Nashville is searching for a new schools superintendent. By some measures, our last search was a success. The candidate selected, Pedro Garcia, lasted almost seven years. Of course, he also created a "climate of fear" and presided over six straight years when Nashville lost ground to the state average in helping students learn. So, what have the leaders who will choose our next superintendent taken from this experience?
The meme from the Mayor's office and the business community seems to be, "Let's get an implementor." Here is one story that evidences this, but there are others. A Nashville Today (not online) interview with former Mayor Bill Purcell quoted him to the effect that we needed someone who knows how to turn around an urban school system. No one has successfully accomplished that task, but maybe there is someone who knows how. How would the School Board know, however, that one candidtate knew?
The meme out of the School Board seems to be, "a good communicator who listens, builds morale and maintains strong community relations." All the things that Dr. Garcia wasn't. That's fairly typical in these situations. Our last search was to replace a superintendent who had been a career-long MNPS educator and who was not seen as strong on instructional issues -- his role had been facilities and helping settle the 4-decade desegregation suit. So, of course, the meme was for an outsider with strong instructional credentials who would come in and whip the system into place. I was on the Board when that search started and I pushed for us not to go looking for "an answer person." No Board member or Chamber representative would publicly speak against that, but it was not the underlying tenor of leadership thinking. We wanted a "change agent."
Memes make a difference. They are the real drivers of decisions in situations like this, not formal statements of "what we are looking for." Here we have interesting cross-currents between the "implementor" and the "people person" meme. I hope that the "people person" meme wins out. There's virtually no evidence nationally that any program, be it "small learning communities" or whatever the next fad will be, can reliably improve teaching and learning in urban systems if it is just "implemented" properly. On the other hand, there's lots of evidence that good relationships between teachers and principals, teachers and teachers, teachers and students, and teachers and parents create engagement for students and gains in learning. Chris Peterson of the University of Michigan and one of my professors in the MAPP program sums up the findings of positive psychology by saying, "Other people matter."
I was at an event this weekend where I got to visit with the parents of young adults who were in my older son's class in school. Several of these, like Tyler, are now teaching. One parent summed up the experience of his and a number of others he'd talked to over recent years as, "I love my kids, like my parents, can't stand the administration." He talked about the number of young, idealistic, energetic students he had seen go into teaching in recent years, then leave in disillusionment due to the leadership, or lack thereof, in their schools. Or, as another parent quoted his daughter's principal, "If you are looking for me to encourage you, you came to the wrong school." Wow!
So, what should the School Board do?
- Hold to the "people person" idea, but don't hold your breath waiting to find her or him. Much of the dynamic in the leadership track that produces candidates for urban systems tends to create "program people" with jaded views of teachers and even the possibility of change. (One of the findings of a big survey done of our system by a group that conducts such studies around the country was that teachers and top administrators were equally pessimistic about the chances for improvement.)
- Change the system to support the people in it, specifically:
- Support teacher-led instructional improvement. The format does not have to be lesson study as I pushed it when I was on the Board, but it had better include letting teachers, working together in small groups, select areas for improvement efforts, research, design, implement, and evaluate those efforts, report the results, then turn around and do it again. Call it "small learning communities" or "critical friends circles" or "action research", but make sure it has those characteristics.
- Give back the teacher in-service days the last administration took away. The idea that what we really needed was more time for teachers in front of students doing what they have always done was insane. It was a reflection of the command and control, fear-based approach of the last administration. The Board should not have agreed to it and you should take the lead now in creating time in the school year for teachers to work on deep, fundamental instructional improvement. Don't wait for MNEA to demand it in negotiations. Do it now, on your own, as a sign of your faith in teachers and a commitment to a new way of going forward together.
- Create a system of regular surveys of culture and climate in MNPS generally and in individual schools. This was a task the Board assigned the last administration. They picked a vendor that delivered a useless product and then reneged on the balance of the agreement claiming lack of funds. The Board let it happen. Now, we find that instead of an $800,000 contract, we got a useful survey for $30,000. Get a permanent, annual system in place to sample to feelings and beliefs of teachers, students, and parents. I still recommend looking into this option, but don't take no for an answer this time. Get a system that will produce data that will help you manage the leadership of this system. There is no excuse for not fixing this glaring lack that allowed a culture of fear and low expectations to prevail under the last administration.
Selecting the next superintendent of schools is clearly the biggest challenge and most significant responsibility this Board will face. Looking around the country, we see NO large, urban school systems that are doing well, so there's very little reason to think we are going to find a lot of quality candidates that can lead a people-first program. But there is ABSOLUTELY NO REASON to think we will find a candidate who has a programmatic answer for teaching and learning. Run from those who think they do. Find your people person who believes in the strengths and character of our teachers, our students, our parents and our community. Someone who will draw out and build on the best qualities and strongest aspects of who we are. That is our only path forward. Good luck!