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Letter to the Editor

The search for a new superintendent must be open and inclusive, school board candidate says

The next Fairfax County School Board will have to hit the ground running in January on the search for a new superintendent.

Getting a true sense of the public’s wishes in such a vast county on such an important question will take many months.  I recommend former School Board member Kristen Amundsen’s recent letter in the Washington Post as a primer on how to organize the search. 

The first step should be a listening tour throughout the community, asking what qualities people hope for in a new superintendent.  As I talk to voters, parents, teachers and students in the Hunter Mill community, it is clear that many people have already started thinking about it.  The superintendent of a large, high-achieving school district like ours will have to be many things to many people, but certain themes are emerging in my conversations.

Of course, any candidate must show a proven ability to manage a large, successful suburban school system, with 177,000 students, over 20,000 employees and a $2.2 billion budget.  Beyond that, what I hear most often is that the new superintendent must have a reputation for openness and respectful collaboration with all stakeholders.  Also important to many is a proven strength as an advocate for public education in the community, with the ability to build valuable partnerships for our schools.

 The educators I talk to want the new superintendent to have some classroom teaching experience, and I agree.  The practitioner’s perspective is too often overlooked in the search for education leaders.  The history of education policy is littered with ideas that sounded good at the policy table but made no sense in the classroom.  A leader with teaching experience will know how important it is to seek teacher input early and often.

 Another suggestion I hear is that we should look for someone who reflects the great diversity of our county.  Proponents of the arts and foreign language instruction want to know that the new superintendent understands the educational value of those programs.  In a county where 25% of our families are low-income, any new superintendent must have proven success in advancing the achievement of students in poverty.  Our persistent minority student achievement gaps deserve a leader who has demonstrated success in closing those gaps elsewhere.

Many more ideas are surfacing in my conversations.  One of my favorite things about Patch is that it is interactive.  I hope readers will weigh in with their own thoughts!

After months of listening, the School Board should develop search criteria based on community input.  The task of narrowing the field to a handful of candidates must be more confidential, of course, because some candidates will not want their communities to know they are considering a new job.  But that effort certainly should include some members of the community with expertise in education leadership. 

Once a field of candidates has been chosen, the hiring process should open up again to public scrutiny and input.  Interested citizens, including teachers, students and parents, should have ample opportunities to meet and question the candidates, and make their preferences known.

I am a firm believer in the power of good process.  When we protect any process - by making it inclusive, respectful and empowering -  we can trust the outcome.  That will certainly be true of the search for a new superintendent for Fairfax County Public Schools.

