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The Search Begins For The Next 'CEO' Of Mass. Public Schools — No Teaching Experience Required

Members of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. (Courtesy of the department)MoreCloseclosemore
Members of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. (Courtesy of the department)

If you wanted to be Massachusetts’ next commissioner of elementary and secondary education but haven't gotten around to sending in your resume, you're out of luck.

The application deadline was last Friday, and the screening committee will begin its review Monday night.

The ideal candidate is a rare sort, anyway: someone with managerial expertise who also knows how to work a legislature. The hope is he or she will be “an agent for change” who's versed in data analytics — but also cares about children and learning.

The job opened up this August with the untimely death of Mitchell Chester. Chester had held the post since 2008, a tribute — colleagues say — to his pragmatic, kids-first approach to the job.

Mitchell Chester, Massachusetts' commissioner of elementary and secondary education, in 2015. (Peter Balonen-Rosen/WBUR)
Mitchell Chester, Massachusetts' commissioner of elementary and secondary education, in 2015. (Peter Balonen-Rosen/WBUR)

Given the job description assembled by the board alongside executive search firm Korn Ferry, the position is likely to attract applicants from a small national class of top education administrators to be what it calls the next "chief executive officer" of the state's public schools.

One thing a dream commissioner doesn’t need, specifically, is experience teaching in the classroom — or a doctorate (both things Chester and his predecessors had). "Bachelor degree required; advanced degree preferred,” reads the description.

Chester demonstrated during his tenure that the education commissioner wields a lot of power. He asserted state control over schools and entire districts like Lawrence and Holyoke he judged under-performing, supervised the development of a new standardized test and new curricular frameworks, and rebuilt the state's education bureaucracy.

So the job description's quasi-corporate language, and its omission of teaching time, has given some pause. For some education advocates, it conjures an efficiency-seeking boss, not an empathetic overseer of teachers and students.

On the morning that the board of education set the search into motion, Sydney Chaffee — the Codman Academy teacher named last year’s national “teacher of the year” — asked them to open their conversations up to practitioners from the field.

As that award's winner, Chaffee is taking a year off to visit classrooms across America and around the world. She told the board that rank-and-file educators have a lot to say that doesn't always make it to the higher-ups.

“There are so many teachers who have incredible ideas and don’t necessarily feel welcome at the tables where you sit,” Chaffee said in her presentation. “That may not be because of anything you’ve done. It’s just because there’s this sort of imbalance of power, this notion that you’re fundamentally different.”

That kind of imbalance can subsist in things like resumes. Chaffee said she hopes to be a voice for teachers as an advisory member of the commissioner-search committee, which first convened late last month. She added that she always "really admired" that Mitchell Chester had been a classroom teacher, and that he "could always bring it back to [that] experience."

Chaffee won't get to vote on the final candidate, but she thinks she can help guide the search.

"What I'm really looking for is someone who knows how to listen," she added. (The description, too, calls for someone who can "listen thoughtfully" and "be a champion of our educators.")

Barbara Madeloni, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, is less optimistic.

Madeloni said she was called in one afternoon to relay her own hopes for the next commissioner to Korn Ferry. The job description, she recalls, dropped the next afternoon — without incorporating her advice.

She'd like Chester's successor to be open-minded enough to consider alternatives to high-stakes tests when it comes to judging the success of schools, like those being attempted in several Massachusetts towns.

She said she wants someone who'll take seriously socioeconomic and fiscal barriers to educational excellence, and someone who would eschew state receivership when it came to dealing with struggling schools.

“But I have no confidence that that’s what we’ll get," she concluded. She points to the board's Nov. 28 agenda, when Chaffee's impassioned speech was followed by an update on continued state control of the Lawrence school district.

Jim Stergios, executive director of the right-leaning Pioneer Institute, is on the other end of the spectrum from Madeloni in terms of education politics. He applauds the progress Lawrence has made under receivership, for example. But he had his own issues with Chester: his perceived preference for the PARCC test and the Common Core curriculum, as well as some limits he placed on charter school expansion in urban districts.

He said he hopes Chester's successor will think big when it comes to urban education and reintroduce a regular test on American history, which he said is more necessary than ever in the time of President Trump.

