You are here


Zen and the Art of Bill's Philosophy

Rural school superintendent William Mathis truly listens, does his homework and stands up against conceived inequities in the federal education law.

Sitting in his one-story office in the town of Brandon, nestled among the Green Mountains of Vermont, William Mathis stares out his rain-splattered window as he contemplates education in the nation and his district, a few miles north of Rutland.

He's modest and quick to laugh, as well as pensive as he verbalizes--still with his native Tennessean accent--his soft spot for this liberal state and his 23-year tenure as superintendent of schools for the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union. As the longest-serving superintendent in one location in the state, Mathis has much for which to be thankful.

He rattles off a list of blessings here: It has good people, good board of education members, and a strong sense of community ethos. He can't forget his penchant for skiing as well as meditation practice. Near his hometown in Goshen, he still plays hard on the slopes and takes daily walks with the dogs he rescued, Doofus and Hootch.

" That's why I worry about privatization so much. It gets in the way."

Mathis, who oversees 11 school boards in eight rural communities and makes $104,000 a year, also works hard. He was a National Superintendent of the Year finalist in 2003 and took the Vermont Superintendent of the Year award in 2002. He has written or presented about 150 national research papers, policy briefs and newspaper columns on such topics as assessment, school vouchers, education reform and special education. He often makes speeches across the nation about the purpose of public education, equality and government roles.

In the 1990s, Mathis pushed for financial equity in schools and served as a financial consultant in the case, Brigham v. state of Vermont, which found the state finance system unconstitutional. "We now have arguably the nation's most equitable funding system," Mathis says. "We spend at a high level and do it equitably. That's pretty good. Not many states can make that claim."

He consults for the Rural School and Community Trust on which he worked on funding systems for more than 10 states. And he holds a doctorate degree in educational foundations and policy studies.

He's pondering compiling a book, Zen and the Art of School Administration, which would touch upon how and when administrators should listen, speak, find humor, and stay calm in various situations.

Prior to serving in Vermont, Mathis was deputy assistant commissioner at the New Jersey Department of Education. He was a guidance counselor and school psychologist in Tennessee before serving in the Air Training Command in Texas. He also taught and did research at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado.

As Vermont follows the reauthorized federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act, or No Child Left Behind, Mathis recently led his district to join other Vermont, Texas and Michigan districts and the National Education Association to sue U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings for requiring districts and states to comply with NCLB mandates without sufficient federal funds. District Administration's Angela Pascopella recently spoke with Mathis about rural schools and his beliefs on major educational issues.

DA: Describe your background, your family, which led you to be the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union superintendent.

Mathis: It goes back to my great grandfather, when he came back from the Civil War. The community was destroyed. Here is all the people wondering, 'How do we rebuild a community?' He said, 'Let's build a school.' And so they built the Seal-Mathis School. My grandfather taught in it, my father taught in it, my mother was a teacher, and so it sort of runs in the family. [I learned] this is how you build a community.

The unusual thing about my background is that I have a hard research background combined with philosophy. If we're dealing with some so-called "research study" from the Heritage Foundation or other partisan group, it's necessary to separate ideology from science. Sometimes they make grounded points and sometimes they don't. The research background helps me judge the quality of the research. Then, I can engage the philosophical discussions more effectively and directly.

DA: How did you end up settling in so-called 'liberal' Vermont?

Mathis: I was in New Jersey and ... I wanted the local school experience and my wife at the time was a professor [in Vermont] so that took me up here. But there's also the mystique of Vermont and they have good skiing, too. (Laughter)

Vermont is a very special place. It does have this wonderful sense of community. We have low crime; the social structure is good; it's beautiful; people live well. I live in the town of Goshen--221 citizens and probably about 400 dogs so you need to remember where the political power is; it's with the dogs.

It's a beautiful combination of everybody--rich, poor and everything in between. We all go to town meetings, we argue and we vote. That's how we do business and that's a pretty precious thing. If you want to talk to the governor, that's real easy, you pick up the phone and call him.

" I'm a staunch opponent in the way NCLB is being carried out. There is no scientific, sensible way adequate yearly progress can be met."

DA: In a recent interview about professional development, you said, "If we believe in education, we have to believe that knowledge is power in the most positive and equitable sense of the word." Is this your bottom line?

