Qualifying Chancellor Qualifications

In addition to this letter signed by every ward education council, asking the mayor to keep in mind important qualifications for the next DCPS chancellor, the Washington Teachers’ Union (WTU) recently put out a survey to members, and parents, asking for feedback on the importance (or lack thereof) of qualifications and experiences in/of a new chancellor.

This is important stuff.

The letter, for instance, lists five characteristics and qualifications of the next chancellor as vital to our by right school system:

–“Experience as a professional educator and administrator.”
–“Tenacity in advocating for current and future DCPS families.”
–“Commitment to healthy and productive relationships with principals, teachers, communities, parents and students.”
–“Management skills encompassing core school business functions.”
–“Demonstrated support for a well-rounded education for every student.”

The WTU survey asks participants to rank the importance (or lack thereof) of the following:

–“Experience leading an urban school district.”
–“Experience working in schools with children from low-income communities.”
–“Experience in educational programming and curriculum for all grade levels.”
–“Track record of effective district level strategic plans and implementation.”
–“Command of the use of data in evaluation and accountability.”
–“Proven experience improving a low-performing school as a school-level administrator.”
–“Experience managing the business and fiscal operations of a large public agency.”
–“Record of fair and positive dealings with unions in collective bargaining and contract enforcement.”
–“Knowledge and appreciation for the importance of school facilities maintenance.”
–“Commitment to developing collaborative relationships among central office staff, principals, teachers, parents and students.”
–“A philosophy of teacher support and training as the most important means to high quality teaching.”

As a taxpayer and parent, I absolutely want a chancellor with all of those qualifications and characteristics. They are vital to a by right school system being able to thrive and meet the needs of students.

But then there pops up this nagging thought:

Why does anyone even have to say any of this?

For sure, the mayor is busy and has lots to oversee; making these points easily accessible is only to the good.

Yet, in every piece of paper and email from the chancellor and other DC public officials that has come to me, a DCPS parent for more than a decade, I have been shown only the best of that school system: higher test scores, more students, new prizes and awards. Even bad news–say, low test scores, a scandal–is transformed into opportunity and the possibility of change for the better.

Now I get that spin: In our local bastion of school choice, where parents must make important decisions annually about their children’s schools (sometimes on the basis of inaccurately reported test scores and do or die metrics, resulting in disruptive school closures), it is vital to tout positive news.

But there is a yawning gulf between that casting of a happy reality and what many people invested in our schools are experiencing (and testifying about). And it’s precisely that gulf that moves us to remind the mayor to select a chancellor with “tenacity in advocating for current and future DCPS families” or a “knowledge and appreciation for the importance of school facilities maintenance,” even when logic and reason dictate that these qualifications are, well, self-evident.

After all, who wants a chancellor who would NOT advocate for current and future families in DCPS? Who wants a chancellor lacking knowledge of school facilities?

However desirable these qualities are, however, they are being articulated precisely because there is that yawning gulf.

Or to be more specific:

At no point in the sad saga of the physical plant of my kids’ DCPS elementary school did I see anyone from DCPS central office testify before the council, or send angry missives to the mayor, about the fact that the students had classes in the hallways because of HVAC failures.

(Or had to be evacuated because of gas leaks caused by infrastructure way past its useful life.)

At no point did I see the chancellor or anyone from her office intervene when my son’s middle school baseball team played other DCPS middle school teams without experienced coaches or adequate practice, such that those teams were quickly mercied out, much to the chagrin of all the kids, who only wanted to play a game.

(Imagine that: kids just wanting to play a game!)

And at no point did the chancellor or anyone from her office intervene when my middle school’s budget was slashed brutally and unexpectedly because of projected enrollment shortfalls. Beloved teachers laid off have never returned.

To be sure, some of these issues are resolved now.

But not, as far as I know, because of anyone in DCPS central acting with–to pick just two of the many necessary qualifications listed above–“tenacity in advocating for current and future DCPS families” or “knowledge and appreciation for the importance of school facilities maintenance.”

I can only wonder how different DCPS would be if we had had chancellors with all those qualifications and, more importantly, a willingness to act on them.

Because, in the end, this chancellor search isn’t really about qualifications, is it?

Rather, it’s about the possibility of a chancellor seeing the same landscape as most people in DCPS already do, as shown by those similarly oriented lists of qualifications above–and then working to make DCPS better, with “better” defined not by a committee or public officials or test scores, but by the actual users of the system: teachers, parents, students, staff.

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