Gold Standard: Advice for the SRC

Pedro Ramos, School Reform Commission leader, at a November meeting.

As the School Reform Commission begins to rev up its search for a new head of the School District of Philadelphia, let me offer three guidelines to assist the process.

1. Focus on forging a top-tier management team. Don't simply focus on the top position. If you look under the hood of the school district, you will see a complex organization that involves far more than educational issues.

The district has more than 250 buildings, a 386-person police force, is responsible for transporting thousands of students each day and serves 153,000 meals daily. It needs to recruit, retain, evaluate and train a large workforce with an array of inevitable employee- and union-relation issues. With nearly a $3 billion budget, there are challenging operating, capital and debt-management financial issues. And there is the challenge of maintaining, expanding and modernizing its information-technology platform to allow our students to compete in the digital age.

How to grapple with these issues is not a skill that is taught in the education departments of the universities where our future educators are groomed and the focus is on pedagogy, curricula and classroom management. Likewise, the public-educational expertise needed in the school district is not likely to be found in business schools like Wharton or in the private-sector business community.

So, a well-functioning school district needs a management team that integrates business, educational and leadership expertise; that can set priorities, and that can foster a collaborative culture among disparate stakeholders.

A relevant model is the university structure with its team of a president, a provost and a top business official.

A university president is the face of the institution, has strong communication and interpersonal skills; credibly represents the school's values and culture; is a crackerjack fundraiser with government, foundations, the private sector and individuals; and is collaborative yet decisive in setting priorities and demanding results. The provost is the educational leader who commands the respect of the faculty, and the top businessperson makes sure that the enterprise runs efficiently and effectively so that it can fulfill its mission.

Those are precisely the attributes required of the district's top management team regardless of what titles are applied to the different individuals.

So prior to embarking on its search, the SRC needs to assess how the district's top-management team matches up with those various skills, plus its weaknesses and strengths, and then finds the right individuals, inside or outside the district, with the complementary skill set to get the job done.

It's not an issue of finding the next so-called superman or superwoman, but forging a super team.

2. Prior to hiring the new management team, let's figure out what the city's educational values are. Clearly, we want higher test scores, lower absentee rates, higher graduation rates and less disruptive behavior. But, with a rapidly changing education landscape, there are larger issues that we, as a community, need to reach a consensus on. These issues include: Do we embrace a diverse provider model that includes charter schools, traditional schools, schools run by private companies? How do we measure their success? How do we stress equity while recognizing that individual students have different learning styles, abilities and support systems? What's the proper balance between technical and vocational training and college preparation?

The SRC, along with the mayor, should take the lead in fostering a citywide conversation in establishing our city's educational values and then find the right team that is in sync with these values and has the skills, experience and track record to make them come to life.

3. Don't set an artificial public deadline in completing the search; instead focus on finding the right team regardless of how long it might take. One of the mistakes that the SRC made when Paul Vallas left in 2007 was that it set an unreasonable deadline for completing its search. Searches often take much longer than search firms promise or the marketplace allows. (Philadelphia will face stiff competition for top talent. There are more than a dozen vacancies in major school districts throughout the nation, according to the Council of Great City Schools.)

When Dr. Arlene Ackerman's name ended up on the short list of candidates to succeed Vallas, I cautioned, in a column I wrote at the time, about her reputation of being divisive in her prior assignments, and I urged the SRC to go back to the drawing board and forget its artificial deadline. "Three years from now," I wrote then, "no one will remember if the SRC met its unrealistic search deadline," but the public will remember whether it chose the right person. As we well know, the SRC charged ahead anyway and hired Ackerman.

So no artificial public deadline this time, please. Focus instead on deliberately assessing the district's needs, what our shared educational values are and then find the best management team to get the job done.

 Phil Goldsmith served as interim chief executive officer of the school district in 2000-2001 and was a "headhunter" for a local search firm from 1994-97.