Tag Archives: District of Columbia

What’s Really Driving Leadership Turnover in Education?

Image by Alachua County via Flickr

Image by Alachua County via Flickr

When DC Mayor Muriel Bowser recently announced she was nominating Oakland, CA Superintendent Antwan Wilson to succeed Kaya Henderson as DC Public Schools’ Chancellor (after an anxious public search), the San Francisco Chronicle responded with a scathing op-ed accusing Wilson of disloyalty and self-serving ambition. The Chronicle also took a few shots at San Francisco’s former superintendent Richard Carranza, now working in Houston, and generally railed against urban superintendents who “come in, do enough to raise hopes, then move on to a higher paying job.”

High turnover in educational leadership is alarming, but to paraphrase the advice columnist Dan Savage, if you have a long string of dramatic, failed relationships, the common denominator is you. I’m not just picking on the Bay Area — the average urban superintendent stays in his or her role just 3.2 years, and state education chiefs turn over at an even faster rate. These dismal numbers are likely not the sole product of individual ambition, but it remains unclear what actually drives this churn. When experienced, qualified school system leaders across the country leave their posts much earlier than expected, should we blame the individuals, or take a closer look at the jobs?

What is clear is that state and district executive leadership roles have become more challenging in recent years. Federal education policies put myriad new responsibilities and choices in the hands of state and district central offices to measure teacher and school performance, increase student achievement, and close achievement gaps for disadvantaged  groups of students. For example, a new publication on teacher evaluation by my colleagues Kaitlin Pennington and Sara Mead uncovers a minefield of choices facing state and district leaders — and that is just one policy area out of many. Leaders are figuring out these new responsibilities in an increasingly polarized and politicized educational environment.

Holding our school systems and their leaders accountable for providing an excellent education to every student is absolutely the right thing to do, but we also should recognize that educational bureaucracies were not designed to be agile performance managers orchestrating school turnarounds. They were mostly built to disburse various funding streams down to schools, and collect documentation that the conditions of that funding and other legislative mandates have been met. Those compliance responsibilities remain in place even as new performance goals are added, and on top of that, many agency budgets are being slashed by their state legislatures. Untangling the messes of red tape, budgetary crises, and misaligned priorities takes time and support that most superintendents are not afforded by their school boards or by their communities.

Even the best leaders can be hamstrung by the political, legal, and bureaucratic contexts in which they operate. Instead of looking for more selfless miracle workers to lead dysfunctional systems, envision a school system where great leaders (or maybe good-enough leaders!) could do their best work. How would it be organized? How would it be accountable to the community and work in the best interests of students? What are the conditions that enable that kind of school system to exist and succeed? I don’t have all the answers, but legislators, governors, mayors, and school boards will need to think bigger to disrupt the current cycle of leadership churn, and these big questions are one place to start.

Education and D.C.’s Two Futures

Greater Greater Washington’s David Alpert had a great op-ed in Friday’s Washington Post outlining the crucial choice D.C. policymakers face: Will the city grow in ways that push out low-income and middle-income families, or in ways that maintain diversity and spread the benefits of growth to low-income and middle-class residents?

Alpert’s piece focuses, with good reason, on zoning and development issues, but I’d add that education plays a key role in answering this question: Building a city that can be home to diverse families–not just singles, childless or empty nester couples, and the very rich–requires both more housing stock to accommodate families and public schools to which they want to send their kids. As city leaders debate how best to build a system to do that, the possibility of future population growth must be part of that conversation. Too often, discussions about DCPS and charter schools assume a zero-sum game–that charters only grow by “taking” kids from DCPS. But if the city grows as it’s projected to, it will need a lot more public school seats–most likely in both charter and DCPS schools. Whether the city is able to provide a supply of quality seats that offer what both new and current residents want for their kids is a key question that will shape the city’s future–just as much as the zoning questions Alpert raises. But how city policymakers think about that question matters: if city policymakers deal with questions about the city’s schools starting from the assumption that the number of kids in the city is fixed, the resulting policy choices could make that assumption a self-fulfilling prophesy, by failing to support the growth in high-quality seats needed to attract and keep families in the city.

Marion Barry’s Education Legacy

I was deeply saddened yesterday morning to learn of the death of D.C. Ward 8 Councilman and former Mayor Marion Barry. Throughout his long career as a politician and advocate, Barry was a passionate advocate for justice and opportunity for the most disadvantaged people and communities in Washington, D.C., as well as for the District itself.

As befits one of the most fascinating political figures in recent history, Barry’s education legacy is a complicated one: His first political office was as a member and Chair of the D.C. School Board, where he stood up to Congress on education funding issues and supported the appointment of the nation’s first black, female big city superintendent. As Mayor from 1979-1991, Barry’s emphasis on using government programs to create jobs contributed to the dysfunction of the D.C. school bureaucracy. Over the past decade, as Ward 8 Councilman from 2005 until his death, Barry has been a strong advocate for expanding high-quality education opportunities for disadvantaged youngsters in D.C., and a particularly strong supporter of D.C.’s charter school movement–as these reflections by members of the D.C. charter community illustrate. His death is a great loss for the District.