Mathis: I don't believe I said anything that good. (Laughter) We're in a knowledge-based society and we have to make people efficacious. It's the only road to equality; it's the only road to equity. When you go back to Thomas Jefferson when he was discussing with Alexander Hamilton who should rule this new democracy, some said only the elite and educated should rule because they were the only ones capable. Others were saying, we can't let the riff-raff run things or be equal--they're incapable. Jefferson responded by saying the only solution is to educate everyone if we are to believe in democracy where everyone has equal opportunity and has the skills and knowledge to be equal participants. And by golly, that's what we did. It has probably been the greatest gift given to this nation's history.

That's why I worry about privatization so much. It gets in the way. Research is very solid on this in terms of vouchers, which says it separates people by socioeconomic dimensions. Regardless of what some people say, polls say look at the research and go to Hank Levin at Columbia [University's Teachers College]. Knowledge is absolutely key for a functioning democracy. The correlations of economics and wealth are clear--the more educated you are the more money you make.

DA: What are the biggest trends facing your region?

Mathis: I think NCLB and increasing penalties are going to be bigger issues in the future. Do the arithmetic and you're going to see even though we're a very high-achieving state no matter how you look at it. The entire school will score in 70th and 80th percentile on the Stanford Achievement Test norms. It's not exactly like we're having an achievement crisis here. And we have this imposition [in NCLB] that's going to declare, in time, that each school in Vermont is a failing school and this just doesn't make sense.

DA: Why did your district join the NEA lawsuit against the federal government over NCLB? And what now?

Mathis: The school boards knew from the beginning this was really wrong and it really constricts our definition of education and makes it just a narrow and mean-spirited, test-based approach. Education is not only about testing, but other things as well. The second thing was that despite the federal government's pronouncements of historic education increases. We did the arithmetic and this historical increase was by a whopping 9/10 of 1 percent when you take all the increases of Title I (from 2001 to present.) It's a drop in the bucket.

We are going to work with the state and continue to [follow the law]. We're cooperating. We're not into being obstreperous. That would be bad manners. We will follow it to the point that we find it unconscionable to do so.

DA: So, it's safe to say you are a staunch opponent of No Child Left Behind.

Mathis: I'm a staunch proponent of leaving no child behind. I'm a staunch proponent of breaking down test scores and other indicators, like for poor and special education children, English-language learners, so we can see what's happening there. And I'm staunch proponent of making sure those children do get the services they need.

I'm a staunch opponent in the way in which it's being done. There is no scientific, sensible way that adequate yearly progress can be met. That is going to falsely label success and failure.

On adequate funding, the body of research shows that if you're dealing with children in poverty, you're going to have to spend twice as much as you do on children who are not in poverty. You're going to have to have pre-school, after school programs, summer school programs, and then you're going to have to deal with health, dental and socialization issues.

We're in a society that is becoming even more divided by socio-economics. If we're going to make sure they get a better share, we're going to need adequate funding.

A lot of states are far worse off. Accountability is essential. When I first came here we implemented testing programs. We make sure all kids are tested from grades 3 through 11.

The most cost effective thing we can invest in is professional development of teachers. School-wide improvement does not get the kind of attention it deserves. It's not even apparent in most school budgets. We will face a retirement of teachers before long. The smartest investment we can make is in the continuous development and redevelopment of our faculty and staff skills.

DA: What is your take on education reform?

Mathis: My ideas have changed over time. I hope they're more mature, who knows. (Laughter) When I worked in New Jersey, I was more enamored of top-down things, action plans, paperwork and ... lots of community and faculty committees that would meet forever. And this would substitute for actually doing something different. What masquerades as reform is a charade.

All of a sudden, the federal government and Bill Gates have decided that high schools are in need of reform. Anyone who has been around schools for some time can see the familiar political task force pattern emerge. They declare a crisis, have a conference, put out a report with a bunch of homilies and vague "motherhood" recommendations, cop a trivial amount of money for "lighthouse" projects, take pictures of themselves in front of the schools, and run around to the media to say what a great thing they've done. That's nonsense. Reform is hard work and it's not glorious. Schools do not improve through political opportunism. It never ends.

DA: So what do you think of the national push for high school reform?

