August 8th, 2004

Commentary: Can D.C.'s Search Make the Grade?

Can D.C.’s Search Make the Grade?

By John Merrow
Published: August 8, 2004 / The Washington Post

Running an urban school system has been called the hardest job in the country, and there are always openings at the top. As I write this, nine large city school districts are looking for superintendents. The list includes Tucson, St. Louis, Houston and Pittsburgh. Other smaller cities like East Baton Rouge, La., are also in the market for new superintendents.

And as everyone knows, the District of Columbia schools are still searching for leadership, having gone through four superintendents in the past eight years and two acting chiefs in eight months The District also has suffered the public humiliation of recently having been turned down by two well-respected educators, Rudy Crew, who once ran New York City’s schools, and Carl Cohn, who served for years in Long Beach, Calif.

What’s striking is how unimaginative and predictable the search process is. Just as the National Football League, the National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball seem to play musical chairs with their respective coaches, search firms recycle superintendents.

Typically, a new superintendent arrives in a city, hailed as the answer to every problem — low test scores, poor attendance, embarrassing graduation rates. When change does not occur overnight, or perhaps at all, disappointment sets in. The superintendent departs for the next school district, and the cycle begins anew.

Instead of producing candidates with the hard-eyed management and single-minded concentration needed to figure out how best to teach kids, the search process gives these school systems more of the same.

Most large districts, including Washington, go about the superintendent selection process like this: They hire one of five or six search firms that specialize in education and pay it $30,000 to $50,000 plus expenses. Then the Board of Education sits and waits until, eventually, the search firm presents two, three or maybe four “finalists,” supposedly the cream of the crop.

No matter how long and hard the consulting companies search, they inevitably seem to turn up the usual suspects: career educators, most of them men.

Today just 16 of the superintendents in the 63 largest districts are women, according to Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools. “This percentage is actually way above national averages,” Casserly told me. While women are still a minority among urban superintendents, they are even more underrepresented in the suburbs, small towns and rural areas, he said.

In addition to virtually ignoring the talent pool of women, the superintendent search process is faddish to a fault. For several years retired military leaders were all the rage, inspired by the remarkable success of Gen. John Stanford in Seattle. (The District went down that road in 1996, with Lt. Gen. Julius Becton, without much success.) Nobody seemed to realize that it was what Stanford did in Seattle that improved the schools, not where he had worked earlier. More recently districts have turned to lawyers: Joel Klein in New York City, Alan Bersin in San Diego and, earlier, David Hornbeck in Philadelphia.

Washington’s new superintendent will take charge of a school system of 64,000 students, many of whom have been let down miserably year after year. Not only have reading scores been dropping in some grades, but only 25 percent of ninth-graders are reading at grade level; only about half of those entering high school manage to graduate.

An analysis by the Council of the Great City Schools, a group of the 63 largest urban school systems, declared that the District is falling woefully short with “no plan for improving student performance, low expectations for children, no accountability for results, haphazard instruction, incoherent programming and dismal outcomes.”

Now there’s rumored to be a new “first choice” in Washington, a man (naturally) who has run social service programs in Virginia. But even if he’s offered the job and accepts it, another flaw in the search approach is likely to limit his chances for success. School districts hire just one person, not a team, and when that individual arrives, he has to spend a lot of time and energy figuring out which of the colleagues he has inherited are trustworthy and competent, and which are not. Who resents regime change, and who welcomes it? It’s a minefield that has destroyed many capable leaders.

As it happens, one of the men who turned Washington down, Carl Cohn, described in detail what he thinks needs to be done. Cohn told The Washington Post, “It has to be made clear to everyone that this is about the kids. Then you bring in a take-no-prisoners company that addresses the fundamental issues of operation, of people not doing their jobs.”

In that interview, Cohn made specific reference to St. Louis, an urban district that matches Washington when it comes to underperformance. For example, 23 percent of St. Louis kindergarten-to-fifth-grade students, 13 percent of middle school students and only 5 percent of high school juniors there tested at or above the “proficient” level in reading in 2002, even though that district spent more than $11,000 per pupil.

