Wednesday, July 06, 2005

COLUMN -- A school leader needs to focus on student achievement

Posted by Craig Westover | 8:01 AM |  

Wednesday, July 6, 2005

Faced with St. Paul's opportunity of hiring a public school superintendent, many school boards across the country have selected candidates from outside the educational mainstream, from "leadership" professions like law, the military and even community activism. A Pioneer Press article on Monday contained speculation that local political ties might be key in selecting a superintendent to replace outgoing Pat Harvey.

Certainly, selecting a new superintendent is a prime concern for the school district. But perhaps before speculating on superintendent characteristics, a little priority-setting is in order. Consider this: In an article of more than 1,000 words, the word "students" appears but once, the word "children" not at all, and the word "achievement" appears only in the context that managing enrollment decline is a "tougher job."

Aside from omitting students and achievement from the context of selecting a superintendent, the article offers this sobering expectation: "Maybe the most difficult thing to come to terms with is the idea that even the urban superintendents with the best reputations haven't succeeded in the way the public hopes or expects." Certainly that can be said of Harvey. If one measures success by survival and maintaining good community relations while ably managing books, buses and budgets, then Harvey is indeed a success. But if success is measured by student achievement, eliminating the low-income and minority achievement gap and establishing strategies for continuous student improvement, "success" is a somewhat dubious distinction for the Harvey era.

Whatever incremental improvements can be wrung out of the data, the achievement gap is still the major issue in a child-focused view of St. Paul schools. Yet the emphasis of the local education elite is that St. Paul children need a politically connected superintendent. The false implication is whatever the problems of public education, they lie outside the system itself.

St. Paul's student-focused failures do not rest entirely on Harvey. The dirty little secret of urban education is that for all the community lip service paid to selecting "the best" superintendents, communities seldom support their selections with the authority to meet highly hyped expectations. That's the conclusion of the 2003 survey "An Impossible Job?" conducted by the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington. Based on surveys and interviews with the nation's largest urban and ex-urban superintendents, the study highlights community conditions that set superintendents up for failure. Among issues they raised that preclude a focus on student achievement are:

• Union and central office policies that make adult middle-class employment, rather than student welfare, the priority.

• The inability to control the education agenda or system structure.

• Lack of unified, committed community support for actionable reform efforts.

Superintendents from a non-education background, the survey found, may do more outside-the-box thinking about reform, but they struggle with the same issues as traditional superintendents and their nontraditional background is no guarantee of success.

"The first decision of a community (looking for a new school superintendent) is whether or not it wants to remain in the 20th century or move its education system into the 21st century," said Howard Fuller, who was a nontraditional choice for superintendent of the Milwaukee public schools (1991-95) and lead author of the CRPE study. "The one best system option will not take you there."

As the CRPE study notes, systemic barriers to school reform are too numerous to overcome with just new and better leadership. District goals are often vague and only narrowly supported. St. Paul is not unique in talking the talk of student achievement but walking the walk of politics and economics. The problem, however, is not lack of funding; the problem is infighting over who controls allocation of the funds.

Before the district hierarchy speculates on the type of superintendent best for St. Paul, it ought to ask some serious questions. Are policy-setters willing to give a superintendent more authority over entrenched central office staff? A greater say in defining the district mission? Explicit power to hire, assign and fire school principals? Authority to assign teachers where they can do the most good? More authority to manage funds? To contract services?

Will "public education" be defined by politics or by student focus? Will the priority be adult employment or providing each child with his or her best opportunity for success?

Speculation on the need for a politically connected superintendent does not bode well for the children.