Cranford H. Burns --- Mobile Superintendent 1952-70

Questions posed by an Alabama school superintendent in a letter addressed to his successor in 50 years present many of the most vexing present questions in education policy. Superintendent Cranford Burns of Mobile wrote the letter to be inserted in a time capsule for release in 50 years. Superintendent Burns’ questions include:

  • Should the school term be extended to ten months or to eleven months?
  • Should merit rating be instituted and[,] if so, how can it be effectively administered?
  • How can we make more effective use of professional personnel?
  • How can teachers and administrators be relieved of clerical responsibilities—responsibilities [that] utilize time [that] should be used for professional activities?
  • Should the federal government increase its financial
  • support for education?
  • Are present standards hindering or promoting the improvement of public education?

These questions are part of a long list presented by Superintendent Burns. But here’s the rub: Cranford Burns died in 1996, and his letter is dated June 6, 1961.

The letter is a stark reminder of how long many of the debates around public education—issues tied to funding, merit pay, and the proper role of the federal government—have perplexed educators, policymakers, and families alike. It also demonstrates essential areas of progress over recent decades.

The letter is addressed, “Dear Mr. Superintendent of 2011,” but no such person can be found in Mobile. Mrs. Martha Peek now serves as interim superintendent there. Mr. Burns asked, “How can we identify, attract, and hold accountable young men in the profession, thus assuring adequate leadership in the days ahead?” At a time when women serve in leadership roles from Secretary of State to classroom teacher, we can all be thankful for the benefits of the women’s movement revived shortly after the time of Mr. Burns’ writing. No country can meet its full potential by preventing half its citizens from meeting their full potential.

As for his other questions, Mrs. Peek joins a large and growing number of educational leaders across the country grappling with how to improve teacher pay and performance while addressing the learning needs of all children.

In Tennessee, the many initiatives funded by the state’s Race to the Top grant, adoption of Common Core State Standards, and myriad other efforts at the state and local levels are all tied to the larger goal of improving public education for this and future generations of students. As we try to make history, however, we must remember our situations within it. Mr. Burns wrote more than a half century ago, “many of the problems and challenges of education are constant from one generation to the next; whereas, others are temporary and characterize given periods.” The greatest achievement for which we can strive is to ensure a superintendent 50 years from now will have the luxury of looking back on the gaps in our current education system as relics of a time long gone.

*Special thanks to my friend Josh Carpenter, a teacher at Francis Marion High School in Marion, AL for sending this letter along. Read more about the letter and time capsule on