I’ve ranted many times in this space about the superintendent’s place in a school system and the process of finding a new one. Our overly large district just hired a new super and the District of Columbia just over the river has been making a mini series (or maybe a sitcom) from the search for someone to run their schools. Evidently, nine other large urban systems are doing the same thing.
John Merrow, the education reporter for PBS’s News Hour, reviews DC’s long search for a leader in today’s Post and looks at why the position of superintendent in any large district can be a no-win situation. It’s really not hard to figure out why so many urban superintendents fail to improve the schools in their system.
School districts hire just one person, not a team, and when that individual arrives, he has to spend a lot of time and energy figuring out which of the colleagues he has inherited are trustworthy and competent, and which are not. Who resents regime change, and who welcomes it? It’s a minefield that has destroyed many capable leaders.
As it happens, one of the men who turned Washington down, Carl Cohn, described in detail what he thinks needs to be done. Cohn told The Washington Post, "It has to be made clear to everyone that this is about the kids. Then you bring in a take-no-prisoners company that addresses the fundamental issues of operation, of people not doing their jobs."
The lack of authority of a superintendent to fire their own assistants and principals and bring in people better able to address the problems is only part of the problem. Another big factor is the people doing the hiring. School boards are largely political animals and most often they compromise on a person for the top job based on what will keep their assorted constituencies happy. Finding a person who will do the best job in solving the problems is pretty far down the list.
From first impressions of our new superintendent, our board seems to have been looking for someone who would maintain the status quo and not argue with them they way the previous guy did. After all, we are a beacon for other school systems to follow and don’t need to change (just ask our PR department :-). I wonder how well the new guy is doing figuring out which of his colleagues can be trusted and are competent.