Baltimore is well on its way to picking a good school superintendent. This past weekend, finalists for the job were interviewed by representatives of community groups. The interviews were encouraging because they showed the school board's search committee had come up with five quality candidates. They were also encouraging because it allowed more extensive public input.
Public involvement is one of the school system's chief goals. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and the school board feel -- correctly -- that the best chance for progress comes if the schools gain community support. It was a sign of the times that all five finalists declined to present detailed plans; rather, while offering broad outlines, all said they needed to work with "key stakeholders" to build consensus on goals. The school board, not very open to the public in the past, is to be commended for realizing that it could not move effectively toward involving the community unless it included the community in this key decision.
The choice now is a difficult one. While all the finalists are well qualified, they have different backgrounds, different strengths and different leadership styles. The board and public should be pleased with the options, but they need to keep expectations in check. No dramatic turnaround should be expected. There is no simple recipe for success.
Getting the job done requires a commitment by the community -- political leaders, teachers, administrators, parents, business, students -- to agree on a common vision and then pursue it. Points on which the finalists generally agreed indicate what some of the key elements of this vision should be: shared decision-making with greater responsibility at the school level; an emphasis on system improvements rather than isolated programs; higher standards; patience to wait several years before abandoning one promising program for another; stronger staff development efforts; careful evaluation and testing; making the case for greater financial support by showing that better results can be expected, and recognition that producing different results requires different methods.
Several of the candidates said they were attracted to the Baltimore job because the city is clearly committed to improving its public schools. The job is extremely difficult; there are no models of cities like Baltimore that have accomplished such a turnaround. After the excitement of the choice comes the long, hard job of school reform.