Big City Superintendents: Dictatorship or Democracy? Lessons from Paulo Freire

By Bob Peterson

Big City Superintendents: Dictatorship or Democracy? Lessons from Paulo Freire

Did you know Paulo Freire was a school district superintendent? His ideas are as thought provoking as ever.

During my teaching career I’ve worked under nine different superintendents. I’ve taught for nearly 30 years, so the average reign of a Milwaukee superintendent has been a little over three years, about normal for big city school districts.

While some people, including U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, decry these short tenures as a serious problem, most teachers see the quality of the leadership as more of a problem than the length of the stay.

No amount of rhetoric about “transformational leadership” or “collaboration” masks the habitual anti-democratic and anti-worker approaches of most superintendents I’ve experienced. Top-down “reforms” are cycled through our district more rapidly than the superintendents themselves, and it’s rare that teachers and parents are genuinely involved in the creation of such initiatives.

In the last decade people who have promoted top-down school “reform” initiatives—such as No Child Left Behind—are some of the very people who have pushed for top-down approaches to district governance: state takeovers or imposition of mayoral control. State takeovers of the Newark, Philadelphia, Oakland, and St. Louis schools were followed by significant privatization and charter attempts, as were mayoral takeovers in Boston, New York City, Washington D.C., and Chicago.

President Obama’s appointment of former CEO of Chicago’s schools Arne Duncan as secretary of education signaled that many people in power see the all-powerful superintendent as a central ingredient in solving the urban school problems. Duncan told the Associated Press that “he will have failed” if he hasn’t significantly increased mayoral control of school districts.

Thus it was not surprising that, soon after Duncan was appointed, he went to visit New York City superintendent Joel Klein. Klein, like Duncan, was mayor-appointed and holsters an autocratic style of leadership. Duncan publicly supported the continuation of mayoral control, which was reauthorized by the New York legislature this past summer. Duncan proclaimed, “I absolutely, fundamentally believe that mayoral control is extraordinarily important. I’m absolutely a proponent.”

Top-Down Control as Solution for Urban Schools

While Duncan et al. charge that school districts are not doing their job of effectively serving all children—and I agree—Duncan’s solution is less democracy, not more. If the schools aren’t serving children of color satisfactorily, he wouldn’t think of promoting greater involvement of their parents—what do they know? If teachers are struggling to teach effectively under difficult conditions, he wouldn’t think of involving them in finding solutions to complex problems. Instead, it’s rule by “professional” experts, many of whom have little experience teaching or running schools, or familiarity with the needs of students and their communities. As described in the article “The Duncan Myth” in the Spring 2009 Rethinking Schools, during his tenure as CEO of the Chicago public schools, Duncan reduced the influence of the parent-led school councils and unilaterally implemented school closings as part of a citywide gentrification scheme, despite significant and sustained parent, teacher, and community protest.

A growing controversy in Milwaukee is another example. Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle (both Democrats) hired the international consulting firm McKinsey & Company to evaluate the Milwaukee public schools. With limited input from teachers or parents, the firm issued a report outlining ways to save more than $100 million. Proposals included laying off food service workers (by using prepackaged lunches), increasing from one to 15 the number of schools that building engineers should be responsible for, and denying full health benefits to part-time employees, most of whom are people of color whose communities have been ravaged by high unemployment and whose children attend public schools. This same consulting firm recommended that Minneapolis cut “high costs” such as teacher health care and convert the 25 percent of schools that scored the lowest on standardized tests to privatized charter schools.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel immediately cited the McKinsey report as evidence of the need for a mayor-appointed school board. In mid-August the governor, Milwaukee’s mayor, and the newly elected state superintendent of schools called on the legislature to change the law so that Milwaukee’s school board would be appointed by the mayor. Such a change would curry favor with Duncan, some argued, and increase the likelihood of Milwaukee receiving Race to the Top federal funds.

Another Model for District Leadership: Paulo Freire

Recently I decided to search for an antidote to this nonsense. I wanted something that didn’t just highlight outstanding teaching, but offered an alternative on a districtwide level. I found it hidden in my crammed bookshelf: Education and Democracy: Paulo Freire, Social Movements and Educational Reform in São Paulo by Maria Del Pilar O’Cadiz, Pia Lindquist Wong and Carlos Alberto Torres.

