This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
The School District of Philadelphia should not be waiting for Superman, or Superwoman, but looking for a new leader who would be – in the words of one knowledgeable education insider – "hitting the ground learning."
The city should regard its recent experience with three big-name outsiders as cautionary and consider someone for the superintendency with a feel for Philadelphia and a predisposition for building on what exists rather than starting over.
That is the picture that emerged from a series of interviews with local and national education figures familiar with the travails of big-city school districts in general and Philadelphia in particular.
As District officials prepare to launch a search for a permanent successor to Arlene Ackerman, some maintain that the next leader need not be an educator.
And rather than someone coming in ready to impose his or her plan, many said the new head of the District should model a form of leadership to be used throughout the system – one based on collaboration and building "bench strength" rather than on personal loyalty and a predetermined agenda.
"It’s less important that someone come in with a playbook," said Pedro Ramos, the new chair of the rebuilt School Reform Commission who will likely lead a search. "The ‘top down’ model continues to prove unsuccessful. … We’re looking for someone who has a track record of attracting and motivating and empowering good people."
Ramos, an appointee of Gov. Tom Corbett, said that the job requires someone who knows how to support teachers and principals and retain and encourage talent.
"We’ve had our share of superheroes," added Shelly Yanoff, executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth. "We need somebody who thinks the most important people we have are principals."
The new leader will face big challenges: restoring public confidence in a District battered by budget woes and influence-peddling that did in the prior SRC and superintendent, working with a brand new commission, implementing controversial initiatives like school closings with a shrunken staff – the list goes on.
"We need someone who wants to be a part of this community if they aren’t already, not a hired gun" said Gerald Wright, who has two daughters in the system and is active in Parents United for Public Education.
Former school board member Debra Kahn talked about a "calming presence." Teacher union leader Jerry Jordan warned against hiring someone determined to "eliminate a lot of what’s in place." Public interest attorney Michael Churchill said the District doesn’t need a "visionary," but someone who can "build on what’s been done."
History of outsiders
Each of the last three permanent (as opposed to interim) superintendents – David Hornbeck, Paul Vallas, and Arlene Ackerman – came from outside with established plans and agendas. All three left embroiled in controversy and disappointment.
"Each paid little attention to learning the local context," said James M. "Torch" Lytle, a former superintendent in Trenton and high-level administrator in Philadelphia who now teaches at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. "None of them worked on an agenda that built on where the city is and where the organization is. There is a difference between hitting the ground running and hitting the ground learning."
Whoever is hired, he said, "It’s going to take time to stabilize the system. They’re going to have to build bench strength, and you don’t do that in six months."
Lori Shorr, Mayor Nutter’s chief education officer and one of two executive advisors to the new SRC, wants someone who understands the city and is willing to see educational improvement as part of a bigger agenda.
"I don’t think we need to look every place else first," she said. "We need someone who sees this as a citywide issue. It’s not just making the District shine; it’s making the city shine."
She also wants someone with experience grappling with severe budget cuts and multiple sources of funding.
Given the complexities of the job, Shorr and Ramos are taking a serious look at abandoning the superintendent model and going back to having a chief executive officer and a chief academic officer, the structure that existed under Vallas.
"It’s in the air," Shorr said.
Ramos said it is "tough" finding a person "who can lead and manage at that scale of complexity and who [also] has an educational background. … I don’t know that you need a superintendent’s certificate."
Regardless of the structure, said Lytle, it is paramount that the new leader develop the right kind of relationship with the School Reform Commission.
The function of the SRC, he says, should be "to set goals and parameters and not to be directly involved in management … more like a corporate board than a school board."
Search will not be short
Ramos expects to hire a search firm and for the process to last awhile. Many good candidates, he said, tend to come in at the end of the search because they want to be sure that they really want the job and have a good shot at it.
While the goal is obviously to have someone in place on or before the start of the 2012-13 academic year, he said, "You keep going until you have the right person."
That person will not be easy to find, as Philadelphia now has a reputation for chewing up its school leaders and spitting them out. While nationally the average tenure of big-city superintendents is increasing – from about two years in the 1990s to three-and-a-half years now – the recent history in Philadelphia has been the reverse. Hornbeck lasted six years, Vallas five, and Ackerman just three.
Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, said that school boards have become more sophisticated about the cost of rapid turnover, not just in terms of disruption but in terms of payouts, as Philadelphia discovered with Ackerman’s nearly $1 million severance.
The pool of people willing to take on the country’s largest and generally most troubled districts is shrinking, Casserly said. Of the few out there, the competition among districts to recruit the best is stiff.
"The job," he said, "isn’t much fun anymore."