Just over a year ago, St. Louis became the first school district to hire a bankruptcy firm to run its schools for a year. The New York company, Alvarez & Marsal, prefers to call its work “restructuring and turnaround,” but rescuing bankrupt companies is what it does, and it does so by adopting a “take no prisoners” approach.

Alvarez & Marsal sent Vice President Bill Roberti and a team that had worked together on other projects to St. Louis. Roberti became superintendent early in June 2003, with a mandate to make the system financially and operationally efficient. Sensibly, “education reform” was not his mandate, because Roberti, a businessman who once ran Brooks Brothers, had never worked in education.

The day after Roberti became superintendent, he (and the school board) learned from the departing superintendent that the projected budget surplus of $37 million was actually a deficit of at least $35 million and perhaps as much as $90 million.

Roberti and his team rolled up their sleeves and went to work. They closed 16 schools and sold 40 properties; they outsourced some school services, including transportation, food services and custodial care. In his year in St. Louis, Roberti gave pink slips to more than 2,000 employees — without laying off a single teacher. When school opens this fall, St. Louis will have 5,000 employees, not 7,000, although many of those who were laid off have been hired by the private bus, food and janitorial vendors. Roberti was harshly criticized by some in the community but remains unrepentant.

“This is not a jobs program,” Roberti explains. “This is a school system that is supposed to teach kids, not to provide jobs to the community,” he says, nearly jumping out of his chair to make the point.

And he adds, “I think that the public has a right to the same level of expertise in management, whether it’s a school business or any kind of business that’s public and trades stock. People should be held accountable.”
I asked Roberti whether educators could be trusted to fix their own systems. Without hesitation, he replied, “No, I don’t think so. Educators are an absolutely important component here but only one piece of the equation. St. Louis schools are a $500 million enterprise, Miami’s a $4.2 billion enterprise, New York is probably $11 billion. These are big enterprises with lots of complex issues and problems, not just a bunch of classrooms with kids.”

Roberti was not hired to fix the city’s education problems, but he did not ignore them. He asked the Council of the Great City Schools to come in and assess the system, an act CGCS’s Casserly says was “a bit like the battalion commander calling in an airstrike on his own position.” Casserly and his team didn’t mince words. “St. Louis’s instructional program was among the worst that we had seen in any major city across the country,” they reported.

What’s more, their report noted that middle management demonstrated a strong reluctance to change what it was doing, as well as an exceptionally high tolerance for mediocrity. During the year, school attendance improved; it will take several years to determine if academic improvement will follow.

Of course, hiring a bankruptcy firm is not the only way to go, and it might not be the way for every system. If applied uncritically, if adopted as the next instant “cure-all,” it will inevitably disappoint and fall into disrepute.

Still, Washington might want to heed Roberti’s recipe for fixing urban education. “It’s a little bit like alcoholism,” he says. “First, you’ve got to admit you have a problem, and then you have to move to solve it. And you cannot fix the education problems until the operating and financial systems are in order.”

Washington has been described as so troubled, so bound up in wrangling among mayors, council members and school board members, that those at the top appear far removed from the business of education. When the CGCS asked why student achievement was not improving, it found this answer: “The district hasn’t done anything to improve achievement.”

Here is where the search process fails Washington: The recycling of superintendents is unlikely to turn up the management muscle to create an effective bureaucracy — or the political savvy and commitment to Washington’s children that will keep a superintendent in the District long enough to reach the kids.

This, then, is the question Washington must ask about its public schools: Is the system broken? Is it educationally bankrupt? As the lawyers say, “Asked and answered.”

Roberti told me that he has had conversations with several Washington school board members who visited St. Louis while conducting their own parallel search for leadership. That group has also spoken with the leadership of Alvarez and Marsal.

If Washington chooses the “turnaround” option, it must hire an outside firm precisely because it can ride out of town when the year is up. As Roberti told me, “St. Louis brought a firm in from outside to do this difficult work because no one inside the city of St. Louis could get away with doing some of the things that had to be done and live here later without suffering the consequences.”

Hiring a bankruptcy firm is not a magic bullet. It will fail unless the school board agrees to stop micromanaging; it will fail if the mayor continues to dabble in school management; it will fail unless the mayor and the board agree that the school system is not a jobs program but a business with one central goal: the development of Washington’s youth.

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