Saturday, April 17, 2010

How to Pick a School Superintendent

April 17, 2010, 8:15 a.m.

And My Questions for Candidates
(brought to you by*)

This is essentially the second of what is (as of this morning) a two part look at the Iowa City Community School District (ICCSD) school board, its governance, process, and approach to redrawing school boundaries and recruiting a new superintendent. Nicholas Johnson, "School Boundaries: There Are Better Ways; Options Include: (1) Others' Practices, and (2) Common Sense," April 16, 2010 (with links to 23 prior, related, blog entries and other writing).

Somewhere near the middle of that blog, under the sub-heading "Common Sense, Uncommonly Applied," is a five-step process a school board needs to go through before looking for a superintendent (or deciding to design and construct a new school building). My concern is that our school board has yet to go through any of the five steps. As the final step concludes, "Indeed, one should be extremely suspicious of anyone who would be willing to be considered for the job of working with such a school board."

I'm not pulling a "the sky is falling" Chicken Little here. There's a limit to how much harm a superintendent can do to a school district if he or she has spent some time in other K-12 systems and not messed up too badly in prior positions. On a very superficial level (without having done an in-depth investigation of any of them) each of the ICCSD finalists seems qualified enough.

But it's also true that there is a limit to how much good a superintendent can do for a district if the members of the school board (as representatives of the district's stakeholders) have not addressed the details of the governance system they wish to employ, the measurable goals they want to reach (which are, in effect, the new superintendent's "job description"), the educational innovations they'd like to try, and the specific metrics they want to achieve with new boundary lines.

Since our board is unable to communicate any of this, that's why I say we "should be extremely suspicious of anyone who would be willing to be considered for the job of working with such a school board." What do these applicants think they're getting themselves into? Do they not care? Is the $200,000-plus pay and benefits worth the chaos and confusion and lack of direction and purpose? Have they even asked questions of the Board about any of the basic factors set forth above? And, if so, have they received any guarantees -- or at least expressions of good intentions?

Hopefully, someone at one of the community's three local papers (the Press-Citizen, Gazette, and Daily Iowan) will be assigned the task of some really in-depth investigation of the lives and careers of these three individuals. Hopefully, individual citizens will do the same. With access to a telephone, an Internet connection, some research skills, and a willingness to talk to strangers, the community can be provided a lot more background on these individuals than is likely to come from the Board or the 45-minute public meetings each will hold with local stakeholders.

In my experience, search firms don't do that -- as was detailed in the blog entry, Nicholas Johnson, "School Board Can't Do Job? There They Go Again," January 7, 2010: "4. Search firms may not be all they represent themselves to be. Here is but one of a number of shocking personal experiences with search firms. . . . What was shocking? Every single one of the persons I talked to told me they had never been contacted by any member of that search firm. Not a single one of the documents I found on the Internet, or their content, was reflected in the firm's report to us. Another applicant on the firm's short list to whom I spoke after we'd made our selection told me a comparable story: none of the references he had passed along to the search firm was ever contacted."

There are other reasons not to use search firms described in that blog entry: "2. It's the creation of the 'short list' of candidate finalists, not the ultimate choice, that is the most important part of that [recruitment of superintendent applicants and selection] process. . . . As Boss Bill Tweed of 19th Century New York is quoted as having said, "I don't care who does the electing, just so long as I get to do the nominating." Our Board members ought to be doing the nominating as well as the electing."

We don't expect perfection; everyone has flaws and things they've done of which they're not necessarily proud. But we do owe it to ourselves to find out all we can, and I doubt that is being done.

The Press-Citizen has, commendably and in very short order, done a first rough cut at providing us this morning with brief descriptions of each of the finalists, in alphabetical order: B.A. Morelli, "Bezek helped settle heated effort to split district," Iowa City Press-Citizen, April 17, 2010, p. A1; Lee Hermiston, "Meeks Described as Innovative, Visionary," Iowa City Press-Citizen, April 17, 2010, p. A1; Rob Daniel, "Murley Feels Prepared for Iowa City Job," Iowa City Press-Citizen, April 17, 2010, p. A1.

So I'd certainly urge anyone who cares to at least start with those descriptions -- and to not stop there but to call around the communities from which they come, and crank up their Google search engine and any other investigative resources to which they may have access.

The Press-Citizen is also offering us this morning a wide ranging list of categories of questions one might put to the three finalists. "Questions to Ask the School Superintendent Finalists Next Week," Iowa City Press-Citizen, April 17, 2010, p. A11. If you plan to attend any of the public sessions, or even if not, it's well worth your reading.

