An open let­ter to the D.C. mayor: Skip a na­tional search for the next schools chief

The Washington Post - - METRO - Jay Mathews jay.mathews@wash­

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

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