It doesn’t get more definitive than this. After calling Vincent Gray’s DC mayoral win on Tuesday “devastating for the schoolchildren of Washington, DC,” DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee has all but announced she will resign as head of our nation’s capital’s public schools (and likely be gone well before the end of the this academic year).
So what comes next for a school district that seems to change superintendents as frequently as some kids change their underwear? Yet another schools chief is likely to roll into town (and it could be a retread of someone who has already been in DC), offering yet another approach to school improvement, spending the next few years rearranging the deck chairs.
In a front page story in today’s Washington Post, Bill Turque offers up four possible successors to Rhee. Two would offer us our Back to the Future moment, with the possibility of either current Detroit education czar Robert Bobb or outgoing Newark (NJ) superintendent Cliff Janey returning to DC. Also on Turque’s short list, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, the current academic chief in Detroit, or Deborah Gist, current Rhode Island education commissioner and former DC state supe.
For the record, Eduflack loves Gist. What she has done in Rhode Island this past year is nothing short of remarkable. She’s completely overhauled the way the state approaches public education — from instruction to teacher quality to data and all points in between. Gist guided the state to a big Race to the Top win a few weeks ago. Yes, she is facing a new governor come January (and possibly one who has not endorsed the RttT plan), but if she decides to leave Providence, I’m hoping it is to bring her vision to another state in need of forward movement and real improvement.
Janey may be a good man and a fine superintendent, but bringing him back to DC sends the wrong message on the direction of DCPS. Make no mistake, Janey deserves some of the credit for the student test score gains enjoyed under Rhee. And yes, he has a lot of friends here (including the incoming mayor and the teachers’ union). But for those looking closely at DC’s next K-12 move, Janey reflects, rhetorically, a step backward, not a step forward. It may be an unfair characterization, but how can we say DC schools are better off going where they were five years ago?
That leaves us with the two candidates from the Motor City left on Turque’s short list. First things first, Detroit needs to name one of these two its superintendent … and fast. Bobb has done remarkable things in Detroit under very difficult circumstances. And in a desire to bring improvement, he has been open to just about any good idea in the city. He needs to be given time to see those ideas through, and he needs to be given the full authority over both finances and instruction a real superintendent deserves. So it Detroit is forced to pick, and either Bobb or Byrd-Bennett would be strong choices, does DC really want to settle for the candidate Detroit didn’t want?
So where does that leave us? Over the last few days, the future of DCPS has focused on the traditional. Eduflack has heard names like Rudy Crew (formerly of NYC and Miami-Dade), Arlene Ackerman (currently of Philly and formerly of San Fran and DC), and others who seem to take the tour of the great urban schools circuit. But is that what DC needs? Is DC simply looking for a steady hand who understands the job of superintendent, or does it need someone who will think differently and not know what isn’t allowed?
After the Rhee experiment, Tuesday’s victorious parties are not going to be in any mood to find another outside-the-box candidate. As much as a district like DC would benefit from a leader like Rhee or NYC Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, that just isn’t in the cards. We are likely looking for candidates who are all too familiar with the urban supe musical chairs game. It makes for an easy decision for Gray and company, but it may not be the best thing for DC’s school children.
So who will it be? Janey? Crew? Atlanta Superintendent Beverly Hall? Out west, the biggest supe search is currently Clark County, NV, or the Las Vegas Schools. Yesterday, they named their three finalists — Colorado Education Commissioner Dwight Jones, Dallas ISD Superintenden Michael Hinojosa, and Lee County (FL) Supe James Browder. Do we get one of the two that fail to hit it big in Sin City? Only time will tell …