Meanwhile, here is my own personal list of questions I put together a couple of days ago. Feel free to use any of them that might be things you'd like to ask as well.

What I’d Like to Ask Our Superintendent Candidates

1. Tell us your story. Your family, childhood, early education, the communities where you’ve lived, your sports, activities, hobbies, the novels and other books that had the greatest impact, the teachers and other adults, anything early in your life that caused you to want to be a teacher or school administrator. How about your college years, and after?

2. Here are a number of “why Iowa City?” questions. (a) What, from your perspective, were the most important things you felt you needed, or wanted, to know about the Iowa City Community School District in deciding whether this was a job you’d even want to apply for, let alone take? (b) How much do you know about this school district and its communities, their history, the board members, the challenges the District throws up to a superintendent? (c) What were, or are, the most serious negatives or challenges about the District, in your mind, from the perspective of a school superintendent?

3. Some critics say we’re looking for a combination of Thomas Jefferson, Jesus and John Dewey. Actually we know better. No administrator, no individual, can be outstanding with regard to every aspect of their job, or life. So this is a multi-part question. (a) From your perspective, what do you see as the categories of responsibilities of a school superintendent? (b) Of these, which do you believe are areas of activity at which you excel? (c) Of those that do not happen to be strengths of yours, how would you go about filling those roles?

4. What are the five books and authors that have most influenced your own thinking about K-12 education, and why and how? What are examples of positions you have taken on K-12 issues, or projects you have launched and participated in, that grew out of their ideas?

5. How much writing about K-12 education have you done since finishing your college or university training – books, academic journal articles, magazine articles or newspaper columns, blog entries?

6. What do you think is the best balance between (a) introducing new innovative educational approaches to a school district, ideas that have been found to work successfully elsewhere, and are grounded in research data and best practices regarding “what works,” and (b) “keeping the trains (and school buses!) running on time,” minimizing strife and conflict, satisfying parents and teachers, trying to make the best of what you’ve been handed rather than trying to change it for the better?

7. If you do think it is important, or at least useful, to be knowledgeable regarding educational theory, innovation, and practice among the nation’s 15,000 school districts (a) how do you go about keeping yourself informed (e.g., which K-12 trade magazines do you really regularly read), and (b) how would you suggest to your school board members they go about the task of educating themselves and staying informed (or do you think that is not something they need to know)?

8. Based on your experience, educational background, and current reading, give us your quick take on the following – (a) how would you define or describe these concepts or ideas, (b) are they things you’ve worked with or proposed in the past, or (c) something you’d like to explore here, and why? Examples might include: charter schools, magnet schools, cluster schools, lead teachers, team teaching, block scheduling, school uniforms, alternative assessments (e.g., portfolios), “shopping mall high schools,” alternative schools, alternative class clusters (e.g., K-3, 4-6, middle schools, 7-9 and 10-12). What others would you add to that list? (c) What do you see as the relationship between these ideas and architectural design of school buildings?

9. Are you familiar with the report of the National Commission on the High School Senior Year? If not, it reported that the high school senior year was largely wasted; that students might better use that time to get a head start on their college or community college education, do job shadowing, or independent research outside the school building in the community (all of which would have the additional side benefit of reducing “crowding”). Do you see the senior year as providing students less than it might, and if so how do you think a school district should respond?

10. There is a good deal of data suggesting that when high schools go above a population of, say, 800 students, there begins to be a correlation with increased absenteeism, bullying, teen pregnancy, alcohol and drug use, graffiti, drop outs, and violence. (a) Are you familiar with that research? (b) Accepting it for the moment as a hypothetical, that it is true, what could and should a school district do: (1) make quality education “job one” and sacrifice whatever is necessary to see to it that it has high schools in the 800-student range, (2) wish that they could do it, but realize it’s not economically feasible, or (3) go on building 1500-2500-student high schools, accept the problems they create, and try to minimize those problems as best they can?

11. Special education. Special education students require additional attention, especially if they are “BD” (disruptive in a classroom). What do you believe is the best approach for a District to take: (a) mainstream the students in regular classrooms, because it’s better for them and the other students as well (who benefit from learning about and interacting with those who are not exactly like themselves), and if so with (1) special education teachers in those classrooms, or (2) relatively untrained “associates,” or (3) no assistance for the teacher, or (b) segregate those needing extra attention, so as to minimize disruption in the classroom and avoid the need for a teacher to spend a disproportionate portion of her time with a relatively small group of students?