Pat Hynes

Candidate for Fairfax County School Board

Hunter Mill District

John Farrell October 05, 2011 at 09:05 PM
We cannot allow process to be a barrier to forward progress. If the new SB takes all of the 18 months left in Dale's contract to pick a successor, the SB will have but 24 months before it's campaign season again. A new Superintendent can and must be in place by Columbus Day 2012. Dale is needed to prepare the first draft of the next budget to be adopted in May 2013, thanked for his service and politely shown the door. If there is an extended "lame duck period", the changes the the SB will want to make to FCPS will face opposition and obstruction by the outgoing administration. The new SB must not waste most of its term "in transition." We don't need to pay $100,000x to a search firm. The likely candidates to lead the #6 school system already have their resumes written and are waiting for the announcement to appear in Education Week, or the like, to hit the send button. I had the honor of serving on a panel that interviewed the final 3 candidates during the search after Bob Spillane's successor. Dan Domenech was obviously the strongest candidate of the three we interviewed. He lives in Reston now. His thoughts should be sought out. Mel Riddle who made such great progress @ Stuart should be consulted also. We should eschew allies of Ms. Rhee and disciples of the Broad Foundation. cont.
John Farrell October 05, 2011 at 09:06 PM
The SB has a lot to do beyond the picking a new Superintendent. Let's get that done quickly in an open process and not allow the process to swallow the new Board's entire term.
KB October 06, 2011 at 12:08 AM
I wonder if Diane Ravitch is looking for a new adventure in her life?
John Farrell October 06, 2011 at 12:12 AM
Getting her list of top 10 candidates would be a great place to start.
Therese Tuley October 06, 2011 at 01:03 AM
Hi Pat, I agree: A search process that is, as you note, " inclusive, respectful and empowering" is key. We need to ensure that we hire a superintendent who is genuinely respectful of the public, and welcomes a true partnership with the community.
Therese Tuley October 06, 2011 at 01:05 AM
Agree that Mel Riddle and Dan Domenech would be valuable consultants for the superintendent search.
KB October 06, 2011 at 01:20 AM
"What qualities am I looking for in a new superintendent?" For me, transparency is not the sacred cow (although, it is very important). What I would like to see is a genuine attempt at reflection resulting in honesty about what's working/what's not when it comes to educating our children. While I am a proponent of later start times, narrowing the achievement gap, bringing back honors classes, etc., etc....I believe the single most important thing currently working against our students is the curriculum itself. It is poorly sequenced, developmentally inappropriate on so many levels, and impossible to cover in the time allotted. Apparently, FCPS believes that cramming excessive amounts of information down the throats of children is an effective approach to education. FCPS also apparently believes that teaching 7th grade concepts to 4th graders - or making 9th graders read novels appropriate for 12th graders - deems its curriculum "challenging and world class." Unfortunately, FCPS is WRONG. If the new SB and new superintendent refuse to take a magnifying glass to current practices and opt instead to maintain the status quo, I will seek employment in another county...Montgomery, Arlington, Loudon, Spotsylvania (to name a few) all seem to have a much more effective and reasonable approach to educating children, as well as a greater respect for the people who actually DO that.
KB October 06, 2011 at 01:20 AM
What is the most important quality this citizen/parent/teacher is looking for in a superintendent? GUTS...to make the needed changes based on evidence-based research, selective criteria, and real-world models (i.e., other counties, states, countries), rather than popular opinion.
Mama C October 06, 2011 at 12:48 PM
In my opinion, the next superintendent must have an enlightened understanding of student discipline that does not rely on punishment alone and protects the rights of students. The superintendent must have a track record of focusing on the sources of behavior problems - both in systemic factors that lead to misbehavior and in unaddressed needs in students and families. She or he must show the ability to encourage and support creative programs and policies that have proven to reduce disciplinary problems. Finally, the new superintendent must understand the importance of allowing parents to be present for all stages of the disciplinary process.
Therese Tuley October 06, 2011 at 03:07 PM
Hear, hear to all of KB's points!
J Anderson October 06, 2011 at 06:30 PM
I"m not sure the public should be as involved .... that is why we elect School Board members. No one person will meet everyone's needs and if I was being considered...I'm not sure I'd want to face a ruly public with all kinds of issues they may want attended to. The School Board should define it's priorities and share those with the public and then execute the search from that point on. Naturally education is job #1 but there is so much more going on in FCPS that a candidate should be able to understand those issues and how they effect education - such as balancing an SOL driven culture vs what do our kids need to succeed globally, how simple things like food and exercise can effect a child's performance day in and out, how to attract AND retain the best teachers just like many Universities do and to be open and honest with their plans - and managing a big budget will also help. Tough job ... not sure I'd want it.
Richard Holmquist October 06, 2011 at 06:35 PM
I hope discipline strategies are low on the list of the new superintendent's agenda. It may be a hot political issue, and for good reason. It needs to be addressed and parents need to be satisfied with the modified system, but if the superintendent is spending more than 10% of his/her effort on discipline issues, then he/she is doing something wrong. Before focusing on the discipline issue, I'll be looking for a superintendent with experience in a number of other areas... - Implementing reward systems for outstanding teaching - Identifying and deploying proven curriculum and teaching methods that provide the best results for students - Building bridges with other government agencies and the community to encourage parent and community involvement - Developing & implementing a sizeable budget that draws the best education from the dollars allotted.
Richard Holmquist October 06, 2011 at 06:44 PM
I'm sorry, which issue group is that? GUTS -- Gonna Upset Teachers and Students?? I'm with you, KB, but you get my point. Superintendents (and SB members) don't last long when they buck the true popular opinion. It would be nice to find that person, or to find one who is adept at communicating those positions to the public.
Therese Tuley October 06, 2011 at 08:27 PM
Good point and food for thought for all of us. Data-driven polices are key.
JoAnne Norton October 07, 2011 at 12:56 AM
Priorities are another aspect. We want all of the above mentioned points but how will the new board and the new superintendernt prioritize? In 2025 what is our dropout rate going to be and how many students will speak another language? Will students in the upper ten per cent in achievement all be fluent in another language and the minority achievement gap still be there? Where will the money go?
KB October 08, 2011 at 02:48 AM
Richard - you hit the nail on the head with "one who is adept at communicating these positions to the public" (although, you first have to actually KNOW what those positions are). The trouble with public opinion lies in the second word..."opinion" - there is no room for that in educating children. We need a superintendent and School Board willing and able to select and implement policies/practices that maximize learning for EVERY student - and subsequently communicate (to parents and the community) the research and reasoning behind them. Furthermore, teachers should be an integral part of the selection and implementation process - and the student voice should certainly not be neglected. After all, these two "stakeholders" are the only ones who experience the day-to-day manifestations of such decisions. While I applaud and support parent involvement, such as advocating for later start times and a more reasonable/just discipline system, there are some decisions that simply need to be left to the experts. While I may be fairly informed about our laws and legal system, I doubt anyone would want me to represent them in a courtroom. Do you get my point?
Pat Hynes October 16, 2011 at 03:10 PM
Thank you all! I've been checking in and it looks like the conversation has run its course here for now, though it will certainly continue in the community. Very thoughtful responses. I agree that areas of expertise should be respected. We must be sure to balance every conversation so that teachers, parents, students and other education experts are all empowered to do what they do best. Keep in touch at hynesforschoolboard@gmail.com!

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