To Be An Urban Superintendent

Over the past few weeks, the national education media has reported on the perils of being (or more importantly hiring and retaining) the urban superintendent.  By now, we’ve all read of the soap opera down in Miami-Dade, first with Rudy Crew’s departure and then with the delay on the official appointment of Alberto Carvalho as Crew’s permanent replacement (it is always the fault of those reporters, after all, isn’t it).

Most recently, the spotlight has been focused on the revolving door of the St. Louis superintendency, where it seems no one really wanted the top job, or at least no one wants to hold the job.  The Associated Press has Oklahoma City Schools on its 25th supe in 39 years, with the average tenure for a school chief now less than three years.  (See the full story here at <a href="
There is no question it is hard, hard work to lead an urban school district these days.  Reduced financial resources.  Greater academic expectations.  AYP demands.  Struggling schools.  Collective bargaining with teachers unions.  Increased energy costs.  School violence.  Drugs.  Drop outs.  And we haven’t even gotten into the issues of effectively educating today’s young people.  Being a superintendent may be one of the most difficult jobs out there, particularly when you factor in the searing spotlight, the high stakes, and the even higher expectations.
Two years ago, Prince George’s County, MD, handed over the keys to their educational kingdom to John Deasy, a promising educational leader from a small beach community in California.  His old Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District was one-tenth the size of PG’s 130,000 student system.  He was a white man coming into a predominantly minority school district.  And he brought real stability — and real improvement — to a district in need of some positive development.
We all know that it takes a good five years to see the true impact of educational reforms, particularly those classroom-based changes.  We need many years of data to view the long-term result.  But after a year or two, we can see some promising practices.  And in PG, Deasy has posted some real promise.  Test scores seem to be rising, and rising faster than the state average.  The number of schools on the state watch list has dramatically declined since Deasy’s arrival.  The district is now a beacon of possibility, and not the punchline for school failure it once was.   
Why is all this so important?  This morning’s Washington Post reports that Deasy will depart from PG in February, to take a senior position with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.  No doubt, it is a great opportunity for Deasy and it will be a strong asset for the Gates Foundation.  Deasy’s experience in PG will be of real value to Gates, as he has solved problems in just the sort of school district that Gates is trying to reach with its education reform efforts. 
But it is a sad development for Prince George’s Public Schools, and a sadder day for urban education in general.  As the lifespan of an urban superintendent continues to shrink, we need to do everything we can to keep the good ones in place.  We need continuity in our district leadership, ensuring that good supes are sufficiently recognized, rewarded, and supported.  We need a system for mentoring the next generation of superstar superintendents, where the Deasys and Joel Kleins and Tom Payzants of the world can mentor and teach.  And just as we focus on teacher recruitment, we need a national investment in high-quality, effective school and district leadership.
Superintendent Deasy should be congratulated on his new appointment.  Through Gates, he has the opportunity to impact millions of students and dozens of school districts like PG.  He has the chance to take his PG experiences to scale, demonstrating to a larger audience that school improvement is possible, student test scores can rise, and schools can take the necessary steps to make AYP.  
Eduflack only hopes that PG will seek out a replacement from the reformer/improver model, someone who can continue the work Deasy has moved forward since his arrival in 2006.  Now is not the time for caretakers or those who won’t cause ripples.  Deasy shook up PG.  Gates saw that, and wanted to see more of that.  Hopefully, PG will stay the course.   

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