I find it sad that someone who came to Prince George's County with enormous support and good feeling is leaving to the sound of sighs of relief.
I am talking, of course, about Dr. Iris T. Metts, who served Prince George's County first as superintendent, and then as chief executive of the school system. She has served during a turbulent time. In the 3 1/2 years she has been here, the public has become much more aware of how necessary it is to restructure schools in very fundamental ways. I don't mean just Prince George's County schools but all schools, as witnessed by the No Child Left Behind law passed by Congress in 2001.
Also during Metts's time here, Maryland changed its testing program and the state legislature disbanded the old, elected Prince George's County school board and replaced it with a new, appointed one. Throw in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the attacks last fall of the sniper, who shot a child outside a Prince George's County school, and it is a wonder Metts is still standing. She deserves the hearty thanks of the public, and, as I said before, I find it sad that she isn't getting it. It is worth thinking about why.
I don't claim to know the answer, but I have a few thoughts. First, of course, Metts made some decisions, particularly early on when she demoted some principals she deemed ineffective, that created instant ill will among an important group she needed to help her put in place key changes needed by the schools.
It is hard to evaluate decisions like those on their merits. Was she right or wrong? It's very difficult for anyone who isn't in the affected schools to know, and it's sometimes difficult to know even if you are in the affected schools. But what has struck me about Metts is that the way she made those decisions -- along with many other decisions she made during her tenure -- was almost designed to create unhappiness, confusion, and disruption. This is because Metts has been what I call a command superintendent -- that is, she issues orders, expects them to be followed, and is willing and able to take the heat of unpopular decisions. She acted in accordance with her training and the training of many school leaders.
You can see that in her assessment of what went wrong: "An insider who is not strong can't survive," she told The Washington Post's Nancy Trejos.
"An outsider who is too strong can't survive."
She is thinking about all the conflicting forces on a superintendent, and gauging the strength needed to survive them. She pretty much concludes they are unsurvivable. And they may be, particularly for those who cling to the command model. Mind you, the command model worked for the past century or two of public education -- that is, it succeeded in running schools. However, the schools in question were never asked to do what schools are being asked to do today, which is to make sure every American adult is a truly educated citizen. That change is the reason the old-style training of school leaders -- which includes principals as well as superintendents -- is no longer sufficient.
Not only do school leaders have to run institutions, with large, often cumbersome bureaucracies and multiple constituents, they also must create, inspire and lead democratic communities where every child becomes an educated citizen. That's a tall order and, quite honestly, few superintendents are up to the job. Metts is in that category.
That is, Metts's problem wasn't that she isn't smart. Metts is really smart. It wasn't that she doesn't have a grasp of how to improve student performance -- in fact, Metts has a pretty clear idea of what kids need to perform at higher levels. It wasn't that she didn't work hard. She worked very hard, and may in fact have endangered her own health -- she told The Washington Post that her weight and blood pressure had risen while she has been on the job. (And that's been true for a while -- almost a year ago in April she told me, "I'm worn out, physically and emotionally.") So she met the old job requirements of superintendency -- she was smart, hard-working and had a pretty good sense of what changes needed to be made.
But she was flummoxed by the need to articulate and generate support for the common goals and aspirations of the school system, lead the community to think independently about how to support those goals and aspirations, and convince the community that she had a clear grasp on what needed to be done to reach those goals.
Above all, she failed to convince the county's political leadership and citizenry that it has an obligation to schools that rises above all its many other obligations.
Still, it is almost unfair to criticize Metts for not managing to do all the above. Superintendents were never expected to be democratic leaders in the past, and it is changing the rules of the game on them to expect it now, after they have spent so many years training and preparing to operate according to the command model.
But this is a new day. Superintendents -- and principals, for that matter -- who think their old-style command training and experience are sufficient are in for a sorry shock.
Homeroom, which appears every other week, is a forum for you. Send questions, opinions and issues that you would like to see discussed to Homeroom, The Washington Post, Prince George's Extra, 14402 Old Mill Rd., Suite 201, Upper Marlboro, Md. 20072. The fax number is 301-952-1397; the email address is firstname.lastname@example.org To see previous columns, go to www.washingtonpost.com, click on the Education Page and look for Homeroom under Education Columnists.