Sunday, May 03, 2009

School Superintendent Carstarphen - Good or Bad? How would we know?

Effective or ineffective? The Pioneer Press raised this issue regarding Saint Paul Schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen in a provocatively titled front page article documenting contrasting perspectives on her behavior: “bully or bold leader”? I encourage the School Board to expend no energy debating Carstarphen’s competence or incompetence; such debate is neither fair nor productive, for her or for us. Rather, I urge the Board to consider the larger problem of which Meria’s departure after three years is a symptom, namely: We have in this country an itinerant group of individuals who take school superintendent positions and leave them before we can collect any evidence on whether those superintendents actually did an effective job.

Indicators from the Council of the Great City Schools suggest that most urban school superintendents typically hold their positions for just a few years; rarely do urban superintendents stay more than 5 years. A 2000 report from the National School Boards Association uses different data and suggests more optimistically that about a third of urban school superintendents might stay in their position more than 5 years. However, this represents a decline from a previous period when more than half would stay for that length of time.

Meria perfectly exemplifies the itinerant group. She now leaves Saint Paul before we can see if anything she did actually makes a difference. Before coming to Saint Paul, she served briefly as the Chief Accountability Officer of the Washington, D.C. schools. There, she implemented a new accountability system, but she quit her job before enough time passed to determine her system’s effectiveness. How can we know if Carstarphan, or any superintendent, has done an effective job, if they leave after such a short time?

No evidence suggests that the Saint Paul Schools have become markedly better during the past three years. Take a look on Twin Cities Compass at reading and math proficiency scores, as well as graduation rates. Even if you believe that three years is enough time (and I do not feel that it is) to tell whether change has occurred, you can’t find any significant positive trends. Test scores overall and the graduation rate both need improvement. The achievement gap persists for White students and students Of Color.

Saint Paul has an excellent opportunity to act wisely in securing an effective, committed Superintendent of Schools. We have a large population and school system, but not so large that the bureaucracy can’t change course under good leadership. We have many committed, competent teachers, parents, community organizations, businesses and others who can lend a hand in educating our children.

Let’s search for a superintendent who will commit to the long term with our children; and let’s develop an incentive/compensation package that rewards long term performance on the indicators of educational success that really matter. The superintendent is not the be-all and end-all of school district effectiveness, but he or she does play a major role. Saint Paul can stand out as a district that does not just pull someone off the merry-go-round and have them hop back on three years later. We can creatively build a different type of arrangement for an urban school superintendent.

Let’s acknowledge that families and communities, as much as school systems, contribute to the education of our children, and let’s nurture a productive relationship between the new superintendent and our community’s residents and institutions. This will support the new superintendent and increase the likelihood that he or she will stay as long as it takes to have an impact.

More thoughts on this topic, including some specific suggestions for the School Board, based on what we know from research, in a future blog. If you have ideas to share, please let me know.

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