An open letter to the D.C. mayor: Skip a national search for the next schools chief
Dear Mayor Bowser:
Your office says you will launch a nationwide search to find a replacement for D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson, who is stepping down. Please don’t do that, Madame Mayor.
Nationwide searches for school superintendents are stupid, cliched and usually do not work. That is particularly true for low-performing but improving school systems such as the District’s.
The quickest, cheapest and most effective way to find a new chancellor is to have a long talk with Henderson. After six years (plus three previous years as deputy chancellor), she knows better than anybody what the job is and who already working in D.C. Public Schools can do it best. Call in the people she suggests — no travel expenses or headhunter fees necessary — and pick the one you like most.
For many decades, big U.S. school districts have bought into the myth that somewhere out there is a genius who can solve their problems. They do nationwide searches for the same reason many rich people buy far more living space than they need: They would be thought peculiar if they did not.
The alleged stars hired in these fantasy adventures usually have little familiarity with the administrators, teachers, parents, students and power brokers in the school district or have little knowledge of its history. They lack trusted allies. Some of the most valuable people they must work with resent their presence.
For D.C. schools, that is a formula for disaster. Let’s assume a new chancellor hired from the outside announces changes, awkward and incomplete because of unfamiliarity with the district’s inner workings. That forces schools to dump programs that were beginning to work in favor of something in which they have little confidence.
This is an old story in urban school districts, Madame Mayor. It happens a lot. That does not mean your city’s schools are fated to undergo the same tortuous cycle. Keep in mind that you have many talented educators, good financial support, hopeful families, a robust charter sector that Henderson encouraged and some high schools — such as Wilson, Banneker and the School Without Walls — that are already as good as what you would find in the wealthiest suburbs.
You have seen the improvements. Some critics say the gains that D.C. schools have shown on the National Assessment of Educational Progress exams are the result not of better teaching but of changes in student family background that correlate with higher scores. A new study by Urban Institute researcher Kristin Blagg suggests that is not true for the District. Its students are doing better than the demographic changes would predict.
One urban district — Cleveland — did not improve as much as was forecast, Blagg said. But D.C. schools were among the best of 11 urban districts in exceeding demographically related expectations from 2005 to 2013. The District’s schools “added an average of eight NAEP points on top of a predicted gain of six points,” Blagg told me recently.
Much work must still be done, but who in her right mind — and you seem quite sane to me — would want to mess with the changes Henderson and her team have been making?
The best charter-school systems do not conduct national searches. They usually promote from within. Doug Lemov, bestselling author of the “Teach Like a Champion” books and a leader of the Uncommon Schools charter network, notes that a district has the most data on inside candidates and preserves its culture by promoting them. Morale is also an issue in a district “where you can never get to the top unless you move to a new place,” he said.
As you know, Madame Mayor, Henderson herself was promoted from the inside. She had the longest tenure for any D.C. schools chief since Floretta McKenzie 28 years ago. If you choose Henderson’s replacement from among the many talented people already on the team, you can have that person in place and working by September. Sincerely, Jay Mathews