Reporters and residents flocked by the thousands to events with the superintendent candidates last week. Image by Michael Zaia.
Repeat after us: Very few Boston media outlets care about children. They say they do, and may even haul cameras down to the occasional elementary school band practice to show five o’clock news viewers the success of token programs. But while some crews make it out in extreme cases, like when students at Madison Park High School started fall semester without schedules, they still don’t really give a damn. Got that?
If editors did care, then they would have covered last week’s final stretch of the Boston Public Schools superintendent selection process like they track the Red Sox. Or the snow. Or any number of other inane stories that are irrelevant to BPS leadership. Instead, coverage was limited to roundups (“Learn more about Boston Public Schools superintendent finalists,” via Wicked Local), and takedowns zooming in on dirt staining the candidates’ backgrounds.
Not to discount the reporting that was done. Analyses offered critical perspective and context, starting with a must-read overview compendium by WGBH News. One important revelation by Peter Kadzis (a former colleague of mine at the Boston Phoenix): “Among educational professionals in the foundations and graduate schools that furnish ideas and personnel to the Boston Public Schools, there is a general feeling of let down. Few see the four-man field of candidates as outstanding.” Moving to the left, education blogger Jennifer Berkshire (aka EduShyster) brought even more pain, and smacked around most of the hopefuls for their unique flaws.
Predicting a general lack of interest, I engaged the hour that the media was generously allotted with each candidate. Being one of four reporters total over four days who attended those meetings, I took the opportunity to get up close and skeptical, and to pitch some questions near and dear to my bleeding heart. First up, and I’m paraphrasing here: How the hell are you going to get some computers for these students?
Guadalupe Guerrero has answers. As the deputy superintendent of instruction, innovation, and social justice for the San Francisco Unified School District, he’s teamed up with a number of community partners, and he’s done so without surrendering the farm to venture capitalists who are suddenly pedagogical scholars. There’s been a minor stink made over the past couple of days about whether Guerrero stopped seeking his doctorate at Harvard voluntarily, but what’s more important in my estimation is his proven commitment to public schools (as opposed to charter schools). Guerrero strikes me a leader who is brave enough to stand up to the many vultures circling, and who has experience getting startup millionaires to pitch in more than tokens, as is the current tragedy around here.
The superintendent of public schools in Richmond, Virginia, Dana Bedden, seems to be a comparably promising choice. With a strict sense of discipline that stems from a background in the military before his call to the classroom, Bedden clearly hits his stride when operating atop an organized chain of command. That may not currently exist in BPS, but given the right blueprint he seems capable of delegating power efficiently and initiating proactive measures. Bedden has also stood up to Tea Party maniacs over imagined pro-Islam biases in textbooks, instituted enviable vocational tech programs, and like Guerrero, speaks openly about wanting to collaborate with regional stakeholders, but not with corporations that want to dictate policy.
Of the four finalists, Tommy Chang, an instructional superintendent in the Los Angeles Unified School District, is the only one I was unable to meet. Even if the MBTA hadn’t failed me on the morning of his scheduled media interview though, chances are it would have been a bigger waste of time for me than waiting on the Red Line platform for an hour. Chang is a product of the charter ethos, as well as a likely bridge to untold outside influences. I would have been happy to figure this all out up close rather than by watching him on video, but I’m no less confident in saying that while some systems may need a severe overhaul, Boston needs a super who will mind the store rather than bulldoze it. Which brings me to the most controversial candidate of all …
Having served in Illinois and Nevada, both of which have been plagued with remarkable failure that gave way to wholesale charter opportunism, Pedro Martinez may be too comfortable swimming with unsavory ed reformers. At the same time, the former Nevada district superintendent appears willing to hold charter players accountable, and also deserves at least some points for shocking crowds during his visit with lines like: “There is no excuse for a district of this size to not perform better.” It’s ridiculous to bring too many metrics into a conversation about four educators and the dozen-or-so districts in which they have collectively worked; every place and situation is different, and test scores are easy to cherry pick. With that said, Martinez has an impressive track record of increasing computer access and retention rates on budgets that make BPS look flush. The guy likes a challenge, and one certainly awaits him in the Hub.
Thinking back on my interviews with three of the four remaining applicants, I may have learned more about BPS than I learned about the candidates. Morale is low, way low, and the truth is that any of them are probably capable of forging progress on that front. Nevertheless, the time and effort lost under the ineffective leadership of placeholder chief John McDonough could take years to make up, and so I thank the city in earnest for the chance to be assured in person that whomever’s chosen by the school board tomorrow, perhaps with one exception, is up to the task. If I had to rely on the media like most people, I’d probably be soiling my pants right now.