12. Iowa City happens to be the home of the University of Iowa, a Big Ten College of Education, the local campus of a major community college (Kirkwood), a major parochial school system (Regina), other private schools (e.g., Willowwind), and numerous preschools and day care centers. There are numerous social service organizations that touch on the ICCSD students and their families (e.g., homeless shelter, free clinic, WIC and Food Stamp programs). Can you imagine relationships with these institutions that could be beneficial to the District? How and why might that be? What might collaboration involve? How would you propose to relate to these other institutions? Or, do you believe your job is to concentrate on the ICCSD, and simply do the best job you can with it?

13. A superintendent must create and maintain working relationships with a number of stakeholder groups – other administrators, teachers, parents, students, other state, county and local governmental officials, local citizens and their organizations, business community, and the media. But central, of course, is the school board. So we have a number of questions regarding your thoughts, and past experience, with that relationship.

a. Some school board members are so disengaged and relatively uninformed that their superintendent must take over the school board members’ responsibilities. “School board meetings” become, in effect, “superintendent meetings” to which school board members are invited and given the best seats. The agenda is prepared by the superintendent, the presentations are made by the superintendent and other administrators, and the motions to be made and voted on by the board are written out by the superintendent and presented to the board members. They might be described as “rubber stamp” boards.

b. Other boards are very engaged. Individual members involve themselves in the detail of school operations, sometimes with obvious conflicts of interest and other times with the best of innocent intentions. There is no particular plan to their activities; sometimes they fail to act on matters (especially long term planning) that many think they should, and at other times they get into details that most think they shouldn’t. They might be described as “micro-managing” boards.

c. Neither is a very useful model. There is a literature regarding various “governance” models for all organizations that are jointly administered by a multi-person “board” on the one hand and a CEO (e.g., superintendent, president, executive director) on the other. Are you familiar with that literature? Which of the alternative models do you think is best, or is the one with which you have had the most experience? Have you inquired as to which have been used by the ICCSD in the past, and the one that is in use now? How would you describe the model advocated by John Carver?

d. If you are not familiar with that literature, here are some more specific questions. How would you describe what you see as the role of the school board, and the role of the superintendent, and the rules for their interaction? What limitations do you think the board members should impose on themselves? What process, or standards, should be used by you (and the board) in deciding which decisions and proposed actions should be taken by you to the board for its prior approval and which you can take on your own without ever needing to even inform the board? Can you imagine metrics that might be used by the board for measuring how well the District is doing – and, not incidentally, measuring how well you are doing your job, for purposes of year-end evaluations and potential raises or dismissal? What might they be?

e. What experience have you had with management information reporting systems in your past positions; either those designed and prepared by you, or those of others to which you were required to refer? Please provide us sample copies of them, indicating what they were designed to measure and track. Did you find them useful? How did they impact on the decision making process, and actions? Which do you believe might be useful for the ICCSD as well (subject, of course, to revision as you become more thoroughly acquainted with the District)? What additional things would you recommend be measured and tracked?
14. This school district has just gone through (or may still be going through) a reassessment of its elementary and secondary school boundaries. The local papers have been full of reports of the process. Have you read them; are you familiar with the process? (And if so, a wag might ask, “Why are you here?”) In any event, it has involved the board’s delegation of much of the decision making process to the superintendent, a committee of some 30 local citizens, and an external consultant from Olathe, Kansas. If you are familiar with what has happened here, what is your reaction to it? Have you had experience with redrawing boundary lines elsewhere? What was that like? What would you now change about the way it was done (either there or here)? And whether or not you are familiar with what happened here, how would you recommend a school board and superintendent go about “redrawing boundaries” (that is, either (a) retaining a conventional approach to K-12 and redrawing those schools' boundaries, or (b) not redrawing boundaries but dealing with the issues with other innovative means, such as those mentioned in 8, above)?

15. One of the central issues in the ICCSD reconsideration of its school boundaries was what came to be called “demographics.” There is a rough correlation between socio-economic class (e.g., educational level, income, social status, homes and neighborhoods) and the families of those children who are entitled, because of poverty level, to “free and reduced-price" school lunches. George Orwell wrote in Animal Farm, "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others." The same can be said of parents; or, as some have defined the modern “golden rule,” “Those who have the gold make the rules.” Obviously, the easiest thing for a superintendent to do is to accept the power structure of a community and give the wealthy and politically powerful parents what they want for their kids – whether he or she believes it’s actually in the students' best interests or not. How have you in the past, how would you in this District in the future, strike a balance between the powerful and the powerless when it comes to decisions in the hundreds of contexts in which that balance must be struck?

* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source, even if I have to embed it myself.
-- Nicholas Johnson
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1 comment:

Nick said...

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