Looking for Mr. Right

District 186 needs more than a new superintendent


Springfield voters on April 9 taught School District 186 a lesson. The district needed a better board, they believed, and they made their point by electing a slew of new members.

But what, exactly, are these board members expected to be better at? They start their new jobs with the usual confused mandate. Some were elected to reverse the closing of the Capital College Preparatory Academy, some to press for more transparent decision-making, some just to be nicer to each other.
However worthy these things are, none has much to do with the board’s principal responsibilities, which are 1) to oversee improvements in day-to-day management of the district’s affairs; 2) oversee improvements in its own affairs; and 3) recruit a more capable superintendent to replace Dr. Walter Milton.

Let us assume that the board finds a successor who promises to be brilliant at managing the money, the paperwork, the contracts. Let us also assume that the board convinces this paragon that they are people he or she can work with productively. That will give Springfield a better school district, but not necessarily better schools. It shouldn’t need saying – and it wouldn’t in a country whose public culture was not infected with the private corporate model – but managing the administrative machinery of a public school system is very different from managing a teaching staff. Teaching is not manufacturing. Kids are not raw materials, and learning is not a product. It is a process, or rather many processes. A good super must know what works for different kinds of kids at different ages and talents, and be able to recruit, motivate and organize a staff capable of making it work in classrooms.

Presumably it was Milton’s credentials as an educational visionary that got him his job in Springfield, because his weaknesses as an administrator were well known. (I later criticized the old board for its apparent inattention to Milton’s administrative failings; see “Board games,” Feb. 28, 2012.) But the old board apparently exercised less than due diligence in vetting those credentials as well. One of his exciting new ideas was a discredited old one. Milton proposed to offer high schoolers incentives beyond good grades to perform in the classroom, a stratagem that had already been tried in more wide-ranging and intensive form in many districts, including Chicago. (See Trusting to miracles, Sept. 9, 2010.) The incentives didn’t incent, but no one then on the board seemed to know that.

Heaven protect the schoolchildren of Springfield from superintendents with visions, because most boards are not equipped to do it. A candidate’s formal credentials aren’t worth the sheepskin they’re printed on; having an Ed. D. merely proves that one wanted an Ed. D. badly enough to get one. Nor can you take a job applicant’s word for his accomplishments. I don’t dare suggest they lie, but a quarter million a year in pay and benefits would tempt anyone to tell a search committee only the convenient part of the truth. Most veteran superintendents can boast of successes under their leadership – in a school or two, for a year or two. But the sad fact is that no superintendent has found the way to fundamentally improve a sizeable public district like Springfield’s with lots of kids who come to school unable, uninterested and unwilling to learn.

Ordinarily, I would argue that lay board members of any organizations should leave professional matters to the professionals. The problem in education is there is no professional canon of practice. Well-schooled superintendents cannot be assumed to know how to fix an injured school the way a well-schooled surgeon knows how to fix a hernia. It isn’t that no one quite agrees on what works in the classroom, but that no one knows how to reliably make what works work in every American classroom.

Superintendents work for boards of education, but they must also work with unions, parents, veteran teachers, textbook publishers, state and federal bureaucrats and consultants. Every one of these groups has hitched up its hobbyhorse – be it merit pay, class-based mixing, smaller classes, better pay (distinct from better teachers), computers, standardized testing or charter schools – to pull public schools in this direction or that. Most of these reforms range from faddish to foolish, and advocates continue to push them even after study after study refutes their claims to be effective.

So, all the new board has to do is find and hire a new superintendent who is aware of and committed to reforms of proven efficacy, and to protect him or her from subversion by powerful interest groups, each of which is convinced that everyone but them needs to change in order to make the schools better. Easy – except that there is no one to protect the board members themselves from disenchanted voters when their terms expire. Is it possible that what public schools need is not new board members, but new kinds of boards?

Contact James Krohe Jr. at krojr@comcast.net.

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