The announcement that Steven Adamowski would be forced to release his grip on Windham’s public schools was met with a variety of emotions in the community. The huge sigh of relief was combined with an overwhelming sense of anger and bitterness on the part of many parents, teachers and public education advocates who had watched in horror as Adamowski, Governor Malloy’s point person when it comes to taking over local districts, engaged in a campaign of disruption and confrontation leaving parents, teachers AND local officials stunned.
The voters of Windham were saddled with a Special Master as a result of some legislative language that was inserted deep within the 2011 State Budget bill. Malloy’s political appointees on the State Board of Education then named Adamowski as Windham’s Special Master without an open process that even allowed for the community’s input. The process was a sad reminder that even the most sacred notion of local control can be destroyed in a moment.
There are numerous stories about Steven Adamowski’s arrogant and authoritarian “leadership style” and how he squandered a significant amount of money that the General Assembly had set aside to help improve educational opportunities for Windham’s children.
The CT Mirror wrote two major stories about Adamowski’s tenure as Windham’s Special Master. CT school reform: 2 years under ‘special master’ and Connecticut sheds daily operations of Windham schools. The articles are informative, but as parents and teachers out here in Eastern Connecticut will tell you, they only scratched the surface about the damage Adamowski did to the very schools he was sent to “save.”
The announcement that the Norwalk Board of Education is on the verge of appointing Adamowski as that community’s next superintendent of schools has re-ignited the bad memories that people in Windham have about Adamowski and his record.
A series of weekend conversations among those most knowledgeable about Adamowski’s time as Special Master in Windham produced the following article
Windham’s Experience with Special Master Steven Adamowski
There are those, some of whom apparently serve on the Norwalk Board of Education, who are enamored with the notion of “Education Reform” as trumpeted by non-educators like George W. Bush, Barak Obama, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, former Governor Jeb Bush and Governor’s such as Chris Christie, Andrew Cuomo and Dannel Malloy.
Rather than recognize that lack of educational achievement is driven by poverty, English language barriers and unmet special education needs, these “reforms” believe that answer lies in the Common Core, the Common Core testing scheme and a wholesale attack on teachers.
Over the years Steven Adamowski, formerly the Special Master of Windham, has worked to be seen as a leading school reformer.
However, those who have been most directly impacted by his actions are mystified that public officials would choose to hand their community’s students and schools over to him and his destructive leadership style.
Perhaps most important, Adamowski’s work in Windham was anything but efficient, effective or appropriate.
In fact, his tenure in the town was marked by clumsy, ill-advised policies that did little for the children of Windham, but served Adamowski well in creating the perception that he knew what he was doing.
In many instances, corporate school reformers have no more expertise than the next person on how to improve the public schools. The reformers use impressive jargon and are fond of quoting “the research” to justify their labors. But close attention to what they are doing will soon reveal that, in so many ways, they are just making it up as they go along, trying this and that in a more or less opportunistic fashion. Although (like the rest of us) they have ideological predilections in their approach to education, they pretend that their point of view is value free truth or neutral “science.” They pretend that the corporatist managerial style they favor is simply the logical outcome of a “best practices” philosophy, confirmed by all “the research” as the only way to go. Reformers of the Adamowski mold will enact dramatic and far-reaching transformations to the local education system on the pretend basis that just about everything the town has been doing is simply wrong. But the point of these radical reforms is not to reconceive the system as such in a positive direction, but to radically destabilize it, making privatization initiatives much more palatable to some people in the local community.
Adamowski’s’ reign in Windham, as Special Master, was a disaster that made a bad situation worse. The State Department of Education took over Windham Schools because of a widening “achievement gap” between white and Hispanic students, and because the fiscal situation of the schools was far from healthy, as lean annual budgets failed to meet the real needs of the system. Windham is a poor town, with a fair number of people on fixed incomes and a sizeable cohort of landlords who live out of town. School budgets are invariably controversial. Cuts rather than increases have been the recent historical norm. The Windham school system clearly illustrates the inequities and injustices which arise from a school funding system strongly based in local property taxes.
Some people in Windham thought that the arrival of Special Master Adamowski would signal a moment of truth for the town. It seemed that once Adamowski took a close look at the recent history of Windham budgets he would be obliged to inform the community and the State that Windham’s children were not getting the support to which they were legally and morally entitled. But Adamowski decided to play politics. After years of enduring weak budgets, the school system was stressed even more by Adamowski, as he insisted on further cuts to make certain that the budget passed on a first town vote. This was a terrible strategy, both morally and politically. The not-so Special Master passed up a golden opportunity to educate the budget naysayers in the community; and he also sent the appalling message that the schools could function with LESS rather than more. Adamowski got his victory, as the budget passed on the first vote. But, his political victory was a hard defeat for Windham’s children, as now it will be even more difficult to propose realistic budgets in the future. Some Windham parents quickly realized that the Special Master had his own agenda in reforming Windham’s Schools and it was not at all clear that what he had in mind was good for the children.
