At yesterday’s EdSec confirmation hearings, senator after senator went out of their way to praise the selection of Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan and how terrific it will be to have a real urban educator at the helm of the U.S. Department of Education. At the beginning of the year, many folks (Eduflack included) praised the selection of Denver Public Schools chief Michael Bennet for the open U.S. Senate seat from Colorado, again applauding the notion that a true-blue educator would be involved in authorizing and appropriating federal education dollars.
As a friend pointed out this afternoon, though, all this talk about our top urban superintendents moving up to new, more powerful political jobs raises one large unanswered (and often unasked) question. What is the impact on our urban districts? At a time when our school districts are facing greater demands on their resources, higher expectations on their performance, shrinking budgets from their cities and states, and a more demanding economy into which their most successful students are now entering, what happens to those districts that lose great leaders?
This isn’t just a federal issue, either. our states are seeing massive turnover in the chief state school officer positions. For each of those open state chiefs, there are likely superintendents in that state (as well as those from others) who pique the interests of politicians, policymakers, and educators.
But let’s get back to our urban districts. Miami, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Denver. All are facing brand new superintendents at their most important moments. Same is true for districts like Prince Georges County in Maryland. Other districts — Boston, Philadelphia, Newark, and the like, have supes in their first years. It’s getting to the point where DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, on the job for a year and a half now, is quickly become a grizzled veteran in world of urban superintendents.
Yes, ED is fortunate to soon have Duncan at the helm, where he can bring his Chicago experiences and insights to bear on the national scene. We can look at the improvements and the innovations and the ideas that have percolated in Chicago (and other cities) and paint them with a larger brush and allow them to have larger impact. But as ED begins to fill out its other positions, how many cities will lose their top school administrator for the greater good? I assume that a supe or a chief state school officer will take over at the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, but what about the other openings in ED’s Duncan era?
It raises a lot of questions in Eduflack’s mind. Does one have to run a major urban school district to lead school improvement at the national level? What about our rural school districts? Who speaks for the small communities or the K-8 school districts when the focus is on urban turnaround? How important is it for a senior-level ED appointee to have real K-12 classroom instruction experience? How much of such experience is enough? What’s the necessary balance between pedagogy and innovation at ED? Does K-12 or higher ed experience truly matter when it comes to the knock-around political world that is Washington?
We all know heading one of the larger school districts in the nation is a difficult job. The stakes are high. Turnover is frequent. Districts churn through leaders, with many top districts recycling many of the same leaders again and again. So how does one protect the gains in such districts, while preventing the brain drain that comes with turnover and current upward mobility? And more importantly, what are groups like the Council of Great City Schools and AASA doing to ensure that incoming superintendents — in both our most urban and most rural districts — have the professional development tools, support, and guidance necessary to keep improvements moving forward and bringing about the sort of change that so many communities are crying out for?
Maybe Duncan is already thinking of that, and is going to adopt a superintendent-in-residence program at ED to help ensure that school administrators have the access to best practice that we are constantly trying to deliver to both principals and teachers. Or maybe we figure that urban districts always manage to figure it out, and between CGCS and the Broad Foundation, we’ll keep those top jobs staffed, so no need to worry.
And while we’re off the topic, allow me this little rant. By now, many have seen the screaming Internet messages warning that all of the top jobs at ED are going to go to educational innovators and free thinkers, and not those with distinct classroom pedagogical training or instructional experience. I don’t want to address such rumors here because I don’t think they are worth the electronic ink. And anyway, Sherman Dorn does a far better job discussing the silly fears than I ever could — www.shermandorn.com/mt/archives/002872.html But I do want to address the larger issue. What ED needs now, what ED always needs, is a team that is committed to school improvement and is committed to the child. That commitment takes many forms. We see it in classroom and district educators. We see it in education researchers who have committed themselves to spotlighting best practice. And we see it in innovators, idea-makers, and policy minds who look for new ways to solve the problems that ail our schools. Before we condemn picks for jobs at ED, we should let President-elect Obama and EdSec in-waiting Duncan actually make the picks. There may just be a method to their madness. And we may be surprised how the individuals, the personalities, and the backgrounds selected complement each other and form a wide net of experience and action designed to real school improvement. At the end of the day, we have to believe that Obama and Duncan (and their surrogates) are seeking to improve public education through ED, and not harm it. So let’s let them give it a try.
I’ll step down from the soapbox and relinquish the rostrum. More questions than I have answers today, I’m afraid. But sometimes such questions result in really interesting answers and insights down the road.