Sina-cism: Worcester’s search for itself

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Worcester’s search for a new superintendent of schools isn’t really a search for a new superintendent of schools.

Chris Sinacola

Chris Sinacola

Sure, it looks like one. There are the usual debating points: Should the next superintendent be an insider or an outsider? Should a committee look nationwide, or just within the district? Should it seek out candidates who resemble the city’s diverse student population, whatever that means?

For now, the School Committee has decided upon an in-district search. That may change. But if the search process cannot be known, two things are certain: First, someone will be chosen. Second, some will applaud that choice while others will cry foul.

Supporters and detractors of the next superintendent will be fully convinced their perspective is the correct one. In this, they will resemble religious adherents certain they have a monopoly on truth, but whose claims are by any rational analysis mutually exclusive and irreconcilable.

But the real search taking place in Worcester isn’t about whether the next superintendent is from within the district or from elsewhere, is male or female, or happens to be nonwhite.

It simply cannot be true that the ZIP code, sex or race of the next superintendent constitutes proof of excellence for leading a system of 25,000 students.

Rather, the real search in Worcester is one for self-definition. The discordant din raised at School Committee meetings and public hearings, in the press, on social media and in the city’s diners, amounts to a collective expression of frustration that a city this good can and should be so much better, but isn’t.

That sense is captured in the January report “The Urgency of Excellence: Considerations for the School Committee and New Superintendent of Schools in Worcester,” issued by the Worcester Education Collaborative and The Research Bureau.

The groups point out that this is the perfect time to pause for a critical self-examination of WPS. The clear-eyed analysis and abundant statistics and graphics show that Worcester’s public schools are, on the whole, decent places to get an education – and outpace those in other so-called Gateway Cities – yet fail to perform to their potential.

See for yourself here.

Consider the report’s statement on Page 6: “The lack of sustained progress toward these goals [English, math, and science/technology] has meant that significant numbers of children residing in our city are not on course for mastering core skills in the elementary grades or for cultivating the skills and acquiring the knowledge essential for success in college and career.

“The implications of this for their futures and the future of our city are profound.”

Yes, there was an uptick in English and math MCAS results last year. But look back six years: The lines are essentially flat in all subject areas.

Dropout rates are down significantly, and the four- and five-year graduation rates are slightly higher. But warehousing young people isn’t the same as educating them.

“Many elementary school students move on to secondary school without achieving the base skills necessary for future learning,” the report declares. As to high school, it notes: “While WPS has modified its graduation requirements to better meet Massachusetts public college and university admission requirements, college enrollment continues to lag neighboring public school systems.”

None of this should obscure the successes. There are bright students and dedicated teachers throughout Worcester’s schools. The point is simply that the system could be much better, and produce more of them. After all, if Worcester were an educational paradise for all, there would be little point in such a report, or a critical self-examination.

The report does not say what qualities a superintendent should possess.

Rather: “In order to support the work of a new superintendent and accelerate the pace of district-wide improvement, the School Committee should work intentionally to develop a strategic vision to improve the district as well as each individual school.”

Sure, but such boilerplate is no match for politics, unions and entrenched constituencies more concerned about winning debates than promoting real change.

If the School Committee wants the city’s schools to fulfill their potential, they must hire the most talented leader available, someone with the courage, vision and energy to balance public constituencies, deal firmly and fairly with unions, and defy City Hall and the committee itself when necessary.

It should be obvious that a broad and serious search is more likely to locate such a leader. But geography matters less than this: The content of the next superintendent’s character should trump the color of his or her skin.

More from Chris Sinacola on schools and politics:

Sina-cism: A true common core for education

Sina-cism: Bernie — mostly wrong, but very sincere

Sina-cism: For toxicity antidote, see 1898

Or check out our Best of the Sun series from over the holidays

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