Dr. William Hite was hired as Superintendent of Philadelphia schools a little more than three years ago. He is getting close to the average tenure for urban school chiefs according to data from the Council of Great City Schools.
Has he been successful and how much longer will he stick around? He says he wants to be here for at least a five-year run, but will that happen? And if he stays for five years or more, what are the prospects for deeper impact?
Along with police commissioner, school superintendent is the office most vulnerable to political and policy controversy. It is an office defined by structural impediments linked to funding and jurisdictional authority. As with the police commissioner, the head of the School District casts a long public shadow.
In Philadelphia, running a large district means grappling with an unwieldy inheritance:
You inherit funding battles between Harrisburg and Philadelphia, antagonism between the teacher’s union and the District, the apocalyptic tone that pervades the battle between some community activists and the charter movement, and a divided state-city governance system.
You inherit multiple school types with different rules: District magnets, neighborhood districts, regular charters, Renaissance charters with neighborhood catchment areas, and contract schools with various civic and private groups.
You inherit a District attended by students who are overwhelmingly poor and whose families often cannot compensate for what the District fails to provide in educational and social services.
You inherit a nearly $3 billion budget, which combined with the city’s $4 billion budget, comprises an important piece of the local economy as far as the political class is concerned. The pressure for contracts and jobs is fierce.
And you inherit legacy reforms, fiefdoms, policy mandates, and labor contracts, which contribute to the sense that you run a system you have little control over, particularly in the short term.
Nobody has run the Philadelphia School District during the past 25 years and emerged with their reputation enhanced. Superintendents come and go but the sense of disappointment lingers.
The city was exhausted by the personality of Hite’s predecessor and the way in which she heightened rather than resolved conflicts. Hite conveys a sense of decency such that even his opponents find him a hard guy to dislike.
There is a cyclical familiarity to the drama: the new superintendent comes into a District in crisis, brings in a new management team, builds the appropriate political relationships to remain viable, generates a turnaround plan often with a cool new marketing phrase (Children Achieving, Vision 2014), implements a few signature programs, eventually loses political viability, and then leaves.
The cycle repeats.
It is hard to judge the effectiveness of a school superintendent given the variables at work: funding, politics, and the onslaught of new federal and state mandates and formulas, let alone the brief time frame in which he or she has to act.
One way to judge progress is test scores. While there is a logic to focusing on a quantitative metric, under a short-term superintendent test score improvements and declines are difficult to interpret.
Did he or she inherit a strong wave from previous efforts? Will a superintendent’s work show a payoff years after they leave? It is hard to ascribe cause and effect in a system with so many moving parts. At the school level it is much easier to find factors that drive quantitative success. But it’s harder at a systems level.
Before turning to my assessment of Hite’s performance, it is important to note that he is dealing with an increasingly complex political situation that could affect his tenure.
Hite’s first two board chairs—Pedro Ramos and Bill Green—were more prepared than his present board chair, Marjorie Neff, to run political interference for him. The current board chair was never a supporter of many of the directions Hite has wanted to take the District, unlike Ramos and Green.
Moreover, the new Pennsylvania Governor, who appointed Neff, is not a fan of the SRC structure itself. In an earlier article I noted that if it is up to Wolf, Neff will be the last SRC Chair, as the state-city governance structure will revert to full local control.
If that should happen, it does not necessarily mean Hite is on his way out. But increased local control may create pressures that work against his strategy. A higher level of management autonomy is always easiest to achieve when you have diversified governance, in this case city and state.
Meanwhile, Hite has had to do public battle recently with the head of City Council, Darrell Clarke, over administrative costs. The City Council has been in a pretty testy mood with the District on everything from teaching cursive to the SRC’s attempts to renegotiate the teacher’s union contract.
Finally, while most people involved in school issues respect Hite, it is not clear who is obliged to keep him in that position. Politically his most important asset may be that he stands for relative stability in an unstable time, and that he is acceptable enough to every constituency that they would rather not risk a new superintendent search.
But being acceptable is different from being effective. So back to the question: has he done a good job? A successful superintendent needs three skills: civic leader, systems strategist, and implementer. No one person has all three skills at the highest level, which is why a superintendent must surround him or herself with others that can move the ball forward. But the superintendent has to possess a feel and understanding for all three or they do not have much chance to succeed.
Let’s grade Hite on these three attributes.
A civic leader can manage contradictory constituent demands and civic crises without losing broad public credibility. Good civic leaders have points of view but they are also great listeners. Here is where Hite has excelled. Despite walking into a near impossible situation, Hite has done a good job of calming the waters, at least relatively speaking. He has the right temperament for the job. He conveys a sense of decency such that even his opponents find him a hard guy to dislike.
Contrast that with the enormous cloud that hovered over the District at the time of Dr. Ackerman’s departure. The city was exhausted by her personality and the way in which she heightened rather than resolved conflicts.
