Look Back, Look Ahead

By Ellen Foley, Robert Rothman, Judy Wurtzel, and Deanna Burney

Like many school districts, Boston in the 1980s and 1990s went through rapid transitions of leadership, and each new superintendent came in with a new idea, unrelated to what the district already had in place. As a result, the district lacked direction and made little improvement.

That pattern changed in 1995 when a newly appointed board took a close look at what the district needed in a superintendent and found one who had a long-term plan for improvement. When Thomas W. Payzant, who led the district for 11 years, retired as head of the 58,000-student Boston Public Schools, the last thing the board wanted was to return to policies of the past.

“We’re very clear with candidates: If you come in and tell us you want to reverse what we have, we’re not interested,” says Board President Elizabeth Reilinger, a long-time board member. “We’ve had candidates who say, ‘I think we should do this instead of that.’ That’s not appealing. They may be competent, but that’s not what we need.”

One way to avoid making the wrong choice is by commissioning what’s known as a transition case study -- a timely and focused look at where the district has been in the past decade and where it hopes to be going.

While this kind of study takes time, it improves how boards and communities search for a new leader. In the past, boards may have spent weeks or months conducting interviews, making reference checks, and organizing site visits -- all in an attempt to find the right superintendent. By starting with a case study that closely analyzes a district’s situation, the board can conduct a more focused search that, despite unforeseen roadblocks, results in a superintendent who better matches its needs.

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