Checklist for a Detroit schools chief
The election of the new school board for the Detroit Public Schools Community District last month was an important milestone in Michigan’s educational landscape.
After 16 years of failed state control of DPSCD, local control is the fresh start desperately needed to achieve institutional progress.
On Jan. 1, the new school board will assume control of DPSCD from state-appointed Emergency Manager Judge Steven Rhodes. On the first day in office the new school board will be faced with the vital task of hiring a superintendent to become a change agent, and there is no room for error with this selection as a poor hire could potentially lead DPSCD back into state control.
Earlier this month, Rhodes stated the following to the Michigan House Appropriations Subcommittee on School Aid: “I support Alycia Meriweather to be the permanent superintendent.”
Hiring this particular superintendent is too important for the new school board not to have an objective and transparent selection process established to hire the best candidate to turnaround the district.
The new school board must understand the context of DPSCD and why it has failed to achieve institutional progress, which was primarily due to the following: fragmented leadership from superintendents with an average tenure of 2.3 years from 1989-2009; a lack of strategic educational reforms to improve educational outcomes for all students; and a lack of cooperation from union leadership.
Educational research also suggests the next superintendent should have a clearly articulated vision, turnaround strategy and theory of action for how district culture will be transformed under his or her leadership. Additionally, research on selecting superintendents for urban districts suggests hiring an individual with turnaround experience, which means they have a proven track record of success in addition to the following skills:
■Improving educational outcomes (i.e., standardized testing, dropout and graduation rates and college readiness) on a macro level.
■Influencing positive results for others.
■Solving complex organizational problems.
■Demonstrating confidence during tumultuous times.
The following are recommendations for the new school board as they embark on their mandate of turning around the DPSCD:
■Ensure sustained superintendent leadership by offering a five-year contract to the new superintendent, which is the longest allowable contract length for superintendents per state law. The contract should also contain transparent performance benchmarks in the areas of student achievement and fiscal responsibility. The performance benchmarks would prevent politically motivated dismissals, which was a common tactic used by previous boards in Detroit.
■Use a superintendent search consulting firm such as the Michigan Leadership Institute to lead the board’s national search for the best candidates. This is the standard practice in most of Michigan’s public school districts.
■Innovate public education in Detroit by opening several boarding schools for at-risk students to minimize the effects of concentrated poverty and other environmental factors in Detroit neighborhoods, which prevents many Detroit students from being successful in school.
The hiring of this superintendent to lead DPSCD will be the most important decision made in the district’s history.
Shaun Black has a Ph.D. in educational leadership and policy studies from Wayne State University.