The Parent Imperfect continues to look for signs of smoke rising from the City Hall signalling that a new Superintendent of the Boston Public Schools has been chosen (and has accepted the job). Despite advice from the Globe and others to slow the process down, all signs suggest that the Mayor really wants the decision behind him and his chosen School Committee. I have a feeling that, despite the pressure, the suspense will continue for at least a few more days.
To its credit, the search committee has orchestrated a near circus around the candidates this week. I think it is great that a wide cross-section of the community has had a chance to interact with the four finalists. I’m less clear how the input from these discussions will influence the final decision.
I wasn’t able to be present in any of the various rings of circus, but that would never keep me from having an opinion. My homework is done. I have listened to a whole lot of people who did attend. I’ve also tried to watch video of some of the candidate interviews, though I must admit that these interviews won’t be taking a lot of viewers away from the new season of “House of Cards.”
The first thing that jumps out at me about the four finalists is that they are all candidates of color. This was obviously a priority for the search committee and their headhunters, and the results speak for themselves. That’s great, but I do share the dismay of those who wonder why there are no women among the finalists. Seriously???? A national search in a profession where women have successfully opened space for themselves as leaders and we couldn’t find a single woman who deserved to be considered a finalist for this job? I’m amazed that neither the search consultants nor the mayor’s hiring committee hit the “pause” button on the search. Given how long this has dragged on, the pressure to move the search forward must have been considerable.
Everyone has their priorities for a super in Boston. I think we need a very visible and dynamic champion of public education in the city, someone who knows that this institution so important to what is left of democracy in our country faces huge challenges and needs to change to meet those challenges. Our champion will know that the only way forward is to bring students, parents, teachers, staff, administrators and district leadership together with community and political allies behind a vision of quality and equity in public education. S/he (it ain’t over, ’til it’s over) will be an effective and decisive manager with a collaborative style and will know the importance of being a great listener. The new super must also manage a mayor and an administration who don’t seem to have a clear education agenda. A champion must, of course, be ready to fight for his/her vision, whether that is the fight to secure adequate funds for public education, to move the mayor, or to preserve the integrity of the system.
Predictably, no candidate emerges as the perfect champion for this moment. All four present themselves as change agents, capable of leading Boston through what will be a tumultuous time. Two of them, Chang and Martínez, seem ready to really shake things up in the service of change. Martínez is a former accountant who entered educational leadership not through the door of classroom instruction, but through a relationship with the current Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. Of the four candidates, he has most clearly embraced the national education reform that has emphasized permanent testing, charter school expansion and “no tolerance” discipline in schools. In the interviews with him that I have watched, he seem brash, arrogant and extremely critical of what he sees in the BPS. This is an interesting strategy for someone hoping to lead a system.
Chang seemed like the sharpest and most dynamic of the candidates to me. He has been focused on how to improve instruction in some of Los Angeles’s most troubled schools, which would be a very useful skill to have in a leader of Boston’s schools. Chang certainly didn’t allow himself to be pigeon holed as a blind devotee of charter schools and the other pillars of education reform, but I have a sense that he would be more ready to move Boston in that direction than some of the other candidates.
Guerrero and Bedden are more clearly products of the liberal educational establishment, though as a military veteran, Bedden’s road to the establishment wasn’t the typical one. They both talked a lot about change, but the change they would lead would be more managed and incremental change, as opposed to the kind of disruptive changes that both Chang and Martínez seem ready to consider. Bedden is much more experienced than Guerrero and Guerrero brings both the advantages and the disadvantages that come with previous experience here in Boston. His six years as principal at the Dever School in Dorchester were not the high point in his educational career to date. The Globe has also made a big deal of Guerrero’s exit from the education doctoral program at Harvard. The ed school administratively terminated Geurrero because he didn’t finish his dissertation in time, and that wasn’t crystal clear on the description of him shared here in Boston. School Committee chair< Michael O’Neill has said that this was his error. Sorry, but this is not a big deal to me…at all.
Bedden seems like a very strong candidate. Chang-like energy was notably absent in Bedden’s interviews, but he calmly answered some tough questions by sharing examples from his district leadership experience in several places. His answers on his approach to charters were clearer and less worrying to this parent than what some of the others said. The fact that parents and community leaders in Richmond are trying to get him to stay also adds to his resume, but it also makes me wonder if he’ll take our job, if offered. Some parents and community members seem concerned about Bedden’s ability to work in a multi-cultural context, especially his ability to connect to Latino parents and students. I’ve seen information about a bad incident between African-American and Latino students in Richmond that was not well-handled, but it seems that this happened before Bedden took the Richmond job. He apparently was left to try to clean up a very messy situation. Bedden may not have handled that clean up in the best possible way, which is a concern.
Rumor has it that the Mayor wants to hire a Latino candidate, and the composition of the finalist pool would seem to support that idea. Given that Boston has never had a Latino super, that Latinos are now the largest group of students in the BPS and that the system has faced chronic challenges around educating ELL students, I agree that it would be great if a Latino leader committed to multicultural education emerged as the best candidate for this job. It’s sad, but I’m just not feeling it with either Guerrero or Martínez. The latter is the finalist I’d least like to see as Boston super, and I believe that Mr. Guerrero needs successful experience as a superintendent of a smaller district before I would believe he’s ready to take on a job like this one. I think Chang would be a very interesting choice, but I fear that he would not provide a good enough counterweight to the strong education reform push that I see coming from the Baker administration. If I had any influence on this process, Dana Bedden would be my choice.
Some say that there is a fifth candidate lurking in the wings who didn’t want to public exposure of the circus. I can imagine that there were several strong candidates not willing to take the risk of exposure, but I can’t imagine that any of them is treading water in some separate, confidential pool. That would be truly bizarre.
Others say that, even more than a Latino candidate, the mayor is after a “team player” who won’t overshadow his boss. I truly hope this is not the case, but one never knows…If I was concerned about the super’s shadow, I’d probably be thinking of the less-than-charismatic accountant with no credentials as an educator and minimal network here in the city.
Whoever gets this job, they have a rocky path before them.