March 9 is the deadline to apply for Superintendent of the Dallas school district. Commentator Jennifer Nagorka attended a recent community engagement meeting that got her thinking about what she wanted in DISD’s next leader.
It was an odd juxtaposition of events: One night, I attended a community meeting at Sunset High School in Oak Cliff. Our DISD trustee had wanted parents active in local schools to describe what they desired in a new superintendent.
The next night, I listened to author Paula Broadwell talk about the subject of her recent book, General David Petraeus. I drove home from that event thinking, I want General Petraeus to be our new superintendent.
Well, it’s not that I really want him – or any other general, admiral or commandant – to take over our struggling but far from hopeless school district. We just need someone who is a strategic leader in the Petraeus mode. It’s time for a surge in public education.
According to Paula Broadwell, General Petraeus’ vision of strategic leadership has four components:
First: Get the big ideas right.
Second: Communicate them relentlessly.
Third: Execute the big ideas.
Fourth: Figure out what you’ve learned – identify best practices -- and funnel that knowledge back into the system to help refine the big ideas.
That seems like a pretty good recipe for running a major urban school district. You can imagine what the big ideas, which school trustees and the superintendent would develop together, might look like:
*Every high school graduate is prepared for college, trade school or skilled employment.
*A high percentage – maybe 95 percent – of 9thgraders will graduate from high school.
*We will recruit, develop and retain effective, dedicated teachers and release teachers who do not meet those standards.
*We will use data and research to drive improvement.
*We will involve parents and anyone else who can help us meet these goals.
It will take an intense, almost tireless person to implement those ideas. I’m not sure the formal job profile on the DISD website will get us there. It lists too many required skills and qualities to be realistic or useful. The candidate profile says DISD wants an “inclusive leader” and a “collaborative leader” and an “instructional leader” who “puts children first” and also is a “model of transparency and honesty” who “embraces processes that welcome dissenting opinions”.
What? There’s nothing wrong with a leader who is inclusive and collaborative, but those terms have a way of dispersing responsibility and authority. I want a superintendent who’s “all in,” who has Petraeus’ fierce focus and vision and stamina and intellect.
Unlike a general at war, the enemies of a good superintendent – political infighting, inertia, apathy, low expectations – are mostly intangible. The cost of defeat isn’t physical death or injury, but a child’s unfulfilled potential at some point in the future. We all know education’s important, but it doesn’t provoke the same unity of purpose and will to fight as an IED exploding nearby.
Ms. Broadwell noted one more dictum of Petraeus’ approach – in the absence of orders, soldiers should be able to figure out what the orders should be and execute. If we get the big ideas right in DISD, and the new superintendent communicates them well, we will have fewer fiascos like the recent, expensive jaunt to the movies for 5thgrade boys. Principals and teachers might feel freer to experiment. And more kids will be walking across the stage at high school graduation.
Jennifer Nagorka is a writer from Dallas.