Although published in 1998, it’s as fresh as if it were written yesterday. It describes Paulo Freire’s remarkable tenure as superintendent of schools in one of the largest and most impoverished cities of the world, São Paulo, Brazil, from 1989 to 1991.

Unlike many celebrity superintendents in the United States, who are drawn from military or corporate backgrounds, Freire was a seasoned educator by the time he took the São Paulo position. Born in Recife, Brazil, in 1921, he earned a law degree but spent most of his life as an educator. His career encompassed university extension projects in Brazil; the establishment of literacy programs in Chile, Nicaragua, and Guinea-Bissau; international consulting; and two dozen books, including the influential Pedagogy of the Oppressed in 1970.

Freire formulated his ideas during the late 1950s while leading literacy campaigns among Brazilian peasants. The literacy workers studied their students’ lives to derive a curriculum in which politically charged images that Freire called generative themes, like “land” and “hunger,” evoked discussions of exploitation, the meaning of culture, and the power of written language. The literacy program was very successful—so successful, in fact, that when military generals overthrew the democratically elected government in 1965 with the assistance of the CIA, Freire was jailed and then exiled for 15 years.

Freire returned in 1980 under an amnesty program and became a professor of education at the Catholic University of São Paulo. With the rise of the Brazilian Workers Party, Freire took the position of secretary of education in São Paulo. Education and Democracy details what happened during Freire’s tenure and offers much that can be applied in school districts elsewhere. Soon after he took office, he told the press, “We want to create schools where questioning is not a sin. It’s no sin to make a critical study of Brazil’s reality. A small percentage own land. Most people don’t.”

An excerpt of a letter from Freire to São Paulo educators demonstrates a very different view of schooling than that of Duncan and Klein:

We should not call the people to school to receive instructions, postulations, recipes, threats, reprimands, and punishments, but to collectively participate in the construction of knowledge, and that takes into account their necessities and turns it into an instrument of struggle, allowing for their transformation into protagonists of their own history. Popular participation in the creation of culture and education breaks with the tradition that only the elite is competent and knows what the needs and interests of the society are. The school should also be a center for the [illumination] of popular culture, at the service of the community, not to consume it but to create it.

In other words, educators, parents, and community members need to create schools together that are centers of community renaissance and resistance. We need to educate children to have the skills, dispositions, and civic courage to challenge the status quo, to connect with parents and their communities to fight for a more just and sustainable world. Freire spoke of creating the “popular public school” as “a school with another ‘face,’ one that is more joyful, harmonious, and democratic.” Can you imagine your superintendent outlining goals like that?

São Paulo Schools Beset by Poverty and Bureaucracy

Freire inherited a school district beset with problems in a city where the majority of the inhabitants lived in poverty, many in favelas, shanty towns with few public services. In a city of 9.6 million people, Freire presided over 691 schools with 710,000 students and nearly 40,000 employees. In 1989 it was estimated that over one million preschool and primary school age children in São Paulo were not enrolled in school due to limited capacity. Most schools ran four shifts to accommodate all the students. A junior teacher earned slightly more than a domestic servant. A survey during Freire’s first year in office revealed massive infrastructure problems as well: 654 of 691 schools were in poor physical condition, including 400 with serious problems. There was a “deficit” of 35,000 student chairs and desks.

According to the authors of Education and Democracy, Freire’s strategy was guided by three principles: participation, decentralization, and autonomy. The authors write that his approach “attempted to break from the tradition of politics of grandiose campaigns, isolated pedagogic experimentalism, or formulaic solutions to complex problems of public schooling.”

A Plan for Democracy and Education

Under Freire’s leadership, the Municipal Secretariat of Education of São Paulo (MSE) defined four areas of action:

1) Democratization of access to schooling through construction of new schools and renovation of existing ones.
2) A massive literacy campaign for youth and adults.
3) Democratization of the administration of schools from top to bottom, redefining relationships of power.
4) Reorientation of the entire curriculum.

Given the years that people in Brazil lived under a military dictatorship and the weight of decades of didactic teaching traditions, this plan met with varying degrees of opposition. In response, Freire and his colleagues moved forward in all four action areas simultaneously, creating momentum for change.

To increase access to schooling, the MSE pushed a massive building and renovation campaign that within just a few years saw the construction of 77 schools and the renovation of hundreds of others, allowing a 16 percent increase in student enrollment.

