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April 1, 2004
Vol. 61
No. 7

Meeting Challenges in Urban Schools

Rhetoric about leadership often obscures the fact that school leadership is rooted in the realities of place, roles, and resources.

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Credit: Credit: Gary Waters / Alamy Stock Photo
President George W. Bush steps out of a plane onto the flight deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln in May 2003 to declare the end of the war in Iraq. It's a 100-octane image of can-do leadership. Yet such media-hyped images do not show how real leadership emerges—within a given context and role, and often constrained by limited resources. Teachers, principals, and superintendents in urban, largely minority districts lack the photo ops that presidents can command. They find ways to lead nevertheless, in settings that differ dramatically from those of their affluent suburban counterparts.
Films, magazines, and books have portrayed a number of urban teachers, principals, and superintendents as heroic leaders: Los Angeles math teacher Jaime Escalante, who helped underachieving Latino students at Garfield High School pass the advanced placement calculus test; Joe Clark of bullhorn and baseball bat fame, who as principal famously turned around New Jersey's Eastside High School; and New York school chancellor Rudy Crew, who tangled with Mayor Rudolph Giuliani on education issues. They were instructional, managerial, and political leaders in their classrooms, schools, and districts; the media caught their glow and made them famous for longer than their allotted 15 minutes.
But when Escalante, Clark, and Crew moved on to other posts, their high-profile leadership slipped away. How come?
It has to do with the settings in which these leaders worked, the varied and complex ways they exerted authority in their roles, and the resources they commanded. All come into play in understanding not only the stiff challenges facing urban schools but also how those challenges can produce effective urban leaders.


In middle-class and affluent suburbs, students generally attend adequately funded schools in safe communities. These students usually have an ample network of home support—parental guidance, sufficient food, and access to books and computers, for example. Students also benefit from the services of professionals, such as tutors, optometrists, dentists, and therapists, as the need arises.
Not so for low-income students in rural and urban schools. Teachers, principals, and superintendents working in low-income schools and districts face different challenges than those of their peers working in middle-class and affluent areas. Although parents in low-income communities want the same opportunities for their children as middle- and upper-income parents do, they live in places that threaten their safety and lack the resources to support their aspirations. Moreover, schools in these areas seldom provide the minimum services that middle-class families and districts take for granted.

Refusing to Accept Low Expectations

Take Locke High School in Los Angeles, California, for example. Three thousand students attend the school, which has an average class size of 37 students. More than half of the school's 120 teachers have fewer than two years of teaching experience. The 9th grade class of 1,200 students shrinks to approximately 250 students by senior year. Textbooks for specific classes are apt to be unavailable.
This school's setting—characterized by unwieldy class sizes, inexperienced teachers, large numbers of at-risk students, low expectations for its student body, and lack of resources—differs enormously from the settings of more-affluent schools. But new principal Gail Garrett decisively and thoughtfully worked to change Locke's conditions. Ninth graders have been divided into groups and are taught by teams of teachers. Garrett has made sure that textbooks are available. And every morning, she announces over the loudspeaker, “Welcome to Locke High School, where each and every one of our students is expected to go to college.” Locke's small gains in test scores may be linked to such improvements. But how different the situation is just a few miles away in Beverly Hills and Santa Monica, where the high school principals don't have to worry about textbook availability, large class size, poorly trained teachers, or students who won't make it to college (Winerup, 2003).

Insisting on a Challenging Curriculum

Most affluent schools wouldn't debate the necessity for a rigorous curriculum. But consider veteran teacher Rafe Esquith's experience at Hobart Boulevard Elementary School in Los Angeles. The school has more than 2,100 students. In Esquith's English class, 32 low-income Latino and Asian 5th and 6th graders read Shakespeare, Dickens, Salinger, and Steinbeck; in math, he starts his students on algebra. These highly motivated students—who begin school at 6:30 a.m. and finish at 5:00 p.m.—work together and help one another. Those who lag behind receive tutoring to bring them up to speed. The students perform classroom jobs and receive scrip for their work, which they can then redeem for prizes. Parents vie to get their children into Esquith's class knowing how hard their sons and daughters will work. Esquith also schedules class trips so that his students can perform Shakespearean plays for other schools in California.
After battling with district supervisors over his challenging curriculum, the plays that his students performed, and his high expectations for student achievement, Esquith became an entrepreneur in raising the necessary funds and support for his ambitious program. Compared to other students in schools with similar demographics, his students have scored high on state-mandated tests as a result of his efforts (Mathews, 2003).

