It may be, as some Fairfax County parents charge, that the administration of schools Superintendent Jack Dale — who just announced that he will step down in 2013 — is not as transparent as it should be.
And his administration’s rigid discipline policy in schools — along with Dale’s defense of it after the suicide of a teenager who was grappling with the fallout of a disciplinary infraction — was inexcusable. (The policy was also changed by the Fairfax school board after Washington Post stories explored the issue.)
Dale’s refusal to support a change in the very early start times of high schools — a move favored by Fairfax parent activists who argue, correctly, that teens are biologically programmed to stay up late and get up late — has been frustrating in a school system that is one of the best and smartest in the country.
And, because of budget cuts that were not his fault, he has overseen the consequences, including a freeze on teacher pay, reductions in summer school and other unpopular moves.
But there are other very important things to say about the tenure of Dale in the 175,000-student system, the 11th largest in the country, things like this:
*If you care about standardized test scores, state math and reading test scores have risen and achievement gaps have narrowed even as the proportion of low-income students — as measured by those who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches rose — from 19 percent in 2005-06 to 25 percent in the last school year.
*The dropout rate has stayed incredibly low; it was 1.5 percent in 2007-08 and 1.43 percent in 2009-10.
*Recognizing the importance of early childhood education, Dale extended full-day kindergarten to all elementary schools.
*Dale was a national leader in trying to find some sanity in No Child Left Behind policy regarding English language learners. Several years ago he argued that students new to the country were being tested under NCLB’s accountability system too soon after arriving and it was not fair to the students or the schools that were judged on the results of the exams. He tried to defy the requirements and led a fight, joined by other districts, against the inflexible rules. He did not get what he wanted at the time, but he fought the right battle.
*Dale refused to be drawn into the new national love affair with performance pay for teachers, an initiative supported by the Obama administration. He was right when he repeatedly noted that Fairfax had tried it once unsuccessfully and that teacher evaluation and pay were best done in other ways.
*Dale is a big believer in the notion that teaching is a team effort rather than the solitary one expressed in the teacher evaluation schemes being pushed around the country that link teacher pay to student test scores. He agreed to extended teacher contracts that were designed to foster teamwork among teachers.
*Dale provided extra resources to “priority” schools that needed extra to lift student achievement goals, a policy not popular with everybody in the county but still the right thing for a superintendent to do.
*He fought the rigidity of Virginia’s Standards of Learning accountability system this year by leading a group of superintendents in Virginia to persuade the state to allow students to take the dreaded SOL exams anytime during the school year rather than at the end of the year as now required. The idea was to allow kids who can pass the exams early in the year the opportunity to take classes that are less test-driven and more thoughtful and experiential.
It’s not much of a surprise that Dale has announced he won’t seek a renewal of his contract when it expires at the end of June 2013. For one thing, he will have been in the job just short of a decade, and for another, there could be big changes soon in the Fairfax County School Board, Dale’s boss. Half of the 12 school board members are not seeking reelection this November, and some of the candidates running are opponents of Dale’s for one reason or another.
Running a school system is one of the hardest leadership jobs in the country today. A superintendent is expected not only to address all of the issues surrounding student achievement at a time when student and staff demographics are changing but also handle the technology revolution, declining resources, and changing federal mandates.
There’s no way to please everyone, and lots of ways to annoy nearly everybody. Dale came to Fairfax in 2004, assuming responsibility for one of the great school systems in the country. He will leave Fairfax as one of the great school systems in the country.
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