For a tough, "I'm-in-charge-here" type of guy D.C. School Superintendent Vincent E. Reed has done a remarkable job of avoiding criticism during his three years in office.
When Reed replaced Barbara Sizemore in October 1975, his bosses on the school board were tired of arguing after loud public fights with a string of superintendents, none of whom lasted more than a year or two. Parents of schoolchildren simply wanted a steady, calm leader at the helm after a decade of dissension.
And Reed's employes were proud that "one of us" had worked his way up through the system to sit at the top of the Presidential Building. Several previous superintendents were from out of town and had never worked in D.C. schools.
But, as Reed, who was reappointed to a second three-year term Monday, begins his fourth year as superintendent, critics are beginning to ask: What have you done in three years?Are the schools any better at educating children? And why have students' test scores not improved?
Reed's critics charge that city schools are still chaotic, that some of their halls are lined with dope smokers, that many of their graduates are unable to read, write or handle math problems.
Reed says he does not feel responsible for the academic skills of many students now in the city's junior and senior high schools who were never taught to read and write when they were in elementary school.
Between 1967, when Carl Hansen left the job of schools superintendent and 1975, when Reed was appointed acting superintendent, the schools had stopped teaching reading, writing and basic math, according to Reed. Except for remedial classes, there is little he can do to help students who entered school during that eight-year period and never built a foundation in the basics, he says.
Reed says his responsibility is to the children who came into the school system after he became superintendent. The academic accomplishments of those students, and their test scores in years to come, will be Reed's own ultimate measure of his success, he says.
In the meantime, Reed, a thick tree of a man with a sometimes brusque, combative personality, says his major accomplishment is to have brought "some stability" to the school system.
Sitting behind his huge wooden desk on the top floor of school board headquarters. Reed ticks off a list of what he sees as his other important major accomplishments: improving the morale of his employes and the school system's image closing the gap between the superintendent's office and the classroom and building a businesslike foundation for the school system an achievement that began with getting paychecks for the right amounts to the right people at the right time.
For a year and a half, Reed says, he and his administrators "did nothing but work on management foundation (of the school system)." And then for the first time they were able to look at what was going on in the schools.
"You've got to realistically deal with that," says Reed. "Naturally I don't want any kid to come out of the 12th grade that can't function but I've got to look at the school system with a long range focus . . . we're not just writing kids off but if we're going to make an impact on the system we know we've got to concentrate our efforts down in the elementary schools so those kids get that foundation."
If he had children, says Reed, he would put them in the D.C. public schools.And in five years, when his academic programs are fully in place, "I will tell anybody, 'put your kids in the schools.'" he declares.
As he winds up his first term as superintendent. Reed has few critics and even fewer public critics. He is the subject of almost complete adulation from city government officials, from parents and from his coworkers in the schools.
Private criticism of Reed begins with his popularity itself. Some people in the school system, in parents' groups and on the school board feel he is popular with Washington's political and business establishment because he is a sharp contrast to his predecessor, Sizemore.
The establishment, these critics say, saw Sizemore as a racist, and her attempts to create a revolutionary new school system made whites who graduated from traditional schools uncomfortable. Those whites, it is said, are now comfortable with the back-to-basics, educationally conservative and decidedly nonracist, Reed.
He is also criticized for slowness in implementing the centerpiece of his back-to-basics program Competency-Based Curriculum, or CBC.
And he is chastised for being "protective, like the old coach he is," of his front-line players, his principals and his administrators, and ignoring evidence of their incompetence.
Reed's only major public critic is R. Calvin Lockridge, school board member from Ward 8, who says Reed's major accomplishment as superintendent has been in the role of "public relations man."
"What Reed has going for him," says Lockridge, "is his demonstrated ability to give a snow job of false impressions as to how the school system is doing. So much so that the school board finds itself giving him another three years on personality, emotion and public perceptions that aren't based on facts. We won't be assessing him on his performance, accomplishments or success.There is no formal or informal evaluation."
"When we look at [students'] test scores and at how schools are being managed, it brings us back to the question of what schools are for." Lockridge continues. "If they're not for increasing the abilities of students they're not for very much. Has Reed done that? Look at the schools. Look at the test scores . . . He talks about improving the management of the school system. Look at the personnel section. It is in shambles . . ."
Reed's authorative style, combined with his thick build and straight-back carriage, makes him a figure of inspiration to some, but an egotistical, intimidating bully to others.
Several school board members complain that Reed sometimes treats the board as a nuisance - as politicians who must be tolerated - while he goes about the business of running the schools. "My style is a direct style, I'm not diplomatic," Reed says.
But Reed won easy reappointment despite these criticisms. His critics say that school board members are politically ambitious and few of them want to be on record as opposing the popular take-charge Reed, or to be accused of ousting two black superintendents in a row.
In a December 1977 article on Reed in the Instructor, a magazine for elementary school teachers. Reed is quoted as telling a city councilman to "shut the hell up," and telling the school board to "go to hell."
It took six months of being "downright nasty" to get school system employes to do their work. Reed is quoted as saying, and "the next thing to do was to tell the board to go to hell. . ."
Reed gave the magazine this account of his dealings with a city councilman:
"A city councilman called me and said I'd fired his campaign manager [from a school system post]. I told him that as long as I'm in this office don't ever call me and butt into my business anymore. You've got all you can do to keep messing up this city and that's what you're doing. If you've got any political pull and can do something about my being here, do it. But until then, shut the hell up and don't call anymore."
Reed admits he is protective of his staff, principals and administrators. "If you don't support your people, you don't belong here," he says. But he denies closing his eyes to evidence of wrongdoing!
CBC, he argues, has to be developed slowly and carefully. To put it into effect more quickly would be unfair to students in the upper grades who are unfamiliar with the system, he says.
Test scores took years to fall to their present level, says Reed, and it will take time to raise them again. He expects an improvement on next spring's tests.
And he denies the charge that he is responsible for eliminating foreign languages, music and art from some schools.What he did, says Reed, was to allow parents to decide how to use limited funds, with the result that some parents decided against foreign languages, art or music.
"All I want out of this whole situation," says Reed, "is to say that the test scores are better an dour kids can function at the 12th grade level. I'm not looking for any political achievement . . . My life is here in the schools and I plan to stay here another five years and complete my time as superintendent."