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Stay on top of the superintendent search on the Philadelphia School District’s website. You can find progress updates, candidate bios, and watch all the candidate forums and events from this last week.  

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The Council of the Great City Schools is a coalition of 75 urban US school districts. In 2021, the CGCS released a report built on 10 years of data to explore what worked for districts that made significant improvements and overcame barriers. Their findings identify strategies and programs that showed demonstrable improvement. You can read a summary of the report in this Education Week article, “The Fastest-Improving City School Districts Aren’t the Ones You Might Expect,”  or if you want to take a deep dive, you can read the full report here.

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What Problem is the School Board Solving For?

The three finalists for Philly’s new schools superintendent might very well be solid educators. But has anyone asked if that’s really what we need?

What Problem is the School Board Solving For?

The three finalists for Philly’s new schools superintendent might very well be solid educators. But has anyone asked if that’s really what we need?

If I were given one hour to save the planet, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute resolving it.”

— Albert Einstein

Anyone else underwhelmed by the three finalists announced in the city’s superintendent search? All men, all educators, all…fine. But is there an innovative, transformational leader among them?

All three took part in stage-managed public appearances this week. I was holding out hope that, at their public town halls, one of them would reject the format of filtered and moderated questions and say something like: “In my administration, there will be nothing that comes between me and community members.”

But no such luck.

Nor did we hear many bold ideas about how to right the capsizing ship of our education system. What we got instead was mostly tried-and-true slogans, incrementalist in nature, and hardly any acknowledgment that we’re in crisis. If you’re a District parent, your kid is only in third grade once. There is no “wait ‘til next year.” The celebrations we’ve become accustomed to—like a jump in the graduation rate from, say, 64 to 67 percent—does nothing to ease your fear that your child is subject to being left behind in shoulder-shrugging slow-motion.

This is not to slam the three finalists—we’ll get to their credentials in a moment. But it is to double-down on Einstein’s long-ago observation. As anyone in the innovation space will tell you, a solution-first mindset is often an impediment to enacting change; defining your problem is really the work of landing on the right fix. Listening to these candidates and to the Board of Education’s public statements about them, it becomes clear that the Board erred in defining their problem. They think they’re charged with hiring an educator, when in fact the need is for a dynamic leader capable of cajoling a giant, creaking bureaucracy into systemic change.

Think about what the job of schools superintendent really is

Essentially, you’re hiring the CEO of at least five different entities. At any given time, the schools superintendent feeds more mouths than any restaurateur in Philadelphia; transports more bodies than SEPTA; oversees more facilities than any landlord in the city, including PHA; manages more employees than most businesses; and, yes, is responsible for educating our kids. This doesn’t even get to the role of navigating backroom politics and serving as public frontman for all things District. Pretty imposing job, eh? So why does the Board’s nebulous “Goals and Guardrails” touch on so few of these imperatives? Why is the Board focused so intently on evaluating just one of these all-important skill sets?

That’s why, when current superintendent Dr. William Hite announced he was stepping down, my colleague Roxanne Patel Shepelavy floated a number of names of out-of-the-box candidates to be considered as his successor—a mix of “experienced superintendents, to academic turnaround experts, to business leaders with the management chops the district needs now.”

I have no idea if the Board reached out to Heidi Ramirez, Paymon Rouhanifard, Alberto Carvalho, Cynthia Figueroa, Richard Gordon, Michael Hinojosa, or Ken Frazier — but what’s clear is, by settling on three male career educators, the Board essentially rejected Roxanne’s call to cast a wider than usual net in its search.

Don’t get me wrong: It is great that the Board has made academic achievement a touchstone of its mandate going forward. But, as I’ve written before, the most obvious failing of the Hite administration was a lack of managerial competence.

When pressed on that, none of the candidates this week had answers for, say, how they’d approach facilities management going forward—opting instead to talk about going on a “listening tour” and deferring to the Board. Hello, red flag: Don’t we want a leader who doesn’t kowtow to his or her overlords?