Mathis: Are you talking about high school testing reform? DOA. There are few bills that have been met with such complete disdain as that. The need for more testing is not much. There have been generic kinds of reform activities but the plate is more than full. We have a [state] project called High Schools on the Move, which essentially says that every child should be treated individually.

DA: What is the biggest reform in your district?

Mathis: It's real basic: Get the math curriculum to not only represent good practice, but that every teacher, elementary and high school, has the capability of teaching that curriculum and understanding that. Often times, you have teachers with very limited mathematics background. It's not some jumping-jack-flash- whole-school-reform-whoop-dee-do with a fancy title. And the important thing is that all teachers buy into it.

The federal government and Bill Gates decided high schools need reform. Anyone can see the patterns emerge: They declare a crisis, write a report, get money and say what a great thing they've done. That's nonsense.

DA: Revisiting the voucher issue, you and others quoted a study, "Academic, Socioeconomic and Transportation Correlates in a Rural Public School Voucher System", to make points about school choice in Vermont. Voters approved vouchers in Rutland in 1996 and opinion polls show support for choice, according to Vermonters for Better Education. Comments?

Mathis: This group that says opinion polls show consistent support of vouchers, what polls might they be talking about? It's quite common for political advocates to find poll results that support what they're talking about and that's what these people are doing here. The voucher study in this region was to see the effects.

It was criticized as being a small sample. But the sample is 100 percent of the participants. We got all the kids who took part in this in six counties and six school districts. The things that stood right out were that people migrate from the outlying regions to the inner regions; we found that vouchers were exercised by people that could get there [to a school]. This is not anything new. Vouchers have always been selected by those that are more socioeconomically capable of using them.

Vouchers did not improve educational scores for those who selected them. If they were low B or C students, they remained low B or C students. We found a lot of students going because of girlfriends or boyfriends and the biggest thing we found was that not many chose to go somewhere else. What I didn't find was a separation on a socioeconomic level and that was not because it was negative; we didn't have a good measure of socioeconomics that was reliable.

DA: Do Vermonters want vouchers?

Mathis: It's a hot political issue. There are certainly Republican people who continuously sponsor bills in Vermont. They have a charter bill up every year in Vermont for the past 15 years, it never passed, [and] the voucher bill, whether it would be extended or not. I would say the issue is dormant because even the advocates don't even have the votes. What's amazing to me is that these things continue to be on state legislative agendas around the nation, at the same time, the body of research that shows it doesn't work continues to pile up.

DA: Going back to NCLB, was it created to eliminate public schools?

Mathis: No. Not originally. I think [U.S. Sen.] Ted Kennedy was horns waggled--duped. Kennedy wanted it because he was promised money for the poor folks in the inner cities. ... Funding for next year shows a cut in education funding despite all this talk of increases. I think there were a combination of people saying, "Hey, this is pretty good." I don't think anybody had any inclination that they do today. Would it pass with bipartisan majorities today? Not a chance. I think only after the fact did people think, 'You know, this thing is going to destroy public education.'

DA: What needs to be done with NCLB? And do you believe U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings will alleviate the strain on states?

Mathis: NCLB would either have to be modified or disintegrated. There are three or four simple fixes they could do that would make sense--whether or not they have enough sense is another matter because this gets into very rigid, ideological kind of stuff:

Eliminate your special education categories as separate break out groups because that's not going to work and eliminate or modify the English Language Learner requirement because that's not going to work either. It's silly;

Provide sufficient support particularly for poor children so they have a realistic chance of overcoming deprivation;

Move to a growth score based on how the same cohort does, rather than compare this year's fourth-graders to next year's fourth-graders;

Modify the adequate yearly progress expectations to something that is realistic.

If you did those four things that would do a lot toward getting rid of the really bad and onerous failings of a bad law.

As for Margaret Spellings, it's still too early to tell. You should meet Betty Sternberg, [Connecticut commissioner of education]--I admire her. She's out there fighting a good fight and she's getting her waivers turned down (see "Anatomy of a Waiver Request" on page 40). And Vermont is trying to run quietly through the bushes. Betty's a very quiet, unassuming person but my goodness, has she got gumption! But they're saying 'No' to her. Is this politically driven or what? Don't know. Margaret is saying testing is essential. How they deal with Texas, mark that one down. We'll see what the president does about his declaration in Utah having autonomy over the schools. Those will be markers.

