After an embarrassingly long search, the District of Columbia has finally netted a new superintendent of schools.
Several leading candidates whose names were circulated in the media -- and at least a couple who may have actually been offered the job -- later asked that their names be withdrawn. Some thought the lines of authority were unclear, others had concerns about the political squabbling that has become a hallmark of the system, and still others may have decided that the money wasn't worth the risk to their reputations.
These are things that any prospective superintendent does well to keep in mind. But there is something that those of us with a stake in improving education in this city ought to keep in mind as well. It's bad form to quote yourself, I know, but listen:
The analogy is far from perfect, but if you think of the local school system as a school bus and the superintendent as a bus driver, you start to understand the faulty assumptions that have underlain previous searches for superintendents -- and previous disappointments with their performance.
The bus itself is in bad shape. It uses far too much fuel, in the form of school dollars, for the educational mileage it delivers. The engine is unresponsive both because it is mechanically out of date and because important parts have been permitted to fall into disrepair. The gauges -- the tests and other devices that are supposed to tell us how well it is performing -- have been ignored and at least partially disconnected. The starter, steering and brakes all are suspect. We're not even agreed -- because we haven't bothered to raise the question -- as to where the vehicle should be headed.
Yet knowing the abysmal shape of the bus itself, we give our greatest time and attention to finding the best available bus driver. We hire one driver after another, based on their skills and experience as drivers, and then we get rid of them because the bus still runs badly.
That is from a column I wrote 29 years ago, and I think it's worth quoting because the District is headed down that same path once again. The Board of Education has selected Clifford B. Janey, who garnered less-than-sterling reviews during his nearly seven-year stint as head of the Rochester, N.Y., schools. And nothing I've heard from those who chose him gives any indication whether they think they are hiring a driver to steer the school bus or a mechanic to fix it.
Maybe they think they've found the paragon who can do both.
I doubt it. The sensible thing, as I said in that generation-ago column, is to separate the tasks. Some school boards here and there are edging in that direction, hiring seasoned administrators with no educational experience to run their systems. They see, accurately, that it's virtually impossible to deliver first-class academic goods when the delivery system itself is a shambles. What they will see later on is that delivering a deeply defective product through a first-rate system still gets you a defective product.
It's not that reaching for a CEO type is bad; it's that it is insufficient.
America's broken school systems -- its large urban systems in particular -- need to improve both infrastructure and product. If school districts want to hire an administrator with firsthand experience in teaching, testing and classroom management, fine. Such a person may have some solid ideas for educational change and is at least unlikely to be burdened with unrealistic expectations. But even modest expectations will be dashed if the system itself doesn't work.
In that 1975 column, I proposed that the schools retain a corporate-type commission to look at management, organization, staffing, budgeting, and delivery of goods and services -- all with a view to making the system more efficient. The commission would be encouraged to propose radical streamlining and to say clearly where it thought the snags were. Something like that might still be a good idea.
The result, I believe, would be a system with at least the bare capability of responding to the directives and educational ideas of the new superintendent.
As it is now, each new big-city superintendent comes in like the new secretary of a Cabinet agency: ostensibly powerful but in fact at the mercy of mid-level bureaucrats who have grown comfortable doing things the old way -- and who know they'll be there long after the secretary is gone.