Clifford B. Janey, the newest choice to head the District of Columbia's public schools, will forgive me if I don't organize a welcoming parade.
It's not that I'm unfriendly to new superintendents. I was much cheered when the late Barbara Sizemore came here to take over in the early 1970s. I liked her confession that she'd been a bit of a brat in her own school days and understood how to deal with disruptive kids. Besides, she was so determinedly African American that I thought she might be able to instill some racial pride in our struggling school system.
I was elated when the Board of Education chose as her successor Vincent Reed, a former local shop teacher and no-nonsense administrator who had the further virtue of knowing where the system's bodies were buried.
Okay, so I was less than thrilled at such choices as William Manning, Hugh Scott, Andrew Jenkins III and Franklin Smith.
But I was ready to strike up the band for Julius Becton, the retired general; Arlene Ackerman, whose friends assured me that she was the salvation of poor black children; and Paul Vance, who had achieved some success in neighboring Montgomery County.
The point is that a newspaper career spanning nearly a dozen superintendents, and as many more acting superintendents, has taught me not to expect very much from the next school chief, however credentialed or well-meaning. Aside from Reed and Floretta McKenzie, I have trouble thinking of any in the long succession of short-term administrators who made much of a difference in the local schools.
It will sound like heresy to members of the school board and the special search committee that recruited the former superintendent of the Rochester, N.Y., school system (after a Who's Who of urban educators turned them down), but I believe it: Superintendents don't matter all that much.
For that matter, neither do school boards.
I don't mean to say that there aren't places where brilliant leadership from the central office has made a difference. I do mean to say that central-office leadership isn't the main thing that's wrong with the schools here.
What is? Carl Cohn, the Long Beach, Calif., administrator who decided not to take the D.C. job, offered a useful short list: Snarled lines of authority, so those with the responsibility are not always those with the authority or the checkbook, and no one knows who's accountable to whom; the flight of the middle class to nonpublic schools, greatly reducing the pressure on those in charge to provide resources and to raise expectations; and the fact that the school system (like the city government) seems to see itself more as a source of jobs for people it favors than as a vehicle for lifting a generation of children.
There is, I would add, a lack of passionate involvement on the part of parents and neighbors at the individual school level. That, I really believe, is where lasting change will have to take place.
But that is tedious, frequently unrewarding work that builds few political credits. Isn't it better to go for the silver bullet of a new superintendent and a frantically involved "downtown"?
No. The central-office cure we've been relying on for all these years is a huge part of the problem. Isn't it clear by now how much the fights among superintendents, school boards, city councils and mayors have to do with political power -- and how little with the education of our children?
A little unsolicited advice: Lose those national search companies that, like owners of professional sports franchises in need of new coaches, keep coming up with the same list of marginally successful applicants.
Better to spend the effort on making sure that each school has a savvy, committed and accountable principal. An outstanding principal will make more of a difference, and make it more quickly, than an outstanding superintendent, who will take a year or more to figure out what's wrong and which people can be counted on to help fix it.
Good luck, Cliff Janey, but no huge expectations from me. I'm too old to believe in school fairies.