster for birth control." Such remarks play to a receptive house. When Steinbrenner delivers the tasteless, racist remark that "Sanchez was so lazy he thought manual labor was the president of his country," the crowd of educators roars its delight.

Then George Steinbrenner looks directly at this audience of several thousand and says, "I love teaching. Nothing is more important to me than education." America's school superintendents sop this up. They believe him, not noticing that later in his remarks he admits that he ranks breathing No. 1 and winning as No. 2. And the superintendents vigorously applaud his message of keeping our foreign aid at home instead of sending it to other nations, "some of whom burn our flags. Let's keep it here and take care of our young. There's something wrong about giving it to other nations."

The audience clearly loves this beefy despot who can stand there and brag, "I do it my way"--a man who has fired 16 managers. He was, after all, speaking to a group that knows how tough it is to get rid of just one troublesome teacher. People whose big decisions ordinarily focus on pre-portioned school lunches love listening to this paunchy peacock drop the names of his industrialist friends--the fellows who, he tells us, share his $120 lunches at Twenty-One.

"The most important people in this nation today are not politicians or industrialists," Steinbrenner then intones, "they are educators." Applause. Applause. When Steinbrenner adds, "You are the chosen few," they applaud again. They give him a standing ovation.

Immediately following Steinbrenner on the program is the announcement of the Superintendent of the Year. Although the master of ceremonies insists that "the suspense builds" to learn the name of the distinguished winner, hundreds of superintendents jam the aisles trying to get to the exit. Superintendents came to hear Steinbrenner the celebrity, not one of their own. And they don't care that a consultant named Zacharie J. Clemens is a featured speaker.

Clemens starts off his speech by saying "how downright awesome" it feels "to have the opportunity to address the CEOs of America's schools." Boy, do superintendents like being referred to as CEOs.

Clemens tells lots of ethnic jokes and speaks in various dialects to portray uplifting conversations he's had with everyone from superintendents to crippled children in hospital wards. He imitates the pronunciation of a person with a serious speech defect and of a child with severe cerebral palsy. He informs his audience that he knows a lot about difficult students--like Big Brenda, with her 44W bosoms, and another kid with "his fly down and his underpants in his back pocket." Using a high, squeaky, mincing tone, he quotes a first grader: "Sex education--first, you gotta avoid intersections, and second you gotta buy condominiums." Applause. Applause.

Afterwards, members of the AASA audience rush forward to tell Clemens how moved they were by his performance, especially that cerebral palsy kid.

The next general session speaker, Theodore Sizer, author of Horace's Compromise and chairman of the Coalition of Essential Schools, does not pack the celebrity draw of George Steinbrenner or attempt the pull-at-the-heartstrings of Zacharie Clemens. After all, Sizer really is working full-time to fix America's schools. But unfortunately, the convention format takes its toll on him too. He opens with a joke about Wade Boggs's sex life that falls flat. And it doesn't help any that he has a plane to catch. As a result, his presentation is minimal, and he doesn't even stay for the ensuing panel discussion organized around it. All in all, a pretty shoddy appearance--but maybe Sizer was the only one here who gave the AASA meeting the time it was really worth. I figure that, even counting the drive to and from the airport, he must not have been in Orlando for much more than an hour.

Susan Ohanian taught in the public schools for nearly 20 years and is currently writing a book about teaching. Research assistance provided by Mary Clayton Coleman.
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Title Annotation:The Jokers Who Run Our Schools
Author:Ohanian, Susan
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Sep 1, 1990
Words:2328
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