What city schools need

March 14, 2000|By Kati Haycock

AS BALTIMORE gears up to join the ranks of cities searching for a new superintendent of schools, city leaders would be wise to think carefully about their goals for the school system and what qualities will allow a new chief executive to lead the system toward those goals.

All too often, especially in recent years, superintendent searches begin not with an analysis of the kind of leadership that will get the district to the next stage in its improvement process, but, rather, with arguments about only two things.

Minority or white? Educator or somebody from business?

Ultimately, the people of Baltimore must decide what qualities are most important to them in a school system leader.

Let me make a few suggestions, though, from the qualities that we see in the urban district leaders nationally who seem to be making a real difference in student achievement:

An unshakable belief in the capacity of even the poorest child to achieve at high levels. Urban school systems are filled with and surrounded by adults with shockingly low expectations for what poor and minority children can achieve. While these expectations can be turned around, the problem is so pervasive in most districts that only leaders with a passionate belief in the capacity of all children have a prayer of making real headway.

The sense to focus the entire system on what matters most: improving instruction. The only way to get students to high standards of achievement is to teach them to those standards. Unfortunately, however, many school districts focus on almost everything but instruction. Systems that are making real progress focus on almost nothing else, and their leaders are willing to strip away whole functions to free up the necessary resources.

The courage to let people go -- probably lots of them. Many urban educators functioned reasonably well under the old rules, when only some students needed to master high-level skills. But in a standards-based system, the central tasks of both teachers and administrators are far more complex and intellectually challenging than before. This requires educators of substantial ability who are performance-oriented, inclined toward continuously developing their own knowledge and skills, and willing to do the hard work of entirely reinventing what they do. The rest need a helping hand to find other work.

A real eye for talent. Nothing is more important to the future of urban school districts than the caliber of principals. Good superintendents take this responsibility especially seriously, and aren't at all threatened by the kind of principals who are more likely to ask forgiveness later than to wait around for permission to act now.

Considerable knowledge of themselves. The best leaders don't surround themselves with people just like them but, rather, choose lieutenants with complementary skills and knowledge. This requires considerable self-awareness and a willingness to admit personal fallibility.

The ability to talk clearly to the public. While it may be possible to improve public education without substantial involvement of parents and other citizens, it is very hard to sustain such improvements without firm public support. Good leaders talk clearly about their hopes and plans, and build public understanding and support for the reform effort.

The ability to listen and learn. Just as they must be able to talk clearly to the public, good leaders must also be able to listen. Answers to the most vexing problems often come from unexpected places.

These characteristics can be found, of course, in leaders of all races and from all walks of life. Does this mean that matters like race or previous experience as a superintendent are irrelevant?


In the matter of race, in particular, virtually nobody who has spent much time in an American city would ever argue that race is irrelevant.

But while both race and experience can give leaders an edge in certain aspects of the change process, neither can compensate for the absence of passion, courage or any of the other qualities noted above.

These are the things that will matter most to Baltimore's children.

Kati Haycock is director of the Education Trust.

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