The MSE worked with nongovernmental organizations that provided technical and financial support as a way to create a movement for literacy education of youth and adults that eventually reached tens of thousands of people.

To democratize the district governance structure, the MSE gave real authority to the pre-existing democratically elected school councils. Those councils in turn elected representatives to regional councils that decided school policy and budgeting. After over 100 meetings, the city council adopted a new set of school by-laws that, according to Anna Maria Saul in Pedagogy of the City, for the first time defined teachers’ work load to “include work time with students, work time for collective planning, time for ongoing professional development, time to work with the communities, and time for student evaluation.”

The Heart of Freire’s Plan: Reorienting the Curriculum

The heart of the Freire administration’s plan to transform the schools was the movement to reorient the curriculum. This was a change that was only partially successful, uneven from school to school. But it still stands in sharp contrast to the top-down, scripted curricular reforms that are being forced on many of the large urban districts in this country.

At the core of Freire’s approach was changing the nature of teaching and learning in the classrooms. The curriculum had to be based on the realities of the students’ lives, be meaningful to their aspirations, bridge disciplinary divides, incorporate assessments that accurately reflected student learning, and be constantly reflected upon by educators during paid collaborative planning times during the work day. Teachers were being expected not to “deliver” curriculum, but to create it in collaboration with each other, their students, and the community. According to Freire, his goal was

. . . to gradually elevate the level of knowledge of the teachers, promote collective work as the privileged form of teacher formation, and afford the material conditions for all this to occur. In this manner the pedagogic innovations are appropriated, the curricular alterations fruitful, because the principal agents [of these changes], the teachers, are considered not objects of training, but elements that produce and re-elaborate knowledge.

Because a key feature of Freire’s plan was autonomy, the staff at each school had to vote to participate in what came to be known as the Interdisciplinary Project. The goal of the project was to build interdisciplinary curriculum through generative themes, relying on teachers to radically alter their teaching styles and on students to change from passive, quiet learners to active investigators and constructors of knowledge.

The first year 10 schools participated; the second year 100 chose to be part of the project. Once a school voted to participate, there were three elements to the curricular reorientation: the study of reality, the organization of knowledge, and the application and assessment of that knowledge.

First the staff conducted an extensive study of the realities the students and their families faced by visiting neighborhoods and conducting interviews and surveys. Not only did this teach the staff about their students, it demonstrated to parents and community groups that the staff felt they had something to learn from them. The staff at an ostensibly middle-class school was “shocked to find their assumptions completed disproved”—the brand name running shoes that some of their students wore hid the desperate living conditions of their families.

Once the social context of the school was explored, the staff members then processed what they learned in a series of meetings (the organization of knowledge) and decided on a generative theme around which to build specific curricular projects and lessons. The generative themes varied from school to school and semester to semester. Some were posed as questions: “Does work/employment improve people’s lives?” “Will humans and the planet survive?” Others were topics such as trash, peer relations, and air and water contamination.

The third step was the application of knowledge: Teachers, sometimes working with students, planned in detail how to actually teach. For each topic they drew up a list of generative questions, the answers to which would be found in the content area of the disciplines. As teachers and students worked to answer the questions, they explored the subject area and at the same time learned the specific skills of a particular discipline. As part of the planning process teachers were encouraged to use a wide variety of resources, including newspapers, field trips, guest speakers, journal articles, literature, and audio visual aids—a huge change from the previous almost exclusive reliance on textbooks and teacher lectures.

Generative Questions

For example, the generative questions for the study of trash included “Do other neighborhoods get rid of trash the same way?” “Is the construction of more landfill sites the solution to the problem of trash in São Paulo?” “Why are there no dumps in the center of the city?” “What explains the presence of a large number of people living near waste deposits?” and “If humanity was producing waste for millions of years, why isn’t the surface of the earth covered in trash?” Student projects included posters, plays, debates, and ultimately a schoolwide recycling project that enlisted the help of all the school staff, including the food service workers.

Such an approach contrasts sharply with the test-driven, prepackaged curriculum and textbooks that have become standard fare in most schools in the United States. Here the educational establishment—from the transnational corporations that make the textbooks and tests, to the district superintendents who command allegiance to scripted curriculum and “data-driven” skills, to the isolated classroom teacher who carries out the alienating task of “delivering the curriculum”—shows little interest or respect for the history, conditions, interests, or cultures of the students and their families.

