The career of a schools superintendent is always tenuous, requiring those who choose the profession to keep their balances at a job in which good news and steady progress quickly can be overshadowed by a high school prank gone wrong or a school bus accident. Take, for instance, one day in the life of Scarsdale Public Schools leader Michael V. McGill. Recently, he returned from a ceremony honoring him as the top superintendent in the state—to attend a contentious school-board meeting in which several residents lambasted the district’s plan to replace Advanced Placement classes with district-created courses. While these types of wild, up-and-down swings might be too much for someone else to take on a day-to-day basis, School Board Chair Linda Hillman Chayes says, “McGill is a pro. He’s beyond overreacting to these things.”
Although Westchester is home to many high-achieving districts and top educators, McGill’s tenure in Scarsdale, a hamlet of 18,000 in which households, on avearage, earn $217,500 a year, nearly 250 percent above the national average, stands out for two reasons: he’s stayed in the job 10 years when, on average, superintendents in the country leave well before their first five-year plans are complete, and he has brought a vast amount of change to a district many think would run just fine on cruise control. Scarsdale’s ranking on the national nonprofit Great Schools website is a perfect 10, and 98 percent of the district’s 4,600 students go on to attend four-year colleges.
Chayes calls McGill, a 65-year-old Williams and Harvard graduate, a “visionary on the cutting edge of educational policy in the country.” But McGill isn’t the type of leader who needs to be the loudest voice in the room. While some of the ideas Scarsdale has committed to put into practice may seem radical—such as being the only public school in the country to spurn AP classes to create its own, challenging the district to shrink its carbon footprint by 10 percent, and creating an ambitious capstone project for fifth graders—they all gained approval after a thorough vetting from staff, board members, and, especially, parents. “Ideas tend to evolve during conversation,” McGill says. “Decisions come from an evolved wisdom.”
While Scarsdale chooses its board candidates through a committee process (applicants are interviewed and selected by a panel before the public votes), district parents have a long history of involvement. Parents were the ones who led the district boycott of a new eighth grade state test in 2001. Even McGill admits, “Expectations are very high.” He says counterbalancing the high expectations and pressure are a genuine commitment to education, from the administration to the board and the parents. “There’s a lot of pulling in tandem,” he says. “We can disagree without being disagreeable, unlike a lot of places.”
In other words, Scarsdale staff and parents don’t like being told what to do; they much prefer—and sometimes insist upon—being part of the conversation. McGill seems to understand that. “He avoids the ‘M word’ here: ‘mandate,’” says Teachers Union President Trudy Moses.
Still, McGill will defend ideas he believes in, even if they don’t have the full support of his teachers (e.g., the fifth-grade capstone project), or the support of parents (e.g., the elimination of AP classes).
The capstone project is an in-depth research project, usually reserved for seniors in high school. Students choose an area of particular interest, conduct original research, and present the work to their peers, allowing them to demonstrate the reading, writing, and critical thinking skills they learned throughout their years in school. While running a version of this project for fifth graders nobly exceeds the federal goals of No Child Left Behind, the project was not without its critics. Teachers resisted adding yet another requirement to their busy schedules, asking that the idea be phased in as a pilot program so they could take professional development courses to properly prepare. McGill stuck to his guns, initiating the program in all the district’s five elementary schools in 2006. And? “It turned out fine,” Moses says. “Now it’s part of what we do.”
The biggest battle the district has faced in the last five years resulted from its decision to eliminate AP classes. This time, the teachers weren’t the ones resisting. In fact, the idea came from the high school staff. Instead, many parents feared the change might jeopardize Scarsdale’s graduates’ ability to get into top colleges, and a group of about 10 sets of parents vehemently opposed the change.
McGill, who occupies a small, neatly kept office on the grounds of Scarsdale High School, says this battle was “right at the heart of what makes Scarsdale tick.” The teachers’ complaint, he says, was simple. The AP curriculum forced them to “teach in a way that’s unsound,” McGill says, bending the curricula to the end-of-year test and forcing teachers to cover a lot of ground instead of diving deeply into fewer topics. The district methodically went about investigating the idea of eliminiating the AP tests, bringing in guest lecturers and visiting some key colleges. McGill says a Brown University math professor explained to him that the university needs students who can work on one problem for two months without getting frustrated, not students who are used to finishing a worksheet of problems every night. Curricula developed around the AP test does just the opposite, cramming too many content areas into a one-year course to study any one section thoroughly.
From the 2004-2005 to the 2006-2007 academic years, the district had discussions on replacing AP courses. By the 2007-2008 academic year, the transformation had begun. “We had a very spirited discussion,” McGill says. As a result of those discussions, the board created two committees, one to make sure colleges stay fully informed about the new advanced courses and one to oversee the overall implementation of the new courses and assess their effectiveness.
Scarsdale spent nearly $40,000 over two years to bring in professors from top colleges, including Harvard and Yale, to advise the high school faculty as teachers created the new courses. The district cautiously started replacing only social studies, music, and art in 2007-08. At the end of these classes, many students still chose to take the AP test, and the district hired a statistician from New York University to analyze their test results against previous years. With no discernable difference in student scores, Scarsdale finalized its decision this year, replacing the remainder of the AP courses.
“Our goal never was to undo AP,” the superintendent says. “It was to better the education for our kids.”
Still, McGill admits paring down the district budget to stay in line with today’s shrinking economy may be his steepest hurdle yet. He says simple popularity won’t be enough to keep a club, a subject, or a sport in town; each must prove its worth to the students’ overall education. And because the superintendent has no plans to retire, he expects to be on board for the whole discussion.
“It may not be possible to develop a consensus on this,” he admits.
Wayne D’Orio is an award-winning education writer who has been covering K-12 for 10 years. He is also the vice chairman of the Brookfield (Connecticut) School District Board of Education.