I’m old enough to remember Superintendent David Hornbeck, who had many flaws but at least was unafraid to take action. On day one of his often embattled administration, Hornbeck asked for resignation letters from all senior staff. They all had the opportunity to reapply for their positions, but Hornbeck was sending a message: What you have been doing ain’t good enough.

Would any of our candidates make a bold statement like that? Krish Mohip explicitly said no, volunteering that he doubted the Board would let him make wholesale changes. Let’s be clear what that answer was about: It was an outsider candidate pandering to the permanent establishment inside 440 North Broad Street, rather than putting parents and students first.

And don’t we want a schools leader who has the political skill to lead his Board, rather than react to its mandates? In other words, it would be interesting to hear from a reform-minded candidate how he’d go about remaking his staff. Would he ask for board permission? Or would he ask his board, en masse, if they had any sacred cows on the staff, knowing that the chances were slim that any members would cop to any predilections in front of the others—thereby effectively securing the go-ahead to reinvent district staff?

Testing for the how ought to be a key component of any job search, right? Do you have confidence that this board evaluated the practical skills of these candidates to effectuate change?

A closer look at the three superintendent candidates

Elsewhere, there are models of out-of-the-box superintendents who bring change agent energy to the job. The best recent example was seen in Los Angeles, where Austin Beutner’s three-year reign showed that, sometimes, a candidate from beyond the education industrial complex is precisely what’s called for.

Beutner had made a fortune in finance and had political and public policy experience—but no education chops—when he assumed control over the nation’s second-largest school district in 2018. He took on a teacher’s strike, yet ultimately became an ally of the union; he crisis-managed the district through Covid; and, most importantly, he broke up the district’s sclerotic headquarters into 44 “Communities of Schools”—dispatching district staff directly into clusters of schools in neighborhoods to work on the ground with students, parents and principals.

Beutner stepped down after three years; no doubt, the dude realized he’s wealthy beyond all get out, so why was he working one of the hardest jobs in America? But his short, mostly successful tenure points to an abiding truth: Generally speaking, gargantuan institutions don’t reform from within. None of our three finalists reflected Beutner’s reformist energy—though, to be fair, I have spoken to folks in the education space who were not unimpressed with what they’ve heard this week.

For example, Dr. Liza Herzog, education professor and longtime public school advocate, doesn’t disagree with my overarching critique, but cautions me about its sweeping nature. After hearing from the candidates, she did sense the potential for transformative leadership.

“I think Dr. Tony Watlington felt closest to who could be the District’s next visible visionary,” she told me. “His wide professional lens as a superintendent, a chief of schools, a principal, a teacher, a bus driver and custodian positions him for uniquely holistic transformative power, with a deep understanding of all things from infrastructure to student supports and that linchpin of innovative teaching and learning.”

Honestly, I felt better after talking to Dr. Herzog, but many red flags remain. For example, Watlington has only been in his current position as superintendent of the merely 18,000-student Rowan-Salisbury district for all of a year—and already he’s looking for something else? What’s that about? And North Carolina is a right-to-work state. He’s never had to deal with a big, influential union.

Then again, before this gig, Watlington served in North Carolina’s Guilford County district, which has enacted meaningful reform through the years. But there, Watlington’s title was “chief of schools”—the same as fellow candidate John L. Davis in the Baltimore School District. That’s a position that is often more implementation-oriented than it is vision-driven.

In his role as chief of schools in Baltimore, Davis, the dullest presenter of the three, oversaw the district’s principals. Well, a simple Google search reveals that principal corruption was rampant during his time there. This one faced allegations of financial improprieties; that one pressured teachers to change grades; and yet another alleges that the district pressured principals to pay no-show workers.