Not surprisingly, this push to change one of the largest school districts in the world did not proceed without problems. There was resistance or nonparticipation at some schools, and the harsh socioeconomic realities combined with limited funding made reform efforts difficult. The authors write that the Freire administration “required active involvement in the development of curriculum on the part of educators who were accustomed to using ‘teacher-proof’ instructional packages. They attempted to empower educators by providing more autonomy than they had ever experienced, but simultaneously required much broader and more intense participation from them.” Many teachers “struggle[d] immensely” with the practical application of some of Freire’s approaches to curriculum building and hesitated to make their classrooms more student-centered and dialogue-based.

Yet the authors noted that teachers also “discovered their own creative talents” and found “the right to create their own texts and bring in their own materials… [a] major liberating experience.” Even after the Workers Party was voted out of office and a conservative superintendent was put into power, the democratic governance structures continued. In some schools the teachers continued the process of systematically studying their students’ reality, organizing the knowledge into themes, and then teaching in an interdisciplinary way.

Education and Democracy: Paulo Freire, Social Movements, and Educational Reform in São Paulo would be even more helpful had the authors explored the role of teacher unions and the nature of testing and assessment in the district. Unfortunately, very little was written about either important topic. The book raises more questions than it answers. But that is also its strength. Despite the authors’ occasional slip into overly theoretical statements, the framework the authors provide, case studies of four schools, and the authors’ critical analysis represent an important resource for people interested in districtwide reform.

Freirean-Influenced District Leadership in the U.S.

The book reminded me of the glimpses of such movements that existed here in Milwaukee and around the country. For example, in the wake of the social movements that elected Harold Washington mayor of Chicago, local school councils involved thousands of parents in school governance and in significant dialogue with teachers and administrators. The effort was not without its problems, but in a significant number of schools it shifted the paradigm and mobilized previously silent forces to push for school improvement. It was those parent-led school councils that Duncan determinedly undermined during his tenure as CEO of the Chicago schools.

Similarly, a districtwide reform movement unfolded in Milwaukee in the late 1980s and early 1990s, pushed by grassroots teacher organizers and assisted by the enlightened district leadership. Educators and community members developed district teaching and learning goals, including the groundbreaking “Students will project anti-racist, anti-biased attitudes through their participation in a multilingual, multiethnic, culturally diverse curriculum.” Working together, activist teachers and enlightened administrators created several teacher-led curriculum councils, held district-wide multicultural staff development sessions, and developed new performance-based assessments. The performance assessment in writing, science, oral language, and other subject areas nudged teachers to adopt more rigorous, activity-based teaching. A sense that teachers were important players in creating and implementing curriculum pervaded the district, where conferences, workshops, and interschool collaborations became frequent.

Then district leadership changed. Decentralization of school budgets gutted the funding for the teacher councils and districtwide staff development. The new district leadership’s obsession with standardized testing and data-bits extinguished the more complex performance assessments. Starved for funds and with no leadership at the top, we grassroots activists couldn’t sustain the effort.

The Chicago, Milwaukee, and São Paulo experiences, while vastly different, demonstrate the importance of district leadership. Through his writings and his work as superintendent of the São Paulo schools, Freire pushed his colleagues to teach students not only to read and write, but to “read the word and the world.” He pushed teachers to abandon their outdated methods, to use interdisciplinary curriculum, and to view students as active participants in not only their own learning but in changing the world.

A Commitment to Democracy

Freire was clear that this type of curricular reorientation and school transformation requires a commitment to democracy. He wrote about the need to “democratize power to recognize the rights of the voice of students and teachers, to diminish the personal power of the [administrators] and to create new instances of power with the school councils . . . [where] parents gain an authentic role in determining the destiny of their children’s schools.” He wrote that he tried to “limit” and “democratize” the power of the superintendent. “Democracy,” he concluded, “demands structures that democratize, not structures that inhibit the participatory presence of civil society.”

Public school critics in the United States often cite international comparisons in their critiques. Paulo Frerie’s tenure as a big city superintendent holds lessons for school leaders everywhere that are well worth learning.

Del Pilar O’Cadiz, M., Lindquist Wong, P., and Torres, C.A. (1998). Education and Democracy: Paulo Freire, Social Movements, and Educational Reform in São Paulo. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press.