Help wanted

Help wanted

The search for a state superintendent currently is on hold, but that hasn't delayed any talk about what Louisiana needs in its next education leader.

Wanted: A superintendent to bring Louisiana public schools above the national average so our children can compete globally.

Must have proven experience turning around failing schools, plus be familiar with educational reforms nationwide and a quick study on those instituted in Louisiana. Applicants requiring time to "get up to speed" need not apply.

The successful candidate will be an excellent communicator who can bridge recently strained relations with teachers, superintendents, unions, school boards, politicians, parents and other interest groups. Proven experience in navigating political landmines in the state Legislature is also a must.

Job responsibilities include a leadership role in implementing a constantly evolving accountability system and new value-added teacher assessments, competing in the third round of the Race to the Top, expanding literacy statewide, securing national foundation funding and an assortment of other duties. Classroom experience may or may not be required. Salary is negotiable, but could be controversial.

Apply to the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

What the state needs

That pretty much summarizes the qualifications being sought in the next state superintendent, to replace Paul Pastorek.

The Department of Education is in the midst of yet another wave of initiatives designed to improve academic performance: switching from graduate exit exams to end-of-course tests, implementing common core standards and putting together a value-added teacher assessment program, to name a few.

But the search for a leader to implement those reforms currently is on hold, until the legislative sessions ends and BESE can decide how the process will work. Deputy Superintendent Ollie Tyler is serving as acting superintendent until the board chooses to appoint an interim.

The selection of the next superintendent will be left to the new board that will be elected this fall and take office in January 2012, given that the existing members can't tie their successors to a contract.

"Because it would be very difficult for anyone to leave a job for a six-month contract, the board feels that it has time to put up a process and talk about what we will do next," says Glenny Lee Buquet of Houma. "That's as far as we've gotten. I don't expect anything to happen very soon."

But that hasn't postponed discussion about what Louisiana needs in its next education leader.

Most people agree on one issue: He or she must be a proven reformer who can implement measures designed to improve academic performance and also can get along well with others.

One of the chief criticisms of Pastorek was that while he was relentless and passionate about education reform, he failed to build alliances with teachers, administrators, school board members and other stakeholders who were often suspicious of his intentions.

"I want to see someone with a laser-like focus on results and improving student achievement in Louisiana to bring us above the national average so our kids can compete globally," Ascension Parish Superintendent Patrice Pujol says. "But I'd like to see someone who can accomplish that by working with all of the education community, because it's only by working together that we're going to be able to accomplish that kind of goal. We need someone who will push hard for excellence but at the same time work collaboratively to achieve those goals."

BESE President Penny Dastugue of Mandeville acknowledges that Pastorek's successor will have some work to do in mending broken relationships. She encountered some of those lingering ill feelings while testifying before legislators this session.

"It was as if some of the lawmakers still wanted to fight with Pastorek, but he wasn't there," she says. "I don't think all of the frustrations and issues created during his tenure will fall upon the new superintendent, but there are some issues and frustrations that will have to be dealt with. There's some carryover. There really is."

National or local?

One of the more divisive issues to emerge in preliminary discussions is whether candidates should be sought nationally or locally.

Gov. Bobby Jindal is said to be pushing for a national search for someone to maintain Louisiana's image as a reform state. But support is strong in some circles for a rising educator from within the state.

Also at issue is whether the next superintendent should be a certified educator. One of the lingering criticisms of Pastorek—a lawyer by profession—was that he had difficulty building trust with teachers and administrators because he wasn't a trained educator.

Several business entities from New Orleans and the Northshore, including Greater New Orleans Inc. and the Northshore Business Council, already have issued a statement saying they support Jindal's push, noting that Louisiana has emerged as a national leader in reform.

"Now is not the time to change direction or roll back the clock," the statement says. "Louisiana must continue to upgrade its K-12 education system if we are to have the workforce and quality of life that will keep and attract business and families, allowing Louisiana to thrive in the future."

Buquet, a former teacher, says it isn't necessary for a state superintendent to be a professional educator. All that's required, she says, is an understanding of what happens in the classroom.

But Livingston Parish Superintendent Bill Spears says perceptions remain that Pastorek's intent was to dismantle public education in favor of charter schools and privatization of public schools.

"All we ever heard about was how bad public education is in Louisiana," he says. "There are some very good schools out