The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

School districts, stop hiring splendid outsiders to be superintendents

They look good but lack the savvy of people you already employ.

Mount Vernon High School students stage a walkout April 14 opposing the potential confirmation of Michelle Reid as superintendent of Fairfax County Public Schools. Her confirmation proceeded. (Craig Hudson for The Washington Post)
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Even some of the best school boards experience an uncomfortable moment when they appoint an outside candidate as a superintendent thinking that will solve their problems but find that isn’t so.

The best new example is the trouble in which the Fairfax County, Va., School Board finds itself. Like many other school boards, it couldn’t resist hiring an attractive outsider, but as a consequence, parents, students and other important folk are in revolt.

These two key words are the source of the problem: national search. When school board members, and the public relations professionals who write their news releases, need a new superintendent, they cannot stifle the urge to say they are launching a national search, or words to that effect.

What they actually do is hire headhunting firms. Those executive recruiters are smart people who understand why going outside can be the wrong move. But since about two-thirds of superintendent hires are outsiders, the headhunters know it’s bad for business to say that in public.

U.S. school districts such as the 180,000-student Fairfax County system worship the myth that outside candidates whom they do not know have to be smarter than the people who already work for them. They do nationwide searches for the same reason rich people buy enormous mansions with far more living space than they need. They would be thought strange if they didn’t.

This problem has new importance, because the turmoil caused by the pandemic has led to a big jump in superintendent turnover, from about 15 percent annually to 25 percent, according to AASA, the School Superintendents Association.

The Fairfax County School Board just named Michelle Reid as its new superintendent. As head of the much smaller Northshore School District in Bothell, Wash., she was declared 2021 National Superintendent of the Year by AASA. The announcement said she was “known regionally and nationally for instructional leadership and crafting sustainable systems for district support of the instructional core.”

Fairfax chooses new superintendent as NAACP, parents, students protest pick

That’s wonderful. But it doesn’t change the fact that she doesn’t know much about Fairfax County. And as an outsider, she is a perfect target for unhappy county residents who have been at war with the district on issues such as teaching about race and admissions to the country’s most selective public high school.

As my colleague Hannah Natanson reported recently, Reid is opposed by the county NAACP chapter, many parent groups and students. Several young people at Mount Vernon High School walked out of classes to protest the new superintendent and how she was selected.

Jaya Nachnani, an 18-year-old senior at Mount Vernon, told Natanson: “We want to know if she’d be prepared for such a diverse and big county, because, you know, it’s a totally different ballgame.” Nachnani is one of four students who wrote a detailed commentary on the hiring decision in The Washington Post this week titled “We walked out over Fairfax County’s new superintendent. Here’s why.”

Those students, and others with doubts about Reid, could not have made the argument that the new hire doesn’t understand the district if the school board had promoted to superintendent one of the many excellent Fairfax County administrators who have made the district so popular with families moving into the area.

Opinion: We walked out over Fairfax County’s new superintendent. Here’s why.

People like Reid, shining stars from distant places, look great on paper. But they arrive lacking allies. Some of the most successful administrators in a district are likely to resent their presence, particularly if they celebrate their arrival with a barrage of new ideas. Sometimes in such situations, schools are forced to kill programs that a savvy inside candidate would have known were just beginning to work.

In 2016, I wrote a column in the form of a letter to D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser. She was about to exercise her power to appoint a new schools chancellor. I begged her first to have a long conversation with the retiring chancellor, Kaya Henderson, over what person already working in the district would make a good replacement. Henderson had been the rare case of an inside appointment. She became one of the longest serving leaders in the district’s history. She knew who would be ready to run those schools, full of challenges.

The mayor, as I expected, still picked an outside candidate. I suspect she feared doing otherwise would have seemed gauche. So many people around her, as happens with most big districts, assumed a national search was the smart move.

The most successful public charter school systems usually don’t do that. They know what works for their kids. They appoint leaders from inside their systems who understand their methods and know how to make even more progress.

Doug Lemov, the best-selling author of the “Teach Like a Champion” books and a leader in the Uncommon Schools charter network, noted that school districts have the most data on possible inside candidates and are better able to preserve their culture if they promote them. The preference for outside candidates hurts morale, he said, because “you can never get to the top unless you move to a new place.”

Scott Brabrand understands how that works. He is the Fairfax County schools superintendent whose decision to leave at the end of his contract June 30 led to the appointment of Reid. He started in the district as a social studies teacher in 1994 and had several jobs there as an administrator. I met him then. He was smart and energetic. But he wasn’t appointed Fairfax schools superintendent until 2017, after he had served five years as head of Lynchburg City Schools in Virginia.

He may have tried to tell school board members of the people they already had who would make great leaders. But if he did, the board members sadly weren’t convinced that a candidate who knows their county would be better than one who doesn’t.

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