GUEST COLUMN: What we need in a new superintendent

Friday, February 6, 2009 | 12:00 p.m. CST; updated 11:16 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Our search for a public school superintendent is fraught with challenges.

The Christian Science Monitor's revealing "Rise of the 'rock star' school superintendent" is subtitled "No Child Left Behind has created a demand for school administrators who can take the pressure, and some 20 percent of school districts are now seeking superintendents because of a shortage."

Indeed, No Child Left Behind dominates the conversation whenever Columbians and I explore what qualities we want in a super. A local teacher confided: "NCLB took an already troubled system and opened the wound further. The system grinds the majority of kids out and brands them as failures."

Another complained: "The problem has been a central office that makes unenlightened decisions without input from teachers, collects numbers and makes one-size-fits-all bar graphs that have nothing to do with learning itself. It's mostly about standardization, not real education."

A friend at a St. Louis suburban school lamented: "Statistical success pushed by NCLB comes at a cost. When the emphasis is on produce, produce, produce, the first casualties are curiosity, creativity and real learning."

The scaffolding of public schools is all the shakier with so many vested interests: federal and state governments, teachers' unions, parents and parents' clubs, to name a few. What emerges is a top-down system that, as a local teacher described, "makes a religion of testing, scores and quantifying, an overly structured and centralized system that shields kids from the complexity of the real world."

If, by some miracle, we could pick the ideal superintendent, what qualifications should we seek?

The right superintendent:

  • Is excellent at teaching and knows what makes a compelling curriculum and environment.
  • Has a working knowledge of finances, community relations, data-based decision-making, labor relations, etc.
  • Communicates in plain English, not educationese.
  • Can deal openly with residents, staff, students, peers and, particularly, Columbia Board of Education members, and say: "At board meetings, I should not sit dead-center among you, the board, because it's your meeting. I'll sit apart. You hired me to make good judgments, but by law, you have the final word."
  • Thrives on transparency by actively seeking opinions from all constituencies, especially from dissonant voices.
  • Directs the district's public relations office to stop sugarcoating newsletters and press releases with only "good news."
  • Encourages teachers and students to speak their minds.
  • Builds relationships within the district and the community, offers to share viewpoints with families involved in private schools and home-schooling. Makes a beeline to the school board member who enrolled her son in private school and seizes the opportunity to learn how the public school could improve.
  • Reaches beyond local and regional colleges of education to seek more diverse teaching talent and educational perspectives.
  • Has experience with and considers establishment of a variety of magnet schools.
  • Has experience with charter schools and/or seeks dialogue with residents who wish to start them. Supports efforts to remove the law limiting charters to Kansas City and St. Louis.
  • Empowers teacher and student involvement by incorporating ever-evolving online literacy and resources.

Finding the right super also raises a question: How viable is the superintendent search process our board signed onto? A friend who is an executive recruiter stressed that posting a position is not enough to attract the best candidates.

"If there is public scrutiny all through the process, only those who are desperate to make a change or are in 'transition' will apply," she said.

"Use of a search committee made up of parents, city leaders and others who have a stake in public education outcomes and can work equably together to bring a slate of three to five qualified candidates meeting the search objectives before release to the media/public is highly recommended — and it works!"

But suppose after the "meet and greet" forums, the board determines none of the finalists is up to par? Shouldn't we start again, this time using the executive recruiter's recommendations?

I encourage residents, teachers and students to pack the meetings, ask finalists about specific issues and ask how they plan to reverse teacher burnout and student malaise and preserve CPS' mission.

As far as the candidates running for school board, let's decide on two who will dig in and work conscientiously on the district's problems, and bring accountability to the office of the superintendent.

Through it all, the truest, best education must be self-education, propelled by curiosity, creativity and the desire for self-growth and the benefit of society.

If we bring out the best in our kids, they will find ways to become engaged citizens of the world, working to solve society's problems while respecting all cultures.

To this end, we must continually set our educational goals straight to support the best in our kids.

Ken Green is a former college teacher and co-founder of Youth Alternative Learning Exchange.

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Ayn Rand February 6, 2009 | 12:52 p.m.

The right superintendent also should have a clear, actionable plan for dealing with apathetic parents and students. Then the district wouldn't have to waste millions of extra taxpayer dollars (e.g., $15,136 per West Boulevard student) doing something that only parents and students can do.

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