Embracing Our Children: Superintendents With a Vision

03/07/2011 12:42 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Superintendents are under siege. I'm not talking about Michelle Rhee, who's doing just fine, thank you, parlaying her work in D.C. into a lucrative one-woman reform movement. I'm thinking about her former colleagues, toiling in school districts throughout the land, up nights obsessing about accountability, rewarding excellence and promoting innovation, STEM, turning around low-performing schools, college and career-ready standards and assessments. Not to mention the increasingly fraught battles about teacher tenure and merit pay. Everyone from Duncan on down has been weighing in on "last-in, first-out" (LIFO), the latest wrinkle in the ongoing, contentious debate about teacher quality. Their reward for all this stress? Last month, New Jersey Governor Christie imposed a salary cap on superintendent pay. And on February 28, Andrew Cuomo followed suit, proposing a bill that has New York State's school chiefs and their reps up in arms, provoking threats of resignation and dire consequences for children's education.

Why the sympathy for superintendents? I've long had a sweet spot for school chiefs, who have been among the most ardent supporters of early childhood education. My official baptism into early education policy came in the form of a project I directed that looked at 68 partnerships in low-income communities between community-based early childhood programs and public school districts. Our report, Partnering for Success, called for a vision of education reform that includes early childhood education; absent that vision, the goal of universal school readiness would remain elusive. Among the findings: 84 percent of the programs reported higher levels of performance in the primary grades; 60 percent of the programs reported fewer behavior problems and reduced retention on the prekindergarten level; and nearly 40 percent, reduced incidence of grade retention. And here's the kicker: School superintendents were prime initiators in launching and sustaining more than three quarters of the partnerships.

These days, as the nation continues to struggle with an intractable achievement gap and declining college graduation rates, the notion of integrating early education into broader reform efforts is gaining greater traction, sanctified, at the federal level, by Obama and Duncan in their "Cradle to Career" agenda. Encouraging them, among others, is the New America Foundation, where Lisa Guernsey's and Sara Mead's A Next Social Contract for the Primary Years of Education urges that pre-K be viewed as "a fundamental component of the education system, not an optional add-on."

What this new paradigm requires, however, is buy-in from K-12 leadership. And superintendents are the linchpins of this enterprise.

I was reminded of their role last week, at a DC policy forum, "Before Birth and Up through Third Grade," where I shared a table with one of New Jersey's own, the superintendent of Red Bank. A panelist, Janine Bacquie, Director of Early Childhood for the Montgomery County Public Schools, evoked the work of retiring superintendent Jerry Wiest, long committed to integrating early childhood into his district reform efforts. And then I listened, enraptured, to Washington's Bette Hyde, former superintendent of the 5,500-student Bremerton School District, and current Director of Early Learning for the state. As superintendent, Hyde was known for partnering with local early childhood programs and agencies to improve kindergarten readiness and strengthen connections between communities and their local public schools -- a vision she's now charged with taking statewide.

Education reforms wax and wane, and the pace of change is never fast enough. But I continue to take comfort in the words of Ray McNulty, a former member of the ranks of superintendents who, two weeks after a child was born in Brattleboro, Vermont, in 2000, sent a letter to the parents welcoming the child to the high school graduating class of 2018:

As superintendents, I think we need to step up and constantly talk about "our children." Those are our children in the district when they are born. We need to embrace that opportunity and do away with the standing at the schoolhouse steps. The more we do that, encouraging our faculty to get involved and looking at the community, I think we'll see it happen.