I’ve never tried speed dating but imagine it must be something like the media’s opportunity to meet the three finalists for the superintendent position, organized by Seattle Public Schools.
Teresa Wippel, the District’s public affairs officer, said she and a colleague developed the format so that reporters would have the opportunity to have their questions answered in a more intimate setting, rather than in a traditional press conference, where some reporters might dominate.
Over a three-day period, interviewing one candidate per day, journalists were placed in three groups of three or four, loosely organized by media, and were limited to 15 minutes of questions, posed round-robin style. The TV folks went first, followed by radio and print journalists, in the same groups each day, though one reporter from an alternative newspaper was a “group jumper,” moving from my group to another and back again.
The seasoned pros grumbled that a press conference with a wide array of questions would have provided all of us a broader picture of each candidate and said this was the most closed superintendent selection process in recent memory. The savvier journalists arranged to record the sessions they were not part of. To make the most of our allotted time, we shared our questions in advance (within groups and from group to group) and afterwards congregated outside the School Board offices to compare impressions, which probably also happens at speed dating events. We also read and watched each other’s dispatches to see what we may have missed.
I put out an informal call for question ideas and also used my own experiences as a current Seattle Public Schools parent (the only one in the group) to ask each candidate questions about how s/he would stabilize District leadership and regain the public trust; balance school oversight with building autonomy; develop expectations for and evaluate principal and teachers and raise the level of academic rigor for all students, so that a Seattle Public School education is synonymous with a world-class education.
Here are interview highlights and my own impressions of the candidates:
Day 1: Jose Banda. Everyone agreed that this affable Southern Californian has a Seattle-friendly demeanor and could be a “healer,” though some wondered whether he lacks the experience to run a District as large as ours. He works hard to build relationships, says he takes the time to understand different personalities and viewpoints, and says creating a strong governance team and building and maintaining stability will be key priorities.
Leadership is key, he says, and principals set the tone, culture and focus of schools. We should have high expectations for all students.
Best quote: "Every child should be seen as the next valedictorian."
Day 2: Steven Enoch. Honestly, it seems hard to understand why anyone with even a whiff of fiscal trouble about them would make the candidate short list, given the current level of public mistrust. Our interview began with the loquacious Mr. Enoch on the defensive, clarifying the facts behind allegations that he left the San Juan Island school district in financial disarray (he says a new District building was purchased after he left).
Once we cleared that up, he told us that his single biggest mission would be to restore confidence in the District leadership. He would focus on quality teaching and closing the achievement gap, commitments Seattle has already made, but has gotten sidetracked from because of leadership turnover. Classroom teachers need to put action plans in place for all kids and he would expect them to identify at -risk kids, as well as kids who have moved beyond proficiency and are on the cusp of tackling advanced work, and develop interventions for all.
He said that “100 little things” make joyful, viable schools and it is important to find that sweet spot between centralized direction and building autonomy. Principals should be evaluated on many things, including the level of parent involvement at their schools.
Best quote: “Credit goes down, blame goes up.”
Day 3: Sandra Husk. More than one of us came up with the Goldilocks and the porridge analogy and one journalist even speculated that the candidates were deliberately presented in an order that would make Husk seem like the “just right” choice. (We also conceded that we met them alphabetically).
The most pro-teacher in her comments, Husk repeatedly stressed the importance of soliciting teacher input, and also cited using best educational practices nationwide as factors to consider in strategic planning. She was strong on specifics, but answered questions concisely, though in a targeted manner.
Like most educators, Husk favors “differentiated instruction” as a means of raising academic rigor, but says she supports professional development, practice, and feedback, so that teachers can successfully use this technique.
She alluded to her strengths in strategic planning as helping to regain the public trust. “People want to be confident that resources are being used to build a successful path for students so they exit the school system college and career- ready. The public will support you if you focus on the right outcomes and you make progress.”
Best quote: “The central office should be a support system, providing service to our staff. That’s why we’re here.”
For the record, it will come as no surprise that none of the candidates came out strongly for or against charter schools or Teach for America and all stressed that standardized tests were just one factor in measuring teacher and principal effectiveness. They all said the right things in different ways, and each had a style that was bound to resonate with somebody.
In the end, I don’t think any of us felt that we had enough quality time with the candidates to fully determine their suitability to run Seattle Public Schools. A quick meeting is alright for a first date, but is it enough for a long-term commitment?
However, given that the average tenure of an urban school superintendent is five years, maybe it’s time to stop looking for Mr/Ms. Right and to focus on Mr./Ms. Right-for-the-Moment.