The Special Master had secretive (possibly unethical) relationships with certain individual parents, but he made no special effort to engage the generality of Windham’s parents. He worked behind the scenes with one parent to bring an elementary charter School to Windham, but, even as he had the care of their children, to most parents, he seemed aloof and distant, like a colonial administrator among the natives. At no point did he hold a forum in which he sought an exchange of views with parents. It was as if the parents were irrelevant or invisible. Often, parents had no idea what was being done to Windham schools until they read about it in the local newspaper.
Adamowski is a true believer in the doctrine of “school choice,” wherein education is a “product” offered to “consumers” in a “free marketplace.” As District Superintendent, Adamowski brought this dubious model to bear on the educational landscape of Hartford. He created numerous themed “academies” to “compete” with the local neighborhood public schools. Many studies have shown that school choice models are divisive and unequal: they tend to concentrate social and academic problems in certain schools and they wreak havoc with comprehensive education. The “school choice” model is most often applied to urban school districts, because the larger population makes a “portfolio” of schools a viable proposition. The model makes no sense at all in a small town or city, where there is only one high school. But this did not prevent Adamowski going out of his way to impose school choice on the district of Windham. For him, “school choice” is a formula to be applied at all times and in all places. With this end in mind, he made the unpopular decision to divide Windham High School into themed academies. Predictably, this division has been a source of community tension, as one academy is more esteemed than the other, and significantly out performs the other in standardized testing.
There was no demand from the Windham town folk for themed academies. In fact, students from Windham High protested the division of their school into two separate schools; and nor were the teachers enthusiastic about this major “reform.” But Adamowski was not to be moved by the complaints of those he likes to call “the stakeholders.” The Special Master had his mission to fulfill as a corporate reformer. In further pursuit of school choice, Adamowski bullied the local school board into accepting a student exchange with Parish Hill School in Hampton. A certain number of slots to Parish Hill would be paid for by the town of Windham. The Windham Board of Education initially did not support this proposal, as Windham is hardly in a positon to send town monies to another town! But Adamowski told them in no uncertain terms that he had the authority to carry out this policy, and he was going forward with it no matter what they said. This style of leadership is usually called dictatorship.
Adamowski made significant changes to the High School, mostly with an eye to creating “school choice” and keeping the budget super-lean. But his changes took services away from children to which they were entitled. Adamowski slashed bilingual programs, and he cut special education. He went after programs that did not fit into his dogmatic vision of academies as de facto separate schools. Many teachers and support staff were demoralized by the rule of the Special Master, but living under dictatorship they could hardly voice their disapproval. Because Adamowski was given a free hand by Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor to do with Windham as he wished, the Teacher’s union had no choice but to appeal directly to powerful figures in the State legislature. Certain legislators came to understand that Adamowski was being loosed upon Windham by the Malloy administration to test the limits of corporate school reform in Connecticut. Malloy’s people only started to see things from another perspective when it became clear that Adamowski’s shenanigans might prove costly to the Democrats in local elections. Agreements were reached (in political circles) to rein the beast in, but the beast still had some leeway to cause havoc on the end of its leash.
The Special Master threw himself into the Windham Middle School turnaround, where he was definitely not wanted. The turnaround committee had to fight hard to carry out the legal mandate to redesign WMS in a way that it saw fit. Adamowski and Pryor wanted the Committee to do their bidding, which was to take the school in the direction of corporate reform. Once again, the meddling of the Special Master led to some high level wheeling and dealing in political circles. In the end, Malloy’s people did exactly what you might expect: they declared Adamowski’s disastrous rule in Windham a great success, and then they pulled him out, so that he might live to fight another day. Anyone familiar with the details of Adamowski’s tenure knew very well that the Special Master had failed abysmally in Windham. Most of his “reform” policies have had to be discontinued, as people came to see that they would not work. They realize that the budget picture is as bad as ever. The Adamowski dictatorship led to more white flight, more attrition of veteran teachers, and more divisiveness in the town over the schools.
In sum, Steven Adamowski is a prime example of all that is wrong with corporate school reformers. They promise more than they can deliver, because they refuse to look at the real social and economic factors that impinge upon education. Instead, they offer the banal and stupid formulaic “solutions” dreamt up in Educational Leadership Programs and right wing business schools. The myth of the managerial expert is very damaging, because it shifts the education conversation away from important social issues like justice and equality to technocratic concerns like “accountability” and “efficiency.” Adamowski has an underserved reputation for effective reformism. Windham is no better off than before he arrived at Special Master and many who know Hartford will testify that his work there was disastrous. The question has to be asked: why aren’t Steven Adamowski’s failures taken seriously; why is he not held accountable for his poor decisions and terrible policies? The short answer is politics. The long answer is politics. Pity the children whose education has to suffer so that some people can play nefarious political games.
Those who participated and watched Steven Adamowski’s work in Windham know the truth. While people of good will can discuss and debate the wisdom of various efforts to improve public education and reduce the achievement gap in the United States, no one who has experienced Adamowski’s reign would give him yet another opportunity to damage the children who need and deserve so much better.