Tacked on the wall in the office of Arlington school Superintendent Larry Cuban is a hand lettered poster that reads:
"Some people riding on a magic carpet would complain about the pattern."
Larry Cuban should know. He oversees a school system with 17,000 students in an era of declining test scores, teacher militancy and Proposition 13. Enrollment in Arlington schools has undergone a drastic decline and an ethnic metamorphosis. Parents are angry about school closings, and a large percentage of ninth graders tested last spring can't write a clear five-sentence paragraph about their favorite TV show.
"A superintendent is constantly criticized," said Cuban, 42, who has held the $45,550-a-year job since 1974. "Schools have become a proxy for disillusionment about a lot in life. It's only when you're dead, in a hospital bed or retired that people say nice things about you."
Some people will never say nice things about Larry Cuban. Angered by raises it considers paltry and barred from collective bargaining by the Virginia Supreme Court, the Arlington Education Association last month called on teachers to engage in a "work to the rule" slowdown.
Parent group are gearing up for the annual fight over school closings in a county where enrollment has declined more than 31 percent in eight years.The student population, once virtually all-white and, until seven years ago, racially segregated, is now more than one-third nonwhite, integrated and multilingual. More than 40 different languages are spoken by members of Arlington's student body, many of whom havelimited ability in English.
Last spring, 43 percent of the county's ninth graders failed a pilot minimum competency writing test which asked students to write a clear, five-sentence paragraph about their favorite TV show.
"Arlington is a high conflict school system," said Cuban, as the sound of Muzak wafted through his office, courtesy of a portable radio.
Much of the conflict revolves around Cuban who is, as one observer noted, "very unsuperintendent-like." There is none of the quality of a wise, stern but kindly old ex-principal who has worked his way up through the ranks and, as superintendent, tends to administrative tasks in his office.
"He's as universally disliked as any man I've ever seen in a school system," said one veteran ex-principal, echoing the complaints of others who say Cuban tends to be personally defensive when confronted by criticism of the school system. "The ideal superintendent is in the wings rather than on top of the staff all the time."
Cuban visits county schools several times each week and is, even his staunchest opponents concede, remarkably accessible. A man who, with humorous self-deprecation has acknowleged that he looks like Gomer Pyle, Cuban reportedly keeps a "mug book" with the names and photographs of teachers and staff. He greets many by name and recently issued a written invitation to all teachers to ask him to lunch at their schools.
"His program emphasis is strongly oriented to basics and to fine-tuning a system which really is a very, very conservative approach," said Associate Superintendent Harold Wilson. A 30-year veteran of the Arlington system who looks very "superintendent-like." Wilson is described as an accomplished politician with a sizable constituency of parents, teachers and administrators. Wilson turned down a chance to be superintendent and is one of Cuban's most trusted advisers.
"Larry's style is quite open," Wilson said. "You have people who approve of everything he does but don't like him. They want the style to go along with all that rigor."
The youngest of three sons of Russian immigrants who settled in Pittsburgh, Cuban is the only member of his family to go to college. He earned a BA in history from the University of Pittsburgh and then went to Cleveland, where he taught social studies for seven years in an all-black high school. He also earned a master's degree at Case-Western Reserve University and met his wife, Barbara. They have two teen-age daughters.
"This was before the civil rights movement and the notion of ghetto schools, and it was a very powerful experience," Cuban recalled. His work in Cleveland and the publication of the first of six books led to an offer in 1963 from Benetta Washington to teach and later direct the Cardozo Project, which prepared returning Peace Corps volunteers who had never taught to teach in inner-city schools.
Cuban spent nearly a decade in the D.C. Public Schools as a teacher, author and administrator, interspersed with prestigious summer fellowships at Harvard and Yale.
"When I was 37," he recalled, "I decided that if I wanted to be a superintendent I needed that piece of paper, so I went to Stanford and got a doctorate in two years. "Cuban's dissertation, now a book, is entitled "Urban School Chiefs Under Fire."
In 1974 Cuban, who had never been a principal or superintendent. One school board member noted that at the time. "There was general dissatisfaction with the schools concentrated on the superintendent. The feeling was that in 1974, Arlington had the best school system we could have in 1965."
"What I presented (to the school board)," Cuban said, "was that schools should be responsible for doing a number of things well: teaching basic skills, inspiring parental confidence, being accountable and getting kids to feel reasonably good about themselves."
As superintendent, Cuban has emphasized staff evaluation and meeting defined goals in basic skills. Each principal submits annual plans that are reviewed by Cuban and monitored throughout the year. Some teachers and administrators complain bitterly about the increased paperwork, but others note privately that this has sharpened the focus of the school system.
Cuban also submits and assesses his own plan. One of his goals last year was to reduce the percentage of fourth and sixth graders reading two or more years below grade level in his recently released assessment Cuban noted, "The objective was met for the 4th grade but not for the 6th grade."
In Arlington, where schools have been a political issue for years, Cuban is perceived by some as unacceptably liberal, despite his emphasis on plans, accountability and basics. A curious mixture of old-line Southern conservatism and Democratic liberalism in the Kennedy mold. Arlington politics have greatly affected Cuban's tenure.
"Larry is perceived as a person hired by the Democratic-ABC majority," noted school board member Richard A. Barton, referring to the coalition of Democrats and the Arlingtonians for A Better County politics since 1955. When Cuban was hired, all seats on the school and county boards were controlled by the coalition.
In 1975, two Republican-endorsed county board members, Dorothy T. Grotos and Walter I. Frankland, were elected. Frankland attributes his entry into politics and his victory to profound dissatisfactions with Cuban and has spent much of the last four years publicly airing those dissatisfactions.
"That man (Cuban) is the key to the changes in Arlington County government," Frankland said flatly. "He was a school teacher in the District and he comes across the river and becomes an instant superintendent. He has not improved Arlington's system one iota."
Like Frankland, some Arlingtonians complain about what they view as a preciptious decline in educational quality from the halcydon days of the 1950s when the "March of Time" television documentary spotlighted the Arlington school system as an outstanding example of suburban education.
"If we can't get ninth graders to write a five-sentence paragraph telling about their favorite TV show, then I wonder what in the world we're doing in the schools," Frankland told Cuban at a meeting last week.
Cuban replied that basic skills centers have been established in each secondary school and that individual remedial plans have been devised for each failing student, who must pass a similar test in order to be graduated in 1981.
Those who talk about the golden years often have had bad memories," Cuban said. "By any measure of quality Arlington is in the top 10 percent of all school systems. The staff has improved academic standing in the midst of fiscal and population changes." As proof he noted that last year 76 percent of Arlington's student continued their education after high school.
County board member Joseph S. Wholey agrees with Cuban. "It's a very successful school system that doesn't perceive itself that way," Wholey said, noting that Arlington's $2,700 per pupil expenditure is among the highest in the state. "My perception is that kids are doing very well.The reality is that we have these tremendous resources available, yet the gossip back and forth is how tough things are."