Under Other Influences

Eduwonk does not condone drinking and driving, yet the saga of the superintendent of schools in Alexandria, Virginia, seems to be driven more by other agendas — namely angst about other decisions she has made and people trying to score points about zero tolerance policies — than real concern about her DUI arrest.

To recap, here are Eduwonk’s CliffsNotes to the controversy: Superintendent makes a bold decision to reassign a top-flight principal from a popular small school to a very challenging and struggling one…parents at the principal’s current school freak out…superintendent meets with parents for several hours one evening…afterwards she understandably wants a drink and repairs to local restaurant with a school board member…on the way home she gets pulled over and arrested for DUI with a .12 blood alcohol level.

All in all not pretty. But worthy of five articles plus a column in The Washington Post and subsequent coverage elsewhere?

The circumstances leading up to this incident, as well as much of the ensuing controversy, are a prime example of what happens when equity meets NIMBY. Middle class parents are all for improving schools for poor kids — unless it means changing schools that are serving their children well. This superintendent is being attacked not simply for what was admittedly a serious mistake; she’s also being punished for unpopular staffing decisions.

On top of that, opponents of zero-tolerance policies for students argue that it’s unfair to subject students to strict consequences for drinking but also give this superintendent another chance. Sure, there are serious consequences for students who get caught drinking. (Although Eduwonk is not much of a fan of zero-tolerance anyway.) But the superintendent is 21, the students are not, and she’s already facing the legal consequences of her actions. Moreover, by all accounts this was an isolated incident and, let’s be honest, a mistake many adults privately admit to at times having made themselves. Not an excuse but context.

Describing the uproar one school board member bluntly told The Post, “people with an ax to grind are the people we’re hearing from” and another described the controversy as media driven. That seems to about sum it up. In the end the board hung tough and voted 7-1 to keep the superintendent. Good decision. She didn’t set a great example for students but her critics were setting pretty bad one too.

Afterthought: It’s working! Isn’t reallocating highly effective personnel to the most challenging (and usually highest poverty) schools exactly the sort of change No Child Left Behind is intended to cause?

Bonus Afterthought: Instead of just fueling controversy, wouldn’t it make a great story if journalists set out to describe just how brutally difficult it is to make staffing changes to improve low-performing schools….

Update! Patrick Welsh (an Alexandria teacher and Washington Post contributor) takes a different view on transferring principals from effective schools to struggling ones.

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