Questions for the Next Schools Chancellor

Today, presumptive-next-mayor Vincent Gray will meet with presumptive-ex- chancellor Michelle Rhee to discuss the future of DC public schools.

In a way, this is a lose-lose meeting for both. As Rhee has made clear in her typically tin-eared style, she is skeptical Gray shares her commitment to a particular set of reforms. Meanwhile, Gray’s ultimate decision about Rhee is guaranteed to disappoint a significant percentage of his electorate – either those who voted for him to register their disapproval of Fenty’s and Rhee’s style of leadership, or those who voted against him to see her reign continue.

This puts Mr. Gray in a bit of a pickle, but he might as well use the opportunity to think about the essential questions he would want to ask any potential candidate to be the next Schools Chancellor. Here are five he might want to consider:

  1. Thank you for meeting with me this afternoon. Clearly, this most recent election was in part a referendum on leadership in general, and on the different approaches people take to decision-making, community engagement, and working with the forces of change. With that in mind, tell me about your personal philosophy of leadership, about what you believe are the central characteristics a leader must possess, and about how you intend to leverage those characteristics in your work with the many stakeholders of our public school system?
  2. IMPACT, the new teacher evaluation system in DC has received national attention – and both praise and scrutiny – for its increased emphasis on a diverse set of data points to determine teacher effectiveness, a more frequent use of third-party observations, and a commitment to link student test scores to individual teacher evaluations. Tell me, when you imagine your ideal system for evaluating teacher effectiveness, which aspects of IMPACT would you stop using, which would you keep using, and which new features would you want to start using, and why?
  3. In any system, a leader has to identify in which areas of the system s/he wants to seek traditional changes, transitional changes, and transformational changes. Based on what we know about systems change, it’s often wise to pursue all three types of change at the same time, and in different parts of the system, so that the pace of change is neither too slow nor too fast, and so people will experience both the up-close significance of short-term wins and the galvanizing power of a long-term vision. Knowing that, in which aspects of the system would you pursue the most traditional changes, and why? Where do you think the opportunities exist for a transitional set of reforms in DCPS, and why? And how do you feel those changes will help prepare our city for a more transformational set of changes that will help our current 19th and 20th century modes of schooling start preparing children for the unique set of challenges and opportunities posed by the 21st century world they will enter when they graduate?
  4. The past four years have seen DCPS focus relentlessly on improving student results on 3rd and 8th grade standardized exams in reading and math. Banners have been hung in front of schools trumpeting these scores, and for the average parent or community member, schools are still deemed successful or unsuccessful based on these scores alone. When it comes to evaluating the extent to which children are learning, what is your ideal balanced scorecard of indicators, and how would you revise the city’s assessment and accountability system to ensure that future performance data reveal not just who isn’t learning and what isn’t being learned, but also why students are struggling and how DCPS teachers can address their needs?
  5. My final question to you has less to do with any specific changes you hope to make, and more to do with how well you understand the equally important role of communicating those changes to the residents of this city. Let’s imagine it’s four years from now, and we’re looking back to see which central words, ideas and messages the average citizen associates with your tenure as Schools Chancellor. What do you want them to say, why do you want them to say it, and how will you go about executing an outreach strategy that helps ensure the residents of our city feel an alignment between the actions and the aspirations of your administration?
Categories: Assessment, Leadership, Learning, Organizational Change, Teacher Quality

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  1. Steve
    Posted September 23, 2010 at 10:31 am | Permalink

    This question strikes me as a bit naive: When you imagine your ideal system for evaluating teacher effectiveness, which aspects of IMPACT would you stop using, which would you keep using, and which new features would you want to start using, and why?

    Isn’t her answer predictable: Keep all of it? I mean, it’s her system. Why would she put the finishing touches on it and then say, let’s stop doing it.

    I know she has ideas for new features: expand the student assessments so it’s possible to include more teachers, since currently only about 20% of teachers are in tested grades and subjects with students who come with a “pretest” from a prior grade, needed to measure growth.

    IMPACT is probably not so much of an issue itself rather than how should the results be interpreted and used for policy going forward. In the first year it covers one year of teaching for all teachers. Over time, we will start to be able to profile each teacher’s full career track record and eventually generate some precise estimates of who is consistently outperforming their peers and who is consistently lagging behind, and the teachers might learn what areas (e.g. math versus readings for multiple subject teachers) they are doing better and worse in and when they had a good year versus an off-year.

  2. Sam
    Posted September 23, 2010 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    Hey Steve. Author mulligan here — I guess I wasn’t clear enough that I intended these to be questions he asks any potential new chancellor, not Rhee, who, it seems clear, is leaving and will soon make that official. Since you bring it up, though, I think I would still want to ask her the question, since any good leader is reflective and since things always unfold in reality differently than we imagine, so the first year of the system would ostensibly give Rhee a chance to think more about how she might want to fine tune it. But again, the main point of the question is to see how a new chancellor would want to build, scrap or revise some of the stuff Rhee put into place.

  3. Steve
    Posted September 23, 2010 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    Oops. I jumped from the opening about the upcoming Gray-Rhee meeting (wouldn’t we all love to be a fly on the wall for that one?) and ignored the headline about the “next” chancellor.

    Still, it seems premature to talk about Rhee’s successor when she hasn’t left.

  4. Pax
    Posted September 24, 2010 at 8:40 am | Permalink

    Sam, regarding ‘system change’, at least as it applies to large employers, have you read Ricardo Semler’s “The Seven Day Weekend”? Mind-blowing…

  5. Sam
    Posted September 24, 2010 at 9:26 am | Permalink

    Hey Pax. I have not read this, although I was of course a big fan of Maverick. I’ll order it today — thanks for the tip!

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