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Can D.C.'s Search Make the Grade?

By John Merrow
Sunday, August 8, 2004; Page B01

Running an urban school system has been called the hardest job in the country, and there are always openings at the top. As I write this, nine large city school districts are looking for superintendents. The list includes Tucson, St. Louis, Houston and Pittsburgh. Other smaller cities like East Baton Rouge, La., are also in the market for new superintendents.

And as everyone knows, the District of Columbia schools are still searching for leadership, having gone through four superintendents in the past eight years and two acting chiefs in eight months The District also has suffered the public humiliation of recently having been turned down by two well-respected educators, Rudy Crew, who once ran New York City's schools, and Carl Cohn, who served for years in Long Beach, Calif.

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What's striking is how unimaginative and predictable the search process is. Just as the National Football League, the National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball seem to play musical chairs with their respective coaches, search firms recycle superintendents.

Typically, a new superintendent arrives in a city, hailed as the answer to every problem -- low test scores, poor attendance, embarrassing graduation rates. When change does not occur overnight, or perhaps at all, disappointment sets in. The superintendent departs for the next school district, and the cycle begins anew.

Instead of producing candidates with the hard-eyed management and single-minded concentration needed to figure out how best to teach kids, the search process gives these school systems more of the same.

Most large districts, including Washington, go about the superintendent selection process like this: They hire one of five or six search firms that specialize in education and pay it $30,000 to $50,000 plus expenses. Then the Board of Education sits and waits until, eventually, the search firm presents two, three or maybe four "finalists," supposedly the cream of the crop.

No matter how long and hard the consulting companies search, they inevitably seem to turn up the usual suspects: career educators, most of them men.

Today just 16 of the superintendents in the 63 largest districts are women, according to Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools. "This percentage is actually way above national averages," Casserly told me. While women are still a minority among urban superintendents, they are even more underrepresented in the suburbs, small towns and rural areas, he said.

In addition to virtually ignoring the talent pool of women, the superintendent search process is faddish to a fault. For several years retired military leaders were all the rage, inspired by the remarkable success of Gen. John Stanford in Seattle. (The District went down that road in 1996, with Lt. Gen. Julius Becton, without much success.) Nobody seemed to realize that it was what Stanford did in Seattle that improved the schools, not where he had worked earlier. More recently districts have turned to lawyers: Joel Klein in New York City, Alan Bersin in San Diego and, earlier, David Hornbeck in Philadelphia.

Washington's new superintendent will take charge of a school system of 64,000 students, many of whom have been let down miserably year after year. Not only have reading scores been dropping in some grades, but only 25 percent of ninth-graders are reading at grade level; only about half of those entering high school manage to graduate.

An analysis by the Council of the Great City Schools, a group of the 63 largest urban school systems, declared that the District is falling woefully short with "no plan for improving student performance, low expectations for children, no accountability for results, haphazard instruction, incoherent programming and dismal outcomes."

Now there's rumored to be a new "first choice" in Washington, a man (naturally) who has run social service programs in Virginia. But even if he's offered the job and accepts it, another flaw in the search approach is likely to limit his chances for success. School districts hire just one person, not a team, and when that individual arrives, he has to spend a lot of time and energy figuring out which of the colleagues he has inherited are trustworthy and competent, and which are not. Who resents regime change, and who welcomes it? It's a minefield that has destroyed many capable leaders.

As it happens, one of the men who turned Washington down, Carl Cohn, described in detail what he thinks needs to be done. Cohn told The Washington Post, "It has to be made clear to everyone that this is about the kids. Then you bring in a take-no-prisoners company that addresses the fundamental issues of operation, of people not doing their jobs."

In that interview, Cohn made specific reference to St. Louis, an urban district that matches Washington when it comes to underperformance. For example, 23 percent of St. Louis kindergarten-to-fifth-grade students, 13 percent of middle school students and only 5 percent of high school juniors there tested at or above the "proficient" level in reading in 2002, even though that district spent more than $11,000 per pupil.

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