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Distributed July 18, 2005
Contact Mark Nickel

About 795 Words

Ellen Foley
Asking the Right Questions about Providence Schools

Selecting the right candidate for superintendent of Providence schools isn’t just a matter of asking probing questions during the job interview. Listening to questions that the candidates ask will be equally important. Here are a few items to listen for.

As the Providence School Board begins to interview semi-finalists for the position of Schools Superintendent, its members should not only think about what questions to ask the candidates. It should also consider the kinds of questions candidates should be asking them.

Leaders who understand what it takes to build a school system that works for all students know that they cannot do it one school at a time. We know how to develop a successful school – where all students, regardless of race, ethnicity, first language or family income, can learn and achieve. One need only look to Vartan Gregorian Elementary School to see that. But overall low test scores and high dropout rates show clearly that Providence doesn't have enough Gregorian Schools. What we need is not just a few smart schools. We need a smart school system.

The Annenberg Institute for Schools Reform’s Task Force on the Future of Urban Districts, which included national leaders in education policy and research, identified three key elements of a strong system: Results, Equity and Community. Strong candidates for the superintendency will want to know the extent to which those elements exist in the Providence public schools and whether the school committee and the community are committed to developing them.

To build results, strong candidates will want to understand the extent of data access and use across the system, both within the central office and in schools. They will, of course, be interested in how students are performing; but, perhaps more important, they will want to know what the district’s capacity is to collect and analyze data that helps unpack those outcomes and points the way toward changing them. Can the district link poor outcomes in high school mathematics to a shortage of teachers in that area? Do data exist to analyze the factors – curriculum, books and materials, teaching methods and leadership – that helped one elementary school substantially improve reading scores while another school with a similar population of students languished?

In addition to results, a candidate seriously considering taking on the challenge of building a smart school system in Providence will also emphasize equity. Any discussion of equity in education hinges on the distribution of resources – both fiscal and human – which in large part shapes children’s opportunities to learn. Any candidate will want to ask about the current investment in the system by the state and the city. But while the total investment is critical, it is not the only relevant factor. To focus on equity, strong candidates will be asking about the level of flexibility they would have with available resources. Could the superintendent tailor supports and distribute fiscal and human resources based on the specific needs and capacities of schools, students and educators? How would the community react if the district devoted more resources to schools and students with the most needs?

Smart leaders also know they cannot build a whole system of successful schools alone. They must focus on being truly collaborative within the official system, as well as in partnership with organizations outside the system. Teachers must work with other teachers; central office staff must reach out to community partners; and middle managers must work closely with and communicate with each other. While the buck must stop with the system’s leadership – the board and superintendent – decisions must have the benefit of the experience and guidance of a much wider group of the city’s educational and community leaders. A strong candidate will want to know: Which individuals and organizations both in the district and in the community can the superintendent count on to provide support and advocacy for the school district? Who can help lead and critique the district and hold it accountable?

Transforming the Providence School Department into a smart school system where all children achieve will require building and feeding strong, instructionally focused leadership in the classroom, school, and central office; using data to make decisions and understand progress; distributing resources equitably based on the needs of students; and collaborating with unions, municipal leaders, higher education, community and faith-based organizations, businesses, city agencies, parents and families. Most candidates for the superintendent position will be able to discuss at length the importance of all children achieving at high levels. While that belief is an important prerequisite for the position of urban school superintendent, statements like it have become common. What will distinguish a strong candidate from the rest of the pack is having not just a vision of what should be achieved, but also a clear sense of how to get there. Creating a high-outcomes system will require results, equity and community. A strong superintendent will know the right questions to ask in those areas to find the right answers for Providence.

Ellen Foley is principal associate in district redesign with the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University.

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