SCHOOL DISTRICTS in America in need of a superintendent ought to study carefully all of the District's search efforts since school chief Paul L. Vance quit in November -- and then do exactly the opposite. During the past nine months, D.C. residents have watched with astonishment as the mayor, the Council, the Board of Education and an assortment of other officials have rushed off in all directions, then come together only to go around in circles, all the while making a confounding mess out of a search process that most U.S. school districts learned to master early in the last century. Two sentences from this week's news stories sum up the current state of affairs with D.C. schools:

"Sixty-eight of the 149 city schools that were assessed failed for the second year in a row to make adequate yearly progress in reading and math, as measured by the Stanford 9 tests administered in April." -- front page, Aug. 3. And . . .

"A 39-year-old Virginia state official without experience in education has suddenly emerged as a front-runner to be the next superintendent of the District's public schools." -- Metro, Aug. 5.

We're burning with curiosity about what comes next.

The test results tell one part of the story. Some 33,000 D.C. students are enrolled in schools that have failed for two years in a row to meet test score benchmarks. Twelve of the city's 15 high schools are in that failing category. Looked at another way: Because of low test scores, low-income children at nearly half of the District's public schools now qualify for extra tutorial help under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Now, contrast that disappointing student educational achievement record with the pace at which city leaders have moved to find a superintendent possessing the educational experience, management talent, knowledge of curriculum and leadership skills to improve a hard-pressed 64,000-student system. If you see a disconnect, welcome to the club.

This latest twist in the search for a superintendent -- the sudden emergence of 39-year-old lawyer Maurice Jones -- caught even the 17-member search committee by surprise. Until news broke about Mr. Jones's candidacy, the committee was operating under the belief that the four finalists of seasoned educators they had selected and agreed on last month were the only names in play. Little did they know that the group calling itself the "education advisory collaborative" -- the mayor, three school board members, two council members and the city administrator -- would make an end run around the search committee and interview Mr. Jones without telling them. But that happens to be the unpredictable way in which the search has been conducted. Whim, not purpose, drives the process.

So with the opening of school only weeks away and the school system fearful that it lacks enough money to provide tutoring to all the students entitled to it, the search, such as it is, goes on. This is education in the twilight zone.