DA: There has been an evolution of debate concerning NCLB. Now there is more a focus on how students won't get credit for progress if they don't reach grade level. Your thoughts?

Mathis: It's inherently ridiculous. In NCLB, you either reach the threshold or not. Thus, one school may make a 29-point gain and still would fail because they needed 30 AYP points that year. In another school, they may have actually lost points but still be above the target. The school with the greatest gain gets punished. The school that lost points gets a "pass." As a statistician, the last thing you want to do is hide your gains and losses, which is what the system does. It gives you a really bad measure of what's happening in the schools.

DA: Does your attention to details make you valuable in the state and/or nation when it comes to NCLB and other issues?

Mathis: I stand around and see the energy from people coming to me because of the research. I'm just doing my job and studying these things. But it is obviously filling some role or some need. I can't keep up with my manuscript requests. From what people tell me, I'm respected because I do my homework and I'm accurate when I'm speaking, so that always helps. I have the knowledge but they also know I have a philosophical vision. Do I position myself as an absolutely neutral academic? Or do I position myself in a situation where I would be perceived as partisan for public education and, therefore, this will test the integrity, if you will, of my academic work? Make your choice here, Bill, what do you want to be? I chose very clearly to say, this is who I am, this is what I believe works in this society.

DA: You wrote, How to Analyze Your State's Education Funding System, a report of the Rural School and Community Trust Policy Program in 2001. It was designed for rural citizens concerned about fairness, or lack of it, in their state's school finance system. What has come of it?

Mathis: We went from a 25 percent state share to 100 percent totally state funded system. It's amazing how little citizens are really connected with this stuff [although] they're affected by it. The important thing is getting people engaged. I was working with some folks in Mississippi and Arkansas recently and these were school superintendents and they had no earthly idea as to how their own policy machinery works in their state government. These kinds of things help people in getting involved.

DA: What do you think of the new SAT?

Mathis: I would say if there's any trend, it's going back the wrong way. We spend time trying to get away from an over-reliance on standardized tests and making sure there is community involvement and other attributes, such as being a musician or volunteer.

My biggest aggravation on this whole thing is that juniors in high school go through this ritual, preparing for this college stuff. It's a drill. They're going through SAT classes, they go to college-sponsored events, and they're being besieged by 16,000 application letters from colleges in the Western hemisphere. And what does this do for a kid who is poor, whose parents never went to college, or who don't necessarily have the aspiration? The entire process is designed to squeeze them out. That's awful.

DA: What tips would you offer school superintendents, particularly in a rural district, to help them do their jobs better?

Mathis: You succeed or you don't based on personal interactions, pure and simple. That's the name of the game. Be sensitive to people, listen to them even when they're ridiculous; don't argue. And going back to when I stand on the sidelines of a soccer or football game, when someone comes up to me, I give them good eye contact, and say, "Yeah, you say they did this? Mmmm. Really? I'll check into that." I don't promise them a thing, but I say I'll check into it. And I do.

I thought of putting together a book titled, Zen and the Art of School Administration. School administration requires many people skills that they don't teach you in graduate school. It takes certain characteristics such as when to speak, when to be quiet, when to listen, exercising the right judgment at the right time, when to find humor in your own silliness and keeping a calm perspective. Likewise, some skill in dealing with bureaucracies and how they function is essential. There is more of an art form to administration than most people realize.

DA: One of your greatest inspirations was Abraham Maslow, a founder of humanistic psychology, who claimed that humans' basic needs like water and air had to be met before they could feel safe and loved. On top were the self-actualizing needs to fulfill oneself--to become all that one can be. How has this theory driven you? Have you become self-actualized?

Mathis: I think there are places for all people to be self-actualized and places where none of us are. It's the nature of the human condition. We have our stresses, our family and personal upheavals. Life is not that smooth. I think in time a person can be sure of themselves in their direction and voice. I could not do and I could not write and I could not think as I do today 10 years ago with the same amount of experience, perspective, and the confidence in who I am and what I stand for.

DA: What does the future hold for you?

Mathis: I don't think about the future too much. I think about the task in front of me and what needs to be done. I find myself to be translator between the technical world and the policy and emotional world. That might be a proper role. Some of it gets tedious. It takes that kind of hard work to bring out the philosophical issues of what's really happening.

Angela Pascopella is features editor.

Related Information