Feature

Critical Friends

When in transition to a new leadership post, superintendents turn to outsiders to size up their systems by PRISCILLA PARDINI


When Arlene Ackerman was named superintendent of the San Francisco Public Schools last spring, she knew at once she would be turning for help to a group of "critical friends."

"Whatever I do in terms of a transition plan, I want to use the expertise of colleagues from around the country to help me," she says.

Ackerman, who comes to San Francisco after two years as superintendent in Washington, D.C., is one of several school district leaders inviting outside authorities from other school districts and educational agencies to conduct formal evaluations of their school systems.

Ackerman, along with Iris Metts, superintendent in Prince George’s County, Md., and Patricia Harvey, superintendent in St. Paul, Minn., talked with The School Administrator recently about the process, which each has used in slightly different ways over the last few years.

All three say the outside evaluators, who in some cases were friends and/or former colleagues, bring years of experience as well as an objective eye to the task of evaluating another school system. As a result, they are able to provide hard-hitting assessments and on-the-mark recommendations that can help a superintendent--and a new superintendent in particular--quickly identify, prioritize and begin to address longstanding and often intractable problems.

"In medicine, it’s standard procedure whenever you’re moving into new territory or facing a serious diagnosis to get a second opinion," Harvey says. "I don’t think we do quite enough of that in education. We don’t learn from each other’s work."


Washington, D.C.
In the spring of 1998 when Ackerman was named superintendent in Washington, D.C., the district was in crisis. Her predecessor, a retired Army general, had resigned out of frustration. Students were achieving far below their peers nationally, schools were in disrepair, resources were scarce, special education programs were in disarray, technology was inadequate and the district’s governance structure was unwieldy.

Ackerman turned to The McKenzie Group, an educational consulting firm, and the Council of Great City Schools, a coalition of the nation’s 57 largest urban public school systems, to ask for help in designing and carrying out a transition plan for the first six months of her superintendency.

"I asked them to help me identify experts to come in and look at some of the systems in place that raised concerns for me," Ackerman says. "I needed people with experience to validate what I’d discovered and offer recommendations based on how they had solved similar problems in their districts."

In response, Michael Casserly, executive director of the council, put together a 12-person transition committee made up mostly of individuals with experience as urban superintendents. They included: Ramon Cortines, former chancellor of New York City Public Schools; Beverly Hall, who was the state-appointed superintendent in Newark, N.J., at the time; James Williams, then-superintendent of the Dayton Public Schools; and Robert Peterkin, former superintendent in Milwaukee and head of the Urban Superintendents Program at Harvard University.

The group met with Ackerman during a day-and-a-half-long retreat in May 1998. She shared her first impressions of the district. The other superintendents "talked to me in a very open and insightful way about their own superintendencies, including the pitfalls and things they’d now do differently," Ackerman recalls.

Transition committee members helped Ackerman identify goals and set priorities. Long-term goals included increasing student achievement as measured by standardized test scores, creating an infrastructure that would engage the community in a dialogue around student achievement, improving facilities and setting up accountability measures. But committee members also convinced Ackerman to focus on three very specific, concrete, short-term goals (running a successful summer school program, getting textbooks delivered before the first day of school, opening school on time in September) that, if accomplished, would give her administration immediate credibility.

Following the retreat, the Council of the Great City Schools set up seven work groups, staffed by high-level administrators from large urban districts across the country. Between July and December 1998, members of each group visited the District of Columbia Public Schools for three to five days, working with designated members of Ackerman’s staff to review operations, propose short- and long-term direction and design strategies for reform. Each group then generated a report for Ackerman, which she believes gave her information she might not have unearthed on her own for many months. The reports also included recommendations, many of which she says she implemented immediately. One of the most significant recommendations suggested ways to re-organize the Division of Special Education, a move that brought the district closer to full compliance with federal special education regulations. Ackerman also traces an improvement in test scores to recommendations from the work groups. She described meeting the short-term goals identified by the transition committee as three "big wins," or hitting three "home runs."

Prince George’s County
Before assuming the superintendency of the Prince George’s County district in July 1999, Iris T. Metts had been Delaware’s secretary of education and superintendent of the considerably smaller Christina School District in Newark, Del.

In Prince George’s County, she says she found a district "without a mission," where each of 185 schools was going its own way and 70 percent of its 133,000 students were reading below mastery as measured by standardized tests. The school system was being closely scrutinized by the Maryland Assembly and, according to Metts, was ripe for state takeover. Lawmakers already had appointed a management oversight panel, similar to a control board, whose members were given major input into decisions made by the Prince George’s County school board. The state had also ordered a management audit study, which generated 300 recommendations for improvement.

"There was a lot of repair work to do in the district regarding its image and management," Metts says.

Metts immediately began looking for people willing to help her tackle the problems on a consulting basis. She turned specifically to four outsiders whose qualifications and experience closely matched the district’s most critical needs: Alberta L. Paul, director of technology for the Philadelphia Public Schools; Claude G. Perkins, dean of the Albany State University School of Education; Franklin A. Rishel, director of personnel services for the Christina School District, and Kenneth H. Brown, Christina’s director of business and finance.

All four had enjoyed positive working relationships with Metts in the past, and as a result were familiar with her management style and shared her vision of education. "They felt very comfortable working with me as an associate since we had worked well in other settings before," she says.

The four consultants also knew each other, which helped them quickly jell into an effective team. According to Metts, putting such a team in place is one of the best ways to turn a district around.

As members of Metts’ transition team, the four consultants visited the district several times over a three-week period late last year, observing and analyzing school district operations and writing reports for Metts outlining their findings. One particularly valuable outcome: a 120-day priority list that narrowed the 300 recommendations outlined in the state audit down to a more manageable 40.

The work of the consultants was generally well received by school district employees. "In our case, the problems had already been identified and my administration was coming in trying to address the concerns," Metts said. Meanwhile, school board members benefited from getting to see the four consultants in action. She later hired Paul, Rishel and Brown to work in top management positions in the district.

In retrospect, Metts is delighted at how her transition worked out. "The more I think about what I did, the wiser I know it was," she says. "It’s amazing how much progress I’ve made." She points to greatly improved communication between the school district and members of the state management oversight panel as well as improved relationships with the county executive, county council and state representatives that led to a $63 million increase in the district’s budget and more than $11 million for school renovations. Plans are also moving ahead for a full-day kindergarten program, class size reductions and an effort that will realign curriculum with state standards.

St. Paul, Minn.
When Patricia Harvey came to St. Paul as superintendent in April 1999, her first task was to assess the health of her new school district. "It seemed I could do one of two things," Harvey says. "Spend time myself assessing the district, going system by system, or bring in people with proven track records in each area."

It was an easy decision for Harvey, the former chief accountability officer for the Chicago Public Schools, where high-ranking school officials regularly worked with consultants on complex issues. She also had worked as a senior fellow at the National Center on Education and the Economy, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization that promotes standards-based reform. While with the center, she had crossed paths with scores of educators and researchers from all over the country.

"I knew the second option would be the much quicker process, and I was able to handpick a number of people with proven track records around some issues that were very important for us," she says.

Harvey chose a critical friend for each of her senior staffers, as well as for herself. (See list.) The group of 18 consultants arrived on the heels of a citywide effort to formulate a strategic long-term plan for the school district, where increasing student achievement, implementing school-based management and addressing the needs of the district’s sizeable Hmong population were among the most pressing issues.

"We met with business leaders, government leaders, everyone, everywhere," Harvey says, "to glean what was working well in St. Paul, what changes were necessary, what our top priorities should be."

The outside experts visited the district for two days and were asked to study job descriptions and engage senior staffers in what Harvey calls "rigorous discussion" around longstanding policies and procedures. They also shadowed the St. Paul educators, toured classrooms and gathered data. "We asked them as a group to stretch us," Harvey says, "to tell us, from their point of view, about the best practices in their areas."

Each of the experts submitted a report that included detailed recommendations, many of which Harvey says have been implemented. Rosita Apodaca, assistant superintendent of the San Francisco Public Schools, consulted in the area of English language services. She suggested that instead of pulling non-English speaking Hmong students out of their regular classes for special language instruction, the district try team teaching. The change was made, resulting in what Harvey calls huge increases in learning. She says ideas from the outside evaluators in the areas of research and evaluation, standards, technology and curriculum also have been helpful, and points out that many of the experts and the district employees have established relationships and remain in touch.

Meanwhile, Harvey, who believes in practicing what she preaches, has spent a number of two-day sessions with her adviser, John Murphy, former superintendent in Charlotte, N.C., and Prince George’s County, Md., and currently a consultant for Arvida Co., a developer in Boca Raton, Fla. During his visits, Murphy shadows Harvey at meetings with board members and principals and at community events. At the end of the day, they debrief, with Murphy sharing his observations and offering ideas Harvey may want to consider. Harvey says she still feels free to call Murphy whenever the need arises. She calls his feedback and input critical to her management of the 46,000-student district.

"We chat often about where I am and how I’m doing. No one inside the district could provide that." Nor, says Harvey, could a stranger. "It’s a matter of having experienced eyes watching me over time."

Murphy says such a process has great potential. "It can provide good insight into one’s professional abilities and personal style and is a quick way to correct any problems," he says. And because feedback is done in private, it can be totally supportive and constructive. "Anyone can benefit from the opportunity to have another set of eyes observing their operational style and helping hone their skills," he says.

When it comes to his work with Harvey, Murphy says his experience gave him the ability to share things he had done as a young superintendent that "I might now do differently." He applauded Harvey for her willingness to participate in such a process. "It’s a tremendously courageous thing for her to do," he says. "I think it shows the kind of commitment she has to the St. Paul school system."

Harvey says that because the use of critical friends at the senior staff level had proven so effective, the same kind of reviews are now taking place at the school level. These reviews involve former principals and other school administrators who spend time in the schools, shadowing students and looking at student work before preparing reports that outline what they see as a school’s strengths and weaknesses.

In yet another variation on the critical friends process, principals of St. Paul schools placed on academic probation are provided with a performance coach--"a critical friend, if you will, to provide them with suggestions on how to improve," says Harvey.

An Outside Perspective
Leaders in private industry have long relied on outside perspectives--usually in the form of paid consultants. But Charles Krause, president and chief executive officer of Krause Consulting Ltd., in Milwaukee, says he has some reservations about the critical friends process as used by the three superintendents. "Sure, there’s merit in not having to reinvent the wheel," he says. "But it sounds too easy, too inbred. When you bring in friends, or people you know, they might be reluctant to be hypercritical." (See related story.)

The American Management Association’s Ellen Bayer cautions superintendents who use outside evaluators to make sure they do not come in with a set of faulty preconceptions. "A good consultant will spend time collecting data, doing research and becoming immersed in a culture," she says. Someone from another school district, however, can "come in with an approach or model that might be wonderful in one place but would not work in another."

Still, Bayer says the critical friends process could bring "a lot of fresh thinking and a fresh set of eyes and brains" to the problem-solving process.

Ackerman, Metts and Harvey say the downside to bringing in outsiders to evaluate a district may well be the negative feelings such a move can engender on the part of longtime employees, especially middle- and high-ranking central-office administrators.

In Prince George’s County, Metts mitigated the problem by filling a number of key posts, including those of her administrative assistant, five executive directors (regional superintendents) and an associate superintendent with experienced school district administrators.

Meanwhile, she says the three members of her transition team who became permanent employees have, by virtue of their knowledge and experience, earned the respect of many district employees.

Still, Metts concedes that the process was the source of some resentment. "There were lots of people who felt I didn’t appreciate the talent on the inside," she says.

One of those insiders, Shauna Mitchell, the district’s legal officer, agreed that being passed over for the top jobs made some longtime employees mad. "There were people who said, ‘I could have done that job,’’’ Mitchell says. Yet she believes there is potential for longtime employees to become "entrenched, get in a rut and lose their ability to use their critical thinking skills."

For that reason, Mitchell believes it is important to bring in experts from outside the system "who can see when something is not working." She adds: "It is like being in a marriage. You can argue, but sometimes you need outside input." When outsiders are brought in, they need to take care not to degrade longtime employees or discount their skills. "You want to respect people, honor people who have committed their careers to a school district," says Mitchell.

In Washington, D.C., the outside consultants spent considerable time observing and meeting with district employees. "The people charged with the day-to-day duties and responsibilities for running the district were included in this process," Ackerman says. "They had valuable information to share."

Frieda Lacey, executive assistant to the superintendent in the neighboring Montgomery County, Md., Public Schools, was one of the outside consultants who participated in the review of the Washington, D.C., Public Schools. Selected because of her success in reducing litigation connected with special education programs in Montgomery County, Lacey ended up working in D.C. for eight months under a special arrangement between the two districts. Still, Lacey says that because the process was well thought-out and organized, members of the special education work group were able to gather a lot of information in a few days.

"Because we’d dealt with the same issues in our own districts, we knew what questions to ask," she says. "And based on the answer we got and the information we were given, we could make accurate assessments."

Lacey says that although it was understandable that people inside a district might resent strangers coming in and telling them how to do their jobs, the staffers she worked with in D.C. had not been defensive.

"They wanted to do a good job, but special education had been reorganized 20 times in three years. They were frustrated. They didn’t have a model. And they welcomed our input."

Because St. Paul was "not a broken school district," Harvey says, bringing in outside experts had the potential to create deep dissension.

And although some on her staff did feel threatened at first, those feelings dissipated as Harvey herself began working with Murphy. "They saw the superintendent modeling this process and came to understand just how important I think getting other opinions is. Now it’s just become a part of what we do."

Yet all three superintendents say that for the outside experts to be effective, they had to be brutally honest. "They may be friends, but they won’t serve you well if they only tell you what you want to hear," Metts says.

St. Paul’s evaluators were, says Harvey, "professionals who based their judgments on evidence, as someone would who was giving a second medical opinion."

Fast, Expert Advice
Bringing in outside experts to assess a district needn’t be costly. In most cases, superintendents are willing to provide top managers to each other on a cost-reimbursement basis.

In the District of Columbia, most members of the work groups provided their services pro bono, with their expenses covered by funding from the District of Columbia Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Authority. Ackerman says the sending districts earned lots of goodwill for sharing their senior managers, and most of the participants "felt it was a badge of honor to be selected to be on one of these teams." In St. Paul, the $25,000 cost of the outside evaluation was paid for with a donation from a private source.

Ackerman’s transition plan in San Francisco is expected to be tailored to that district’s needs, but similar to the one she used in Washington.

Shortly after the news of her appointment broke in late May, several superintendents on the D.C. Transition Committee called her to ask, "When are we going to get together and talk about San Francisco?"

She points out that many professionals, including school superintendents, are sometimes reluctant to ask for help because such a move might be perceived as a sign of weakness. "It's just the opposite for me," she says. "Asking smart people to offer solutions saves time and can accelerate progress.

"Even if you’re experienced, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel," she adds. "There are lots of professionals in school districts across the county who have 'been there' and 'done that' before who are willing to share their expertise."

Relying on a group of critical friends also can help combat the isolation superintendents face. "As a teacher, you can walk next door when you need advice; a principal can call another principal in the same district for support. But a superintendent," says Ackerman, "doesn't have that same option. What we need to do is create our own networks."

Priscilla Pardini is an education free-lance writer in Shorewood, Wis. E-mail: pardini@execpc.com