These aren’t exactly go-go times in public education. Yet on June 25, for the second time in recent months, Mayor Anthony A. Williams watched as his top candidate to become the city’s next school superintendent walked away from a job offer and a large pile of cash. This time it was Carl Cohn, the former superintendent of schools in Long Beach, Calif, who announced that he would not take the position overseeing the District’s public schools. Admittedly, Cohn is a tough catch. A few years ago, he rejected similar overtures from city officials in Los Angeles. When a reporter from the Daily News of Los Angeles asked Cohn why he wouldn’t consider their offer, Cohn noted, “I’m not suicidal.” Ouch.
This time around, Cohn was feeling more charitable. When Williams & Co. came crawling to Long Beach, Cohn hinted that he would take the job but only for one year. No more. No less.
For his generous offer, Cohn took a beating.
Darlene Allen, president of the D.C. Parent Teacher Association, appeared on WAMU’s The Kojo Nnamdi Show and expressed her skepticism about Cohn’s proposal. Allen said she didn’t think Cohn could turn around the school system in one year, “not even with a large magic wand, ruby slippers, and a healthy supply of fairy dust to sprinkle over everyone.”
“It’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard,” William P. Wilson, a Ward 7 schools activist, told the Washington Post. “What can you do in a year?”
Apparently, the editors at the Post agreed. “The terms [Cohn] has set for considering the D.C. post may serve his interests, but do they respond to the needs of the beleaguered D.C. public school system?” wrote the Post’s editorial board. “A school district that has had four superintendents in the past eight years, in addition to two acting chiefs in the past eight months, needs stability.”
Cohn should be applauded, not mocked, for his belief that rejuvenating the District’s school system is essentially a one-year job. Intentionally or not, Cohn has stumbled upon a profound secret about managing broken systems: Stability is overrated.
The D.C. public schools have had way too much stability for way too long. Stable violence. Stable truancy. Stable underachievement. The system is rife with stability. The only thing left to stabilize is the high level of lead in the drinking water.
In the future, everyone should be the District’s school superintendent for one year, or, if he prefers, 15 minutes. It’s time we give instability a chance.
Look what it’s done for the Washington Redskins. For years, every know-it-all couch jockey in the land has chalked up the Redskins’ mediocrity to their lack of stability in head coaches. Animatronic columnists cranked out the same rote analysis over and over. “If Snyder is patient, Spurrier will win,” read a story by Brian Baldinger in the Sporting News, which is typical of the genre. “The key is stability. The Redskins have gone through too many changes in recent years, and Snyder must avoid the urge to twitch his trigger finger.”
But Snyder stuck to his tommy guns, picking off coaches, players, and scouts with seemingly little discretion. Eventually, it worked. Where would the Redskins be today if Snyder had bowed to his critics and accepted the tyranny of stability? We’d be stuck with Steve Spurrier or Marty Schottenheimer or Norv Turner leading us from one bad season to another. Instead, Snyder’s commitment to instability paved the way for the return of Joe Gibbs. Instability led to salvation.
But Snyder is not the only visionary of instability in the District. As always, the members of the District’s Board of Education are out ahead of the pack, slashing and burning the path to a brighter future. When it comes to rewarding instability, they are pioneers. To wit: In April, Elfreda Massie, the District’s interim superintendent, stepped down after roughly six months on the job. On her way out, the members of the school board complimented her for making the most of her scant time—oh, and they gave her a $33,750 bonus.
Now that’s the kind of innovation that will lure would-be superintendents to the District in droves. In fact, the mayor would be well-advised to implement the inverse pay schedule for all city positions. Imagine the benefits of a municipal pay system in which the longer you work, the less you get paid. Under this system, the District would be able to attract all the top talent in the country. For the first couple of months, employees would be highly motivated and well-compensated. Then, as their energy began to wane, so too would their paychecks. With any luck, all the newcomers would eventually hightail it home before the inevitable onset of bureaucratic paralysis.
Perhaps if this policy had been implemented from the advent of home rule, the District’s entire history would have played out better. If Marion S. Barry Jr. had pulled a Carl Cohn and stepped down after one year in office, he’d have retired as a cherished civil-rights leader. What did all those extra years in office earn him, aside from a little jail time and some memorable moments on camera?
Stability set him up.
Today, all across the District, various leaders can be seen suffering under the yoke of stability. Witness poor Lucy Spelman, director of the National Zoo, who continues to toil away in the lion’s den, waiting for her resignation to kick in at the end of this year. Imagine how much better life would have been for Spelman (and the animals at the zoo) if she had quit after her first year on the job. No investigative series by the Washingtonian and the Post exposing her many failures. No humiliating review by the National Academy of Sciences. No dead zebras.
But to understand why the District school system needs a heavy dose of instability at the top, one must take a slight detour from zoo management into chaos theory.
In Chaos: Making a New Science, James Gleick writes about the revolutionary work done by Edward Lorenz, who was one of the first scientists to recognize that “chaos and instability… were not the same at all.”
“A chaotic system could be stable if its particular brand of irregularity persisted in the face of small disturbances,” writes Gleick. “The chaos Lorenz discovered, with all its unpredictability, was as stable as a marble in a bowl. You could add noise to this system, jiggle it, stir it up, interfere with its motion, and then when everything settled down, the transients died away like echoes in a canyon.”
Sound familiar? Lorenz’s prototypical chaotic system—that is, one that is locally unpredictable but globally stable—was Earth’s atmosphere. But he might as well have been looking at D.C.’s public schools. What happens on any given day in, say, a classroom at Ballou Senior High School might be unpredictable, even unfathomable. Yet if you look at the whole system over time, everybody knows exactly what to expect. It’s a classic example of a chaotic system in which stability, not the lack of stability, is the problem.
A small tweak here or there won’t change the overall tendencies of a chaotic system. What the D.C. school system needs, scientifically speaking, is a good kick in the pants—over and over and over. The superintendent variable should be changed as often and as dramatically as possible until the system breaks out of its current rut. From now on, the city’s search committee shouldn’t focus on finding one superintendent who will stay in the District for the next 15 years. Instead, it should look for 15 candidates who will only stay for a single year.
The city should consider all applicants even if they don’t have a background in education and even if they have a spotty record in management. Spelman, for example, will soon need a job. Why not give her a whack at the system? What about Michael Moore? He could make a scintillating documentary about the D.C. school system. Call it Fahrenheit 202. How about Bobby Goldwater, the former president of the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission? He was quick on his feet. Give him a year and he could probably turn the D.C. school system into something special—like, say, a NASCAR track.
As for Cohn, it’s probably for the best that he dropped out. After all, his commitment to instability was suspect. Back in 1997, Cohn came to the District with a number of students on a field trip. At the time, Cohn was considering leaving his job as the Long Beach super. But then, according to a story in the Long Beach Press-Telegram, Cohn experienced a Mr. Smith Goes to Washington–like epiphany. “I’m looking out at the Lincoln Memorial and reading all these really inspirational works,” Cohn told the paper. “And I thought to myself, ‘You’ve got these wonderful kids doing great things. This really is what it’s all about. You can stay on longer.’”
Yikes. On second thought, we’re definitely better off without this guy.CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Robert Meganck.