Thursday, December 6, 2007

The Next Superintendent

Break the mold and open the search to candidates who are under 40.

Posted By on Thu, Dec 6, 2007 at 4:00 AM

The next superintendent of Memphis City Schools should be too young for the job.

Too young, that is, by conventional standards. If ever a school system needed fresh blood, fresh thinking, and youthful energy and idealism, it is MCS.

Memphians are familiar with the superintendent search process. Engage some consultants and a local nonprofit or two with no vested interest — which means no children actually attending Memphis public schools — to do a "national search" for a Dr. Gerry House or a Dr. Carol Johnson, who brings along some friends to take the most important and well-paid administrative jobs.

They announce their "reforms," make headlines, burden teachers with extra paperwork, polish their resumes, stay a few years, and suddenly leave for greener pastures. Then the school board names an "interim" superintendent who is over 60 years old and a 30-year employee of the school system: a Ray Holt, Johnnie B. Watson, or Dan Ward. Then the process starts all over.

What if, instead, MCS was run by a superintendent and staff of twenty- and thirtysomethings with recent experience as teachers, coaches, and principals of Memphis public schools or similar urban public schools?

There are two good sources for such candidates. One is the current pool of Memphis teachers and principals who have demonstrated results and earned the respect of their peers. The other is the national Teach for America program, which is now 17 years old and has enlisted 17,000 of America's brightest college graduates into teaching in urban and rural schools. One of the goals of Teach for America is to keep its "corps members" in public education beyond their two-year obligation. One way to do that is to show them they can put their talent, training, energy, and idealism to work on a big stage while they are "too young."

Of course, the truth is they are not too young. Last week, FedEx founder Fred Smith was interviewed by Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday. "The riskiest strategy is to try to avoid risk altogether," said Smith, who was five years out of Yale and a year out of the Marine Corps when he founded Federal Express.

In The Wall Street Journal last week, there was a story about the American soldiers who are running counterinsurgency classes in Iraq and Afghanistan. One of them is Capt. Dan Helmer, a former Rhodes scholar. He is 26 years old.

Our best and brightest and bravest can start companies and fight wars and command armies, and they can run our failing school systems if we let them.

I have had the pleasure of getting to know several Teach for America teachers working in Memphis since the program came here in 2006. Most of them got placed at the toughest schools, not the optional schools with college-bound students. The good news is that almost all of the corps members are still working here and making a difference. The bad news is that some schools are worse than most people know unless they have close contact with teachers and students.

I often think about getting them to tell their war stories to the Flyer, but that might make their jobs harder. And these young teachers aren't seeking sympathy anyway. They plug away in classes for five periods a day — often classes without textbooks for the first two weeks of school, classes with 40 students and only 30 desks for the first five weeks of school, classes where they are under pressure to get 80 percent of their students to pass the Gateway examinations, classes where a terrified teacher locked herself in her closet.

A "too young" superintendent and staff would make mistakes, but veterans make mistakes too. Look at the MCS transportation mess, the spoiled-food mess, and the grand jury investigation of construction contracts. But a young superintendent with recent classroom and administrative experience in Memphis or similar schools would make a lot of smart decisions too and grow into the job.

Willie Herenton became superintendent of MCS in 1978 when he was 39 years old. Within three years, he closed underused schools and helped start the optional schools program. Name a successor who accomplished as much.

As Fred Smith told Chris Wallace, you can't be afraid to change, because if you are, then inevitably something bad will happen. In Memphis, it already has.

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