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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2014

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In Kids & Family Commentary

Begel: Let the people who know the most about educating kids run things: teachers and principals. (PHOTO: Bobby Tanzilo )

New superintendent won't work miracles


The Milwaukee Public Schools are about to begin a dance that is so stale it should probably be pulled off the shelf.

Superintendent Gregory Thornton is leaving MPS. And the school board, historically as petty, craven and dysfunctional a governmental board as I've ever seen, will do the "Find a New Chief Dance."

Now, I know that we've had a million ideas about how to fix the system and we're tired of all the talk. But if you check your tax bill, paying attention might be a good idea.

Here's how the dance will go.

First, they will spend thousands and thousands of dollars on a search firm that will give them a raft of recommendations. The firm mostly likely already has the names on file.

Board members may well hold a series of hearings so that "the public can tell us what they think is important in a new superintendent." They will hear from parents who have special needs children, parents who want more art and music, parents who think athletic programs need more attention and parents who think the whole school board should resign (the one group making the most sense).

The board will show up for these hearings but the members won't pay any more attention this time than they ever have.

Then they will go ahead and hire whoever comes in and kisses their butt enough so that he, or she, gets the job and life goes on.

There is one thing that the citizens of Milwaukee should know by now. Whoever gets the job as the superintendent will hardly matter. If you think that somebody is going to come in here and suddenly make the Milwaukee Public Schools much better, you are dreaming.

But the hiring will be greeted with glee by some and glumly by others.

I have been through three superintendent searches in my life. I have worked with some of the best superintendents this country has ever had. Rudy Crew, Tom Payzant and Bob Peterkin are held in universal esteem. I have helped train a new generation of superintendents at Harvard's Urban Superintendent Doctoral Program.

And the research is clear.

Although a superintendent can make people feel like things are getting better, the actual improvement is measured in micro-inches.

If the school board at MPS is really serious about things, it could actually set the pace for the rest of the country.

Don't hire a superintendent. Hire a business guy to run the business side of things. Let the people who know the most about educating kids run schools: teachers and principals.

Take the money you've got and divide it up. Each high school gets x amount of dollars. Each middle school gets y and each elementary school gets z.

Then the school figures out how it wants to spend it. Make it accountable for its own performance.

No rules from the central office. Nobody telling schools what to do. They make the decisions – principals and teachers. I can tell you one thing for sure. The people in those classrooms and buildings know more about how to educate children than all the people in the central office combined.

Two more things:

Every grade school has to spend enough money so there are two adults in every single kindergarten, first, second and third grade classroom.

And if there is one truth to education success, it is that early childhood education works.

Now, somebody pinch me and wake me from this dream.

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