Try new approach to city schools CEO

March 20, 2007|By Andy Smarick

The Baltimore school board is looking to fill the most important job vacancy in the state: CEO of the city's schools. The person hired will administer a billion-dollar budget, oversee the education of 83,000 children and greatly influence the city's progress on crime, employment and economic development.

It's nearly impossible to overstate the difficulty of this job. Baltimore's students, like those in other large cities, face enormous challenges. For numerous personal, family and social reasons, most of these students enter school far less prepared than other children and fall further behind each year. The school system's politics, bureaucracy and restrictive employment rules make it terribly difficult for any leader to bring about change.

To fill this position, the city school board is following standard operating procedures: It has hired a search firm that specializes in finding district superintendents, advertised in education publications and solicited public input through community forums.

The experience of other superintendent searches tells us the type of person this process will land. She will have years of experience in urban school systems, probably including service as a superintendent of another urban district. She will commit to working closely with the community, local officials and the teachers union. She will promise change without rocking the boat too much.

Unfortunately, this is precisely the type of person Baltimore does not need.

Baltimore's school system is broken. More than 60 percent of the city's eighth-graders fail to reach state standards in reading; nearly 80 percent fail in math.

In fairness, running a high-performing urban school system is extraordinarily difficult. In fact, despite 40 years of effort, no major American city has been able to provide an excellent education to the great majority of its students.

So the next Baltimore schools CEO will be asked to succeed where hundreds of others have failed. Because Baltimore can't magically fix all of the factors that conspire to make urban education so challenging, the city must change the type of leader it chooses.

Unfortunately, the school board will feel a strong urge to hire a traditional superintendent - someone with leadership experience in an urban district and who promises to engage, not antagonize, local stakeholders. This would be a safe choice for the board. But neither of these characteristics guarantees system improvement. In fact, they're more likely to impede progress than facilitate it.

Baltimore needs someone with a very different background: someone who is steeped in highly effective organizational cultures, someone who has consistently achieved exceptional results, someone able to change long-standing institutional arrangements.

Education stakeholders are powerful and vocal, but their priorities often differ from the interests of children. For example, community groups love their neighborhood schools, teachers unions will always fight for reduced workloads, and thousands of residents are employed by the system. But sometimes closing a failing school, lengthening the school day or trimming staff is required to improve a school system. Baltimore needs a leader focused on the achievement of students, not the various demands of adults.

Rather than returning to a dry well, the school board should give serious consideration to three alternative types of candidates with the knowledge, skills and passion to fundamentally change and improve education for Baltimore's children:

First, the leaders of America's best public school networks. Using innovative state policies such as chartering and contracting, social entrepreneurs have created extraordinary networks of new public schools. The most successful, such as KIPP (52 schools nationwide) and Achievement First (10 schools in New York and Connecticut), have their low-income, minority students outperforming middle class and affluent students from the suburbs. Dacia Toll and Mike Feinberg, founders of Achievement First and KIPP, respectively, should be at the top of the school board's list.

Second, experts from leading national education foundations. Increasingly, philanthropies are dedicating enormous resources to fundamentally changing urban education. The leaders of these efforts have great expertise across education reform, in such areas as teacher and principal training, assessments and accountability, and school creation. They also oversee investments of tens of millions of dollars that stretch across many districts and states. Their knowledge of district operations, education policy, promising practices and financial management would serve Baltimore extremely well.

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