Does Student Achievement Matter on the Superintendent’s Resume?

Instead of spending time at the beach, luxuriating by the pool or driving up gas prices by tooling around the nation in a giant RV, the governing boards of the St. Louis and Washington, D.C. schools are spending the summer looking for new leaders, both having lost out to Miami-Dade County in the competition to land Rudy Crew. Now that D.C. has identified four finalists, who were said by a committee member to be the cream of the superintendent crop, it made me wonder what school boards look for when wooing someone to fill the top job. Thomas E. Glass, a professor at the University of Memphis, conducted a nationwide survey of school board presidents a couple of years back that turned up an interesting, if troubling, answer to that question. School boards apparently want leaders who have good communication skills and are adept at interpersonal relations. Community relations is next on the list. Instructional leadership merits only an out-of-the medals rank of fourth, followed by management expertise. Given the size and complexity of large school districts and the fact that their purpose is to educate kids, it makes one wonder whether school boards have their priorities straight. Do they want nice guys and gals who are going to make them feel good and be able to soothe the egos of the activists who dominate school board meetings or do they want someone who’s going to keep the roofs from leaking, make tough choices about money and, most important, make sure kids learn to read?

More searches will begin soon. Mike Moses has announced that he’ll be departing Dallas at the end of August, toting a fat $313,000 in severance and vacation pay and nearly $200,000 in longevity pay (he stayed nearly four years) in his briefcase. Things also are looking rough for Robert Henry in Hartford, who is said to be wondering how long he can accept the school board’s micromanagement there. Anthony Amato is having a rough go of it in New Orleans. The board that hired him away from Hartford in the spring of 2003 began opposing him a year later, when he began trying to attack corruption and mismanagement. And Kenneth Burnley is resisting the call of the head of the appointed board in Detroit that he step down, vowing to stick around at least until his contract ends next summer. At least Los Angeles can say that former Colorado Gov. Roy Romer isn’t going anywhere. The board extended his contract to 2007 with board President Jose Huizar telling the Los Angeles Times that the action “brings stability to the district, which this district very much needs.” Romer has launched a $14 billion school building program and focused relentlessly on academics. Although some complain that Romer’s instructional approach is too structured and top-down, test scores have gone up significantly in the elementary and middle schools. He’s brought in math and literacy coaches and held the area superintendents within the sprawling 750,000 distict accountable for academic gains.

That’s a big contrast with St. Louis, which has an interim superintendent after another interim got the district’s financial house in some order. In a report in June, the Council of Great City Schools (which has produced honest, probing reports on several of its member districts) concluded that the district “has no instructional focus; it lacks a plan for raising student achievement; its instructional staff is poorly organized; and its sense of direction has splintered. The district is also marked by little sense of urgency for improving achievement, no accountability for results, and very low expectations for children.” If this were baseball, we’d say the new manager, whoever he or she is, will have to endure a rebuilding year. But since this situation has lasted for years and these are kids we’re talking about, kids who are having the door to their future slammed in their faces, it doesn’t seem right to be so glib. It’s hardly any wonder that Crew turned the job down. And one wonders whether the board will be able to persuade someone with the skills–yes, instructional leadership skills–and fortitude required.

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