From the time that Arlene Ackerman left the District (November 2011) to the time Bill Hite was hired (June 2012) there was a seven-month gap bridged by a new School Reform Commission Chair (Pedro Ramos), a temporary chief recovery officer (Tom Knudsen), and the mayor’s educational liaison (Lori Shore).
Hite grasped the financial, political, and operational facts, showed a willingness to meet with everyone to build relationships, and yet was not going to avoid making tough decisions. Of course, neither he nor the School Reform Commission had much of a choice; the cupboard was dry as the federal stimulus ended and the state budget did not include additional basic education resources.
In his first three years Hite sought labor contract concessions, looked to gain more control for principals over school hiring decisions, closed down underutilized school buildings, continued the Renaissance program, and rescinded charters for several poorly performing charter schools.
He has not had an easy go of it as the intensity of opposition surrounding these decisions has generated protests, legal battles, and testy School Reform Commission hearings. But he has handled most situations with enormous patience and clarity.
As a civic leader in the cauldron of the school wars, I would give him an A.
A good systems strategist is someone who can understand a complex system and figure out the right leverage points for change, including those things from the past that deserve continued support. Great systems strategists also understand how to prioritize change and manage its unintended consequences.
Thus far Hite has been largely consumed with the pressures of the budget and managing difficult civic optics. But he has articulated a vision that began with his Action Plan 1.0 (January 2013), then deepened with Action Plan 2.0 (February 2014) and finally Action Plan 3.0 (March 2015), his most ambitious document.
My colleague Roxanne Patel Shepelavy did a great job of pointing out the key points in Action Plan 3.0 in a recent Citizen article. But let me make three additional points about the plan as it relates to systems thinking and strategy.
First, the plan demonstrates a systems approach in line with a portfolio strategy: It views the Philadelphia District itself not as a school system but as a system of schools. This recognizes the obvious: The momentum around change has been horizontal and not vertical, decentralized rather than centralized.
A lot of what is in the plan follows from the recognition that change happens at the school level: enabling specialty school networks, creating a services corporation from within the District that can market its services to non-District schools, granting District schools high levels of autonomy as with charters, and looking to turnaround the lowest-performing schools.
Secondly, while the plan remains multi-provider focused, it wants to manage the provider options from the district level. It will authorize charters where needed and shut down those that do not work. It will also lead innovation itself, through its new schools program, and it will elevate the importance of turnarounds (through Renaissance charters and other providers) through a Turnaround Network. The plan grapples with a key systems issue: getting the balance between centralized and decentralized properties right.
Third, the plan’s four big anchor goals are appropriately aspirational when they declare 100 percent as the goal in graduation, early literacy, funding, and great schools (teachers and principals). That is terrific, but you cannot find anything in the document that carefully enough gives us the baseline of where we are today and the developmental pathway that gets us from, say, 60 percent to 100 percent.
Hite has lost too many high level people and brought in new hires with baggage from their former positions. One wonders why District search firms are not better at using Google.
There are lots of ideas, strategies, and tactics in the plan and each one corresponds to one or more of the anchor goals, but there is nothing that specifies what is being prioritized to get from point A to point B. We have no sense of the relative weighting of interventions. Nor does it reveal what the projected rate of change should look like.
Hite has created a strong foundational document. It is not, however a strong enough action document, in that it does not give enough detail regarding short-term goals and measurements to move toward the anchor aspirations.
My grade for Hite in this area is a B.
The third key characteristic of a schools leader is implementer. The head of schools does not have to be a nitty-gritty manager; he is not the COO or Chief of Staff. But he must understand what operational excellence looks like.
Here is where Bill Hite is most vulnerable. In three years he has lost too many high level people including some that he brought in (Paul Kihn, Matt Stanski, and Donyall Dickey) and he does not seem to be recruiting enough new high-level staff.
Some of the new people he brought in come with baggage from their former positions, such as Eric Becoats, who will run the Turnaround Network and who resigned from two previous positions amid allegations of misuse of public funds. I wish him the best, but one wonders why District search firms are not better at using Google or at getting in front of the story.
Moreover, while there have been improvements at the woefully understaffed charter office, it is still not what it has to be if it must regulate schools that educate 30 percent of the students in the city.
Finally, while there is a lot of attention being paid to the new systems Hite wants to create, the old support functions in data management, personnel, information technology, and finance need much deeper work. It is one thing to have a strategy but it is another thing to align the operating capacity and talent in an organization to carry that strategy out.
When it comes to building an implementation platform, I give Hite a C.
So now let’s return to the original questions. Has Hite been successful? Should he be given more time? And how can he have deeper impact?
Given the situation he has been a success. He has been dealt a difficult hand and he has done what he could to make the best of those circumstances. Moreover, he has developed a thoughtful strategy. Thus he deserves a second act.
But that next act will be increasingly evaluated in terms of management effectiveness, especially if and when the District gets increased revenue from the state. And to be effective, he will need to build a much more capable team and focus on the small stuff that defines quality implementation. Let’s hope he succeeds.
Header photo by Jack Dugan.