Spoiler alert, San Diegans: Cindy Marten isn’t a hero who has swooped in to save your children.

If that sounds a little bristly, consider this: She doesn’t think students need saving.

“The idea of saving anyone from anything is disempowering, disenfranchising and kind of arrogant, actually,” Marten said. “People need to be supported, empowered, guided, led, understood, believed in, honored, listened to – not saved.”

Marten follows a bunch of short-term leaders who passed through the district in the past decades, some of whom tried to incorporate big ideas and were sent packing when they met resistance from the school board or teacher’s union.

The legacies of superintendents past – both in San Diego and across the nation – often contradict the image of the hero.

The superintendent-as-savior mentality grew among education reformers after 2007, when former Washington D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee stormed in and promptly closed schools, fired principals and cut office jobs – all moves aimed at increased accountability.

Rhee quickly became a media star, eventually landing on the cover of Time magazine. But the experiment failed. Critics argued that Rhee encouraged educators to teach standardized tests instead of critical thinking skills. There were even allegations that some school officials fudged student test scores to feign success.

But Marten’s not into top-down mandates.  “Doing something top-down – to or for people – ultimately fails,” she said. “It’s about doing it with people.”

A recent article by the Texas Observer unpacks the hero myth through the story of Mike Miles, a superintendent who arrived in Dallas before the 2012 school year.

The day before school started, Miles invited district staff to a carnival-esque assembly, where he danced and twirled and implored teachers to search for their inner “hero characteristics.” (Word is, he even showed movie clips from “Gladiator,” “Hoosiers” and “Stand and Deliver.”)

Just a year after his Dallas premiere, school board members decided the way Miles had pushed his reforms became an unnecessary distraction. He was put on the chopping block, and barely survived a vote to fire him.

Outshining Miles, ironically, is Houston’s superintendent, Terry Grier. Grier left San Diego in 2009 after the school board resisted his proposed reforms – such as rewarding teachers whose students’ test scores improved.

In Houston, Grier is now celebrating improvements in test scores and graduation rates, as well as the $115,000 performance bonus he got last year on top of his salary.

But education historian Diane Ravitch, a former No Child Left Behind proponent who’s since reversed her views, told VOSD in 2010 that improving students’ test scores is different than creating lasting reform.

In response to the Texas Observer story, Ravitch wrote on her blog that districts are recognizing the folly of expecting any one person to offer a quick-cure.

“The good news in the story is that belief in the hero superintendent idea – the man or woman who rides in as a miracle-worker on a white horse – is fading. Common sense is slowly returning. Maybe.”

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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