And while Mohip ran a state takeover district in Ohio, it was, by definition, super-charged by increased state funding and autonomy from the usual rules that apply to big-city superintendents. He had the power to unilaterally enact workforce rules; not surprisingly, it was a turbulent tenure, complete with death threats made against him and his family. While his stewardship produced results like an increase in graduation rate, the state takeover meant his approach was more interventionist than transformative—and therefore maybe not a great indicator of performance in a sprawling public district like ours.

But these concerns aside, let’s be clear: These are not terrible candidates. All three seem smart and committed. Wind the tape back and I bet they sound exactly like Bill Hite did when he interviewed. But isn’t that kinda precisely the problem?

Seriously? In 2022, there wasn’t one qualified woman?

We might unwittingly be proving the old adage that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. For those who have objected to the Board’s choices, the issues I’ve outlined are not necessarily the prime critique; that would be the preponderance of testosterone in the candidates. Seriously? In 2022, there wasn’t one qualified woman? Telling, isn’t it, that New Orleans announced its seven finalists this week for its open superintendent position, and, lo and behold, there are actually women in contention.

You mean to tell me that Jawan Brown-Alexander didn’t measure up for Philly? She was chief of schools for New Schools for New Orleans, the nonprofit reform group started by Patrick Dobard, the superintendent who turned around Louisiana’s schools after Katrina. His imprimatur alone should have gotten Brown-Alexander a hearing.

Or how about Meria Carstarphen, the former head of public schools in Atlanta, Austin, Texas and St. Paul, Minnesota? Check out her website—as a hire, she’d be a hands-down home run. Did the Board take a run at her, or did they somehow consider her over-qualified?

Then there’s Avis Williams, the superintendent of Selma City Schools in Selma, Alabama. She comes out of the same well-regarded Guilford County, North Carolina system that produced Watlington—and she’s a former Army sergeant, too. She’d conceivably have the mettle to stand up to her board and other special interests that don’t prioritize student achievement.

Maybe the Board tried to land all three of these stellar candidates, and New Orleans beat us out in each and every case. Or maybe the best candidates were hesitant to apply for a job when the mayor—and potentially the school board he appointed—only has two years left in his tenure. But what does that say about us? And what does that say about this Board’s ability to recruit talent?

There are others, too. Did the Board try to lure Kaya Henderson out of the nonprofit realm and back into the superintendent game? She led the turnaround of D.C.’s schools while one of our finalists, John L. White, was there. He was passed over for her job when she left. Why is Philly getting D.C.’s leftovers?

That may be a bit harsh, but it seems incontrovertible that, in its first big test, our mayoral-appointed Board of Education thought too small. In an Inquirer op-ed, State Senator Tony Williams has called for a pause in the hiring until the next mayor is elected—in two years. This, of course, is a preposterous idea born of politicking. It harkens back to Mitch McConnell circa 2015, arguing that Obama’s Supreme Court pick was invalid because it was made with a year left in his presidency.

Williams’ proposal is ridiculous, but…rather than a lengthy pause, as he suggests, might we not play a mulligan? What if the Board extends its search by a month and brings in a couple of more candidates, preferably some women, and maybe even one or two that wouldn’t be usual suspects?

I wouldn’t hold my breath. But here’s the thing: Students, parents and taxpayers deserve no less than the most creative thinking when it comes to this hire. You hear platitudes all the time from folks in the education industrial complex about how much the kids matter. But can you name one superintendent anywhere who has been fired for not educating kids? I can’t. They get fired when there’s a sex scandal or a misappropriation of funds. But failing at the core mission? Eh. We say we care about kids, but we don’t. We care about expediency, we care about power, we care about living to fight another day.

That’s well and good, except if you’re trapped in a system that makes it harder for you to compete in the 21st-century job market. For you, there is no another day. So get back at it, Board. Wow us.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misnamed the superintendent candidate from Baltimore. It is John L. Davis.


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Header photo from L-R: Philadelphia superintendent candidates Tony Watlington, John L. White and Krish Mohip

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