Focusing on Instructional Excellence

Discouraged teachers and wary parents are also common features of the urban school landscape. Consider Betty Belt, who presided over Oakridge Elementary School in urban Arlington, Virginia, in the 1970s and 1980s. In a community deeply worried about sharp increases in minority students and declining district test scores, Belt knew exactly what to do to satisfy administrators, teachers, students, and parents.
Popping in and out of the 30-plus classrooms and occasionally taking over a class or tutoring a student, Belt knew the names of most of Oakridge's 500 students. Her goal was straightforward: to make Oakridge the number-one school in the district.
To achieve that goal, Belt tirelessly focused on classroom instruction and student achievement. She asked teachers to give her samples of student writing to read so she could write comments to the authors. Every nine weeks, she reviewed report cards—both grades and teacher appraisals—before the assessments were sent home. She kept student reading and math records in her office, monitoring them periodically for sudden changes in performance. Teachers assigned to Oakridge soon realized that the school was no place for tired practitioners to hide. For both teachers and students, Belt set a high bar for performance and outcomes.
When it came to parents, Belt responded quickly to their concerns and kept them up-to-date on school and district policies. She knew that parents were powerful political allies and that they could help her reach her goals. Making Oakridge the highest-performing school in Arlington depended, however, on several factors: experienced teachers, parent volunteers, fund raising, Belt's expertise as a leader and educator, her negotiating skills with the superintendent, and her regular presence at school board meetings to lobby for the school. As Oakridge steadily improved, parents increasingly sought to transfer their children there.

Rallying Broad Support

Turning an entire urban school district around requires a special set of skills. The Seattle, Washington, school board chose John Stanford to become its superintendent in 1995. Stanford, a former U.S. Army general and county executive in Georgia, had no experience as either a teacher or a principal. Failed tax levies, declining public support for the schools, and fractious relations between teachers and the school board and between blacks and whites over the quality of schooling had convinced Seattle civic and business leaders to seek out a different kind of superintendent (Yee & McCloud, 2003).
Within three years, Stanford's focus on student learning produced content standards for every grade that were consistent with state requirements. He shifted more authority to the school site, made principals into veritable CEOs by making them accountable, and signed an agreement with the teachers union that pulled all parties together to work on improving teaching and learning. He launched a new student assignment plan that ended mandatory busing. He devised a new formula for student funding that provided additional money for teachers, all-day kindergartens, and other support services to schools that took in students from low-income families. In concert with an intense media campaign that asked all Seattle citizens to work together on behalf of all students, Stanford went into schools daily to speak with teachers and students, attended all parent meetings in the schools, and worked closely with the city's civic and business elite. Stanford's political and managerial know-how resulted in organizational changes and a climate of strong support for public schools.

Roles and Authority

If setting matters in leadership, so does organizational position. The authority vested in teachers, principals, and superintendents sets up the expectation that each will lead. Authority can be a valuable resource for taking initiative and providing moral leadership.
Esquith was a successful school leader because—unlike many colleagues who settle for less—he took risks in revising the curriculum, fought supervisors who challenged his brand of teaching, created a climate for learning, and built close relationships with his students. He succeeded because he persisted and because he had the political know-how to use the strong performance of his students to persuade parents and his superiors that his approach was worthwhile.
Belt used her authority as principal to enhance instruction and motivate both students and teachers to learn. Stanford used his formal position as superintendent to reach out to the larger Seattle community. He created a moral climate of support for students and learning as he prodded a creaky, problem-filled system toward higher achievement.
Teachers, principals, and superintendents such as these perform three crucial roles in instruction, management, and politics. These roles are the grist of leadership, cutting across classrooms, principal offices, and district headquarters.

Instructional Role

Instruction is the central task that teachers are expected to perform. In urban schools where low expectations reign, teachers have a special obligation to push students academically. Flamboyant Rafe Esquith chose his classroom content and methodology; his students learned as much about character and duty as they learned about algebra and Shakespeare. School principals like Betty Belt instruct students, teachers, and parents with the moral example they set; the practices they implement in their schools; the teacher workshops they lead; and the written documents they produce, such as memos, daily bulletins, and articles for professional journals. For superintendents like John Stanford, the instructional stage is larger, taking in students, teachers, principals, and the community at large, and the instructional goal is raising academic achievement.

Managerial Role

Teachers face the basic task of establishing class rules—often proxies for moral values. Like their suburban counterparts, urban teachers must deal with mountains of paperwork, arbitrate classroom squabbles, keep conflicts to a minimum, oversee homework, regularly grade students, and hold parent-teacher conferences. But in urban schools, where multiple languages, cultures, and values come into play, teachers need exquisitely fine-tuned skills for managing the inevitable rush of conflicts.
Think about Rafe Esquith in that Los Angeles 5th and 6th grade classroom. His conflict management skills ensured that the various classroom activities proceeded smoothly. For principal Betty Belt and superintendent John Stanford, the managerial role not only meant channeling paper flow, delegating tasks to the right people, and keeping the school and district on an even keel. It also meant keeping a firm hold on the tiller to steer the ship in the right direction as political squabbles and crises inevitably brewed and threatened a change in course.

Political Role

Deciding what is important and how to achieve organizational and personal goals falls in the purview of the political role. Of course, teachers and administrators who find little value in the press for higher standardized test scores or in the idea of identifying schools as underperforming when scores dip one year will seldom publicly argue against district, state, or federal laws, such as No Child Left Behind. They are expected to exercise their technical and organizational skills in implementing the decisions of school boards, governors, state legislatures, and the U.S. Congress.
But this does not mean that teachers and administrators do not engage in politics. They do, both inside and outside the organization. John Stanford negotiated with school board members, principals, unions, parent groups, and city officials. Betty Belt bargained with her superintendent and lobbied parents and school board members. Rafe Esquith made unspoken deals with his 5th and 6th graders that if they worked hard in and out of school, they would have a splendid time learning about themselves and the world in which they lived. These urban teachers and administrators found ways to achieve their priorities by building political coalitions in and out of their classrooms, schools, and districts.
For urban teachers and administrators to make political choices, they must make moral ones as well. Teachers give gold stars to 2nd graders who score highest on an arithmetic test; a middle school principal permits an English teacher to show an anti-abortion film to present a balanced view of a controversial issue; a superintendent angered by the unfunded and flawed No Child Left Behind Act nevertheless signs an open letter to legislators to keep the law because it prods districts to raise expectations that all minority students can learn. These are political and moral actions aimed at achieving specific priorities.
Urban teachers and administrators enact their intertwined instructional, managerial, and political core roles daily to create unique melds of leadership that are contingent on the setting and their levels of authority. If ex-Chancellor Rudy Crew became superintendent in affluent Chappaqua, New York, there would be no guarantee that he would flourish as top administrator. In affluent suburban districts, superintendents must often focus on soothing highly educated parents who are concerned for their children's futures. Urban leaders, however, are often driven by a concern for social justice. They focus on raising student achievement for the students in the lowest percentiles.
If Rafe Esquith left Hobart Boulevard Elementary School and drove 20 miles to teach 5th graders in a Beverly Hills school, he would not necessarily receive a standing ovation from the principal and parents who want their 11-year-olds to get into Stanford, Yale, and Duke. For students at Hobart, doing algebra, performing Shakespeare, and taking field trips open up brand-new experiences. In Beverly Hills, parents might well yawn.
Smart teachers, principals, and superintendents can certainly transfer their sharp problem-solving skills and experience to different settings and leave their mark on students and adults. But enduring leadership comes from a subtly woven match among setting, roles, and resources that too often eludes policymakers eager to see quick, deep improvements in schools and districts.

The Threshold of Adequate Resources

Implementing standards-based reforms, increased testing, and strict accountability as solutions to urban education's woes demands that teachers and administrators take on new responsibilities for which no manuals have been written or resources allocated. Teachers and administrators must provide moral leadership to raise students' academic performance, reduce the achievement gap, and build proud, engaged, and humane young men and women of high moral stature.
Is this too much to expect of urban teachers, principals, and superintendents who work with mostly low-income minority students and their families? Yes. Too often, the call for leadership is a less-than-subtle call to educators to do more with less.
Private school tuition in most big cities ranges from $15,000 to $20,000, an amount that seldom covers the full cost of educating the student (National Association of Independent Schools, 2002–2003). Even after equity financing court decisions, suburban schools still outspend urban schools, a fact that seldom tarnishes the glowing words about education leadership. Instead of giving underfunded urban institutions and neglected communities the resources they need—competent professionals, time, and money, for example—both political parties, many governors, and the past four U.S. presidents have offered only promises and flamboyant rhetoric, not line items in federal and state budgets. Recent cuts in state education budgets and the federally funded No Child Left Behind legislation graphically demonstrate the gap between words and deeds. As class sizes increase, as teacher professional development shrinks, and as experienced teachers and administrators flee urban districts, leadership in urban settings becomes little more than salvaging those students who can succeed. These are realities that no amount of eloquent rhetoric about leadership can hide.
Photo ops don't make leaders. Neither do front-page newspaper stories, television programs, or Hollywood films. Contexts, authority and its three interrelated roles, and the availability of resources give rise to leadership in urban classrooms, schools, and districts. Depending on such selfless educators as Jaime Escalante and Rudy Crew for urban leadership obscures the fact that most urban teachers and administrators are well-intentioned mortals, not heroic figures. And they need more to succeed than just inspiring rhetoric.

Mathews, J. (2003, Oct. 14). Pursuing happiness through hard work. Washington Post, p. A13.

National Association of Independent Schools. (2002–2003). Statistical Indicators, 2002–2003.

Winerup, M. (2003, Nov. 5). A test for Schwarzenegger: Adding muscle to bare bone. New York Times, p. A21.

Yee, G., & McCloud, B. (2003). A vision of hope: A case study of Seattle's two non-traditional superintendents. In L. Cuban & M. Usdan (Eds.), Powerful reforms with shallow roots (pp. 54–76). New York: Teachers College Press.

Larry Cuban has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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