Some advice for the new superintendent of Denver Public Schools

by Wayne Bishop
June 30, 2005

An email to Rocky Mountain News columnist Linda Seebach in response to her request for advice for the incoming DPS superintendent Michael Bennet. See Ms. Seebach's column of July 2, 2005, An advice sampler for new DPS chief Bennet. For related letters and articles, see the NYC HOLD page Watching Curriculum and Academics at DPS under Michael Bennet.

At 10:52 AM 6/29/2005 -0600, Seebach, Linda wrote:

May I ask for your assistance (or put you up to something, whichever description suits your fancy)?

Nice to hear from you! Consultant, sure; nominate me. Or Inglewood's Nancy Ichinaga, maybe. A great choice would be John Stone of East Tennessee State or George Cunningham of U of Louisville.

..., incredibly smart, strong community relationships, but no K-12 experience, and not much background in the education wars.

This is exactly where these types get in trouble, Bersin in San Diego is a nice example, soon to be Schwarzenegger's Secretary for Education, or Klein for Bloomberg hiring Lam in NYC; they're used to dealing with the best so they seek to hire the best. And they get the best the industry has to offer. The big money guys do it, too. Annenberg putting Ted Sizer in charge of his billion or so into education, or Eli Broad. Bill & Melinda are doing exactly the same thing. The prognosis is horrible from before their first RFP is issued. Even having a good sense of the education wars can help a lot because most of these types think of Lynne Cheney as Halliburton's wife, not a national leader in sensible and effective education.

If Michael asked you to be a consultant on this search, what would you tell him? What question would you have the search team use for screening candidates in or out? What answers should cause him to run like hell?

In spite of all the ed school nonsense, the four most important features for a successful precollegiate school are (in priority order):

  1. Classroom culture (nothing else happens if school itself is not underway) from Day 1 of kindergarten,
  2. Curricula, especially reading and math (again, in priority order),
  3. Pedagogy (often inseparable from the two above),
  4. Teacher quality.

The last might be surprising but it's true (although, and again, inseparable from the others to a large extent) but it's also a good thing to know. A new administrator can control principals (and they are absolutely essential!) but he pretty much gets the teachers he has at the schools he has. Stressing - and standing firmly behind - classroom respect and order and imposing effective curricula and good assessments are things that top management can do but not replace most teachers. Weed them, of course, but mostly retrain them to a model that recognizes that collective student performance matters as does individual student excellence when she raises her pretty head.

I'd ask for the curricula they use, the standardized tests they use, and how the results of regular assessment (say monthly reports to principals, per Ichinaga, and on to central administration with reports to the board of ed) drive classroom activity. I'd ask for school-by-school objectively scored annual assessment data for the past five years; if possible, the past ten, and how they addressed the problem schools and what they did to grease the skids for the quicker students, too.

I mean, suppose he picked Linda Darling-Hammond or Lorrie Shepard to ask for advice?

You really do know your subject, don't you!! That's another question for prospective candidates... Do you recognize and, if so, do you have a favorable impression of ...

The ones you mentioned, of course, and Judy Codding, Marc Tucker, Gerald Bracey, Ted Sizer, ... And of certain groups, FairTest, MARS Balanced Assessments, New Standards and their New Standards Reference Exams, .... One wrong answer and they're dead meat.

Good luck!


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