Rhode Island · School Talk

Pump the Brakes and Fix the System Before You Talk About Hiring a New Superintendent

In an unexpected bit of news yesterday, Providence schools Superintendent Chris Maher announced that he would be stepping down at the end of the year despite the recent extension to his contract. The chair of the school committee, Nick Hemond, immediately announced that they’d be forming a search committee “in the coming weeks” and that he expects to hire an outsider with experience as a superintendent.

But there is a saying, often attributed to Albert Einstein, that we should all bear in mind before we go running in search of Maher’s successor: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results”. Susan Lusi, Maher’s predecessor, reflected on the barriers embedded in PPSD’s governance model when she exited the position in 2015. As Dan McGowan reported, she recalled a phone call she had with the the director at the Council of the Great City Schools early in her tenure as superintendent and he didn’t hold back in his assessment of the systemic challenges she was up against when he told her that ‘Providence and Washington, D.C., are the two member districts that are most embedded in their municipal structures and you’d think they’d learn from one another that that doesn’t work very well.”

Well, we haven’t learned and calls for the formation of a search committee with zero reflection, conversation and action on the city’s broken system is irresponsible and bad for students and teachers. Commissioner Wagner pulled no punches yesterday in an interview with the Providence Journal when he responded to the news of Maher’s decision to leave in June. He called on people in positions of leadership to pump the brakes on how we do things and focus on the ineffective and entrenched model of governance of the Providence schools. The layers of bureaucracy are so many that it it might be laughable if it wasn’t so utterly paralyzing for everyone trying to do good work for kids while burdened by those layers.

In his comments, Wagner offered this:

Everything we do in Providence should be anchored on the needs of kids and families on teachers. Everything we do in Providence tends to be anchored on the needs of the systems like the school department, like the city, like the union, not anchored on the needs of students and families and teachers. And until we fix that, we’re going to be just spinning in the same circles, teachers are going to be knocking themselves out to do the best work they possibly can in a system that needs to be dramatically changed in terms of how it’s governed…It’s like standing on somebody’s chest and commanding them to breathe.

He went on to call it “way premature to even think about hiring a new superintendent until we create the conditions for a superintendent to be successful.” He is right and I’m grateful that he said it. Every system he mentions—the school department, the city, and the union—are entrenched layers of bureaucracy that create barriers that make it impossible to achieve efficiency or to serve students and families really well.

The Governor knows this. The Speaker of the House and the Senate President know this. Jorge Elorza knows this. The City Council knows this. The school committee knows this. Susan Lusi knew this and called it out. Chris Maher knows this and it wouldn’t surprise me if this unworkable governance model played at least a partial role in his decision to leave. But still, upon the news of a superintendent vacancy, people just default to the same, old same old with zero consideration for how much damage that will do. We say we want to compete with Massachusetts on RI-CAS—does anyone in their right mind think that cities in MA run their schools like Providence does?

It is a good time to remind ourselves that in Providence, 14 percent of students are proficient in English Language Arts and 10 percent are proficient in writing and we have a significant teacher absenteeism problem. It seems that the powers that be in Providence—and at the state house—should keep their powder dry for a bit, work to understand how and why the governance model is broken, pledge to fix it—then actually fix it—and then move towards finding the next superintendent of the Providence schools. I’m quite sure that whoever ultimately gets the job will be most grateful.

What do you think?

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