Plan before picking new Philadelphia superintendent

Susan Gobreski, Executive Director, Education Voters of Pennsylvania

Transitions are seldom easy, but they provide are an opportunity to re-evaluate priorities and set new directions. That’s why Susan Gobreski, Executive Director of Education Voters Pennsylvania, is urging her city to take its time before hiring a new superintendent of schools to create a new vision and direction for the city’s public school system. Coming together now around a clear mandate and plan for expanding educational opportunity now will help the district find the right person for this critical position. Here’s what Susan writes:

A plan first, then a superintendent

Philaelphia Inquirer, Sept 1, 2011

By Susan Gobreski As we begin the search for a new superintendent in Philadelphia, we need to first crystallize what we want and then hire someone to carry out a program-centered plan. It is the programs that need our focus, not the individual. In that spirit, here are a few priorities that can change the quality of our children's education.

Early education: We need to make more education available earlier to every child in Philadelphia. Studies show that early education improves outcomes. It is also cost effective. Every dollar spent on prekindergarten and full-day kindergarten saves between $7 to $16 in later costs.

Strong school leaders and a focus on teaching quality: We need to improve teacher quality by focusing on what makes them most effective and by providing training and mentoring to support them. We need to elevate and empower our principals: They need to be given responsibility for making changes to improve outcomes and evaluated based on performance. Principals should provide a sophisticated review of every teacher, based on teaching practice, participation in school-based plans to improve outcomes, and classroom management skills, not just test scores. In turn, principals must build collaborative leadership in their schools and empower teachers and parents.

School climate: Children live what they learn. We must stop treating some schools as holding pens for kids on their way to prison. Every child deserves the opportunity to learn in a high quality, well-resourced environment. It is what we see in the successful districts, and we must insist on it for all children. We need high standards, tools, and resources and a demanding training program for adults to promote culture change. We need to consult students: Wonderful work is being done on creating positive social environments in schools by students and youth groups in programs such as Positive Behavior Support and efforts to stop what is known as the school-to-prison pipeline.

Build community: Our next superintendent must be a champion, not a combatant, for our schools. We need that person to focus on programs and to inspire all of us to link arms with parents, political leaders, and business people and help us all claim our schools as our own. We need someone who invites the community into the building. We need someone who can help the city's political leadership be inspired, not cynical, and help promote the role of schools in economic development and as worthy of investment and support.

To create such a plan, we need in-depth community conversations, not about choosing a superintendent, but about setting priorities for the district. Perhaps this conversation could be a partnership of The Inquirer, WHYY, the city, the district, the state, the chamber of commerce, and maybe even some "anonymous donors" - to pay for the process.

We need to know what the job is before we hire another superintendent. Otherwise, we will get their vision, not our own.
Susan Gobreski is the executive director of Education Voters of Pennsylvania, a public interest advocacy organization and the mother of three Philadelphia school children.