Once again Philadelphia is in the market for a superintendent. Many have grown weary of the approach – tried with David Hornbeck, Paul Vallas, and Arlene Ackerman – of anointing powerful leaders to impose their reform plans on this troubled system. With Ackerman, this approach even included enforcing a scripted curriculum that teachers in a hundred low-performing schools had to follow religiously.
We are encouraged that the new School Reform Commission has shown an interest in tapping the wisdom and energy among stakeholders that is often ignored. And it's reassuring to hear a different consensus emerging: We don't need a savior to tell everyone what to do; we need a listener dedicated to bringing out the best from the 20,000 employees of this organization. Someone who, while mindful of the challenges, is willing and able to build on strengths within and around the system. Someone who can motivate and support principals in making their schools better. Nothing is more indispensable to real educational improvement than helping assemble strong school-based teams that bring together parents, community and staff to focus on teaching and learning.
A shared vision of what type of leader is needed is the first prerequisite for ensuring that the search process delivers the right kind of candidates. But in the past, the follow-through has been lacking. Here are some basics on how to make it happen this time:
Develop a profile and a realistic set of qualifications for the new leader. Then give the community a chance to offer feedback.
Stick with those criteria in conducting a thorough search. Extend the search if the initial pool of candidates doesn't meet them.
Thoroughly vet the candidates. The best predictor of how they will do is how they have done in the past. We saw more than once with Ackerman that the drama from her previous superintendencies was replayed here.
Finally, make sure the perspectives of people who are in the schools every day are represented. Their understanding of the issues should figure prominently in all decisions.