But Stergios aligns with Madeloni on some issues, too. He and others at the Pioneer Institute have been arguing for an end to yearly testing, which "does, from our perspective, impact teaching schedules a little too much."

In short, there are a lot of competing hopes for the next commissioner and his or her agenda for Massachusetts schools. For now, Paul Sagan, the chairman of the state’s board of education, warns against putting too much stock in the job description. The board, he said, had its reasons for leaving it a bit vague.

“We wanted to write a rich job description that would get great candidates, but wasn’t so specific that it might just eliminate people that we’d — at least in the beginning -- want to meet,” Sagan said.

“My guess is that whoever we ultimately select will be somebody who has demonstrated care for what happens in great schools” over the course of his or her lifetime, Sagan added.

"We wanted to write a rich job description that would get great candidates, but wasn’t so specific that it might just eliminate people that we’d — at least in the beginning — want to meet."

Paul Sagan, chairman of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education

The next commissioner will assume control of what are considered great schools. Massachusetts students still place first in reading and math on a national benchmark exam, boast America’s best Advanced Placement scores, and have seen their four-year graduation rate climb for 10 years running.

He or she will also earn a handsome salary. The job description promises “competitive” compensation “commensurate with … experience." In the year of his death, Chester was slated to earn more than $238,000.

To Sagan, the money is worth it. “It’s a really hard job," he said. "This person has to be a master of many different skills and domains.”

And whoever gets the job will take over in a time of transition.

The state began a staggered roll-out of the "next-generation MCAS" just last spring; the state's accountability system was put on a one-year pause while that happens. Classroom teaching will be redrawn according to new curricular frameworks. And tax changes at the state and federal level could leave school budgets in a state of flux for the foreseeable future.

The Korn Ferry job description insists the next commissioner will, like Massachusetts students, be held to high standards — improving early-grade literacy and middle-grade math across the state, closing the persistent gaps that hold back minority students, and providing “high-quality career pathways for our high school students.”

Former Secretary of Education Paul Reville, who presided over the selection of Chester, said that given those challenges, the board is right to keep an open mind as they search. He did the same thing back in 2008 — and indeed, a draft job description from that search substantially resembles this one.

That said, Reville's not surprised if the current board winds up looking at candidates who have risen well above the classroom: "The state level of education is not the district level. That's just structurally the case."

He recalled that the past three commissioners of education all began their careers as teachers. Then each climbed the ladder, obtaining advanced degrees and becoming district superintendents.

"There's a general prototype of people who come forward and have the qualifications," he said.

With the benefit of hindsight, Reville believes the position could call for a professional administrator with a mandate to start anew the work of education reform. He has written of a growing "disillusionment" with the test-centric, accountability-driven movement that Massachusetts pioneered in 1993.

"Those strategies have been tried, and the results have been modest," Reville said.

Meanwhile, he said, controversies over testing and the Common Core have sown division among the old coalition of educators, politicians and business leaders. And Reville believes that teachers and unions have sometimes failed to articulate their own visions of how to expand quality education in the state.

Reville wants the next commissioner to forge a new consensus like the one the state arrived at in 1993 — someone who can "rally people around a new vision of where Massachusetts goes from here."

"There are lots of voices," Reville added, "and you've got to get support from all these constituencies."

So he hopes the board finds a bridge-builder, someone imaginative who can listen —  and lead — among a fractious coalition that might include Republican and Democratic politicians, well-heeled suburbs and flinty "Gateway Cities," and both Madeloni and Stergios.

The search for that person begins Monday night in Malden, at a three-hour, mostly closed meeting of the screening committee on which Sagan and Chaffee sit.

Sagan said that the board of education is in good hands under acting commissioner Jeff Wulfson. But he's optimistic the board will choose a full-time replacement by its soft midwinter deadline, with the next commissioner sure to take office in time for the 2018-19 school year.

“It’s a really attractive position,” Sagan said. Then he added: “But we’re gonna be really careful."

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Max Larkin Twitter Reporter
Max Larkin is a multimedia reporter for Edify, WBUR's education vertical.

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