The Harder Task of Superintendent Searching

by JOHN ISAACSON


Over the last 10 years, our firm has been up close and personal with a regular stream of school superintendency searches. We do civic searches of every variety--from big medical centers to little neighborhood groups--but, consistently, we find superintendent searches are the hardest ones to conduct.

In the coming decade, superintendency searching promises to be just as taxing an endeavor. The reasons are multiple. The most critical ones have to do with the public's demands that a successful superintendent be qualified to deal with parent and community concerns in an arena that includes vouchers, charters, school-based management and standards, finding ways to manage these forces and resources so that children's achievement rises.

In all executive-level searches, the choice of new leadership stirs anxiety within an organization, but school searches stir up the most passionate feelings. Teachers, who are the front-line workers in K-12 education, are anxious; the middle managers are anxious; the senior management is anxious; and most of all, the parents are anxious.

In the last few years, we have seen the worried parent factor move into the political process. Parents are scared to death that their kids are going to fail the test of the modern economy and school boards have accurately heard the fear in their constitutents' voices.

Political Influence
For the last 25 years the income differential between well-educated, badly educated and uneducated workers has grown steadily. In a knowledge-intensive economy, a good education adds very substantial value, sometimes a fortune to a child's prospects. In a global economy, where developing countries can offer a literate, disciplined, accessible work force, the value of unskilled labor has dropped steadily.

The fundamental economics have sunk in. Parents know their kids are at risk. The good news for superintendents is that education has become the No. 1 political priority in America. The bad news for superintendents is that education has become the No. 1 priority in America, which means the public wants results.

The political sea change inevitably influences our searches. School boards want to hear how a candidate has improved academic performance in his or her district. They will listen patiently to a good story about academic processes, a tale about management changes and descriptions of program innovation and reform initiatives. They are interested in academically intriguing ideas, and they want their superintendent to possess a clear, articulate vision of how to improve things. But above all they want to hear the student assessment numbers.

We see it time and again. The school board sensibly explores a candidate's educational history and outlook. They respond favorably to an articulate and coherent story of attempts at districtwide improvement. But the candidate who concludes the presentation with favorable quantitative measures wins the race. Numerical proof of improving student performance has become a necessary, though not a sufficient, condition for superintendent appointment.

For the last 25 years the income differential between well-educated, badly educated and uneducated workers has grown steadily. In a knowledge-intensive economy, a good education adds very substantial value, sometimes a fortune to a child's prospects. In a global economy, where developing countries can offer a literate, disciplined, accessible work force, the value of unskilled labor has dropped steadily.

The fundamental economics have sunk in. Parents know their kids are at risk. The good news for superintendents is that education has become the No. 1 political priority in America. The bad news for superintendents is that education has become the No. 1 priority in America, which means the public wants results.

The political sea change inevitably influences our searches. School boards want to hear how a candidate has improved academic performance in his or her district. They will listen patiently to a good story about academic processes, a tale about management changes and descriptions of program innovation and reform initiatives. They are interested in academically intriguing ideas, and they want their superintendent to possess a clear, articulate vision of how to improve things. But above all they want to hear the student assessment numbers.

We see it time and again. The school board sensibly explores a candidate's educational history and outlook. They respond favorably to an articulate and coherent story of attempts at districtwide improvement. But the candidate who concludes the presentation with favorable quantitative measures wins the race. Numerical proof of improving student performance has become a necessary, though not a sufficient, condition for superintendent appointment.

Obsession With Data
Search committees, composed of a cross section of stakeholders, are not exclusively obsessed with numbers. Collectively, they are not that simple minded.

The candidates who come in and just spout the numbers leave everybody cold. The search committees are, after all, responsive to teachers and parents of children. The superintendent still stands "in loco parentis," and search committees want to see and feel a live human being. But they also want proof that is hard to come by--that their superintendent will win, and they translate winning simply. I want my kid and my school to hit the mark on the tests.

I have come to believe that we are in the early phase of a long term and major trend. Over the next 25 years we will, as a country, focus with ever improving techniques on measurable gains in student achievement. The trends are pretty clear. We will both decentralize and centralize at the same time. We will decentralize the control of schools and in some cases break systems apart. We will try vouchers, charters, magnets, performance-based contracts and school-based management, some inside the public school envelope and some outside. The distinction between "in the system" and "out of the system" is far less important than the trend, which is clear.

Competing Forces
In the diametrically opposite direction, we will centralize standards, curricula, professional development and assessment. We will do it at the College Board, in states, in school districts and in private, for-profit and not-for-profit management companies and service providers. Publishing companies will follow in the wake by producing fancy systems wholesale that package everything from academic standards to curriculum to textbooks to computer software to professional development to assessment. States, localities and even individual schools will purchase competing systems.

We are going to simultaneously break up and control. It will not be pretty. The public will insist on continuous innovation and then will punish innovative failures.

Superintendents always have had hard jobs. They carry more freight than most of us. In the next 25 years, we as a search firm expect winning superintendents to learn to both control and devolve simultaneously and to build reliable, public measures of success and failure. It was never an easy job. It isn't likely to get easier.

John Isaacson is president of Isaacson, Miller, an executive search firm, at 334 Boylston St., Boston, MA 02116. E-mail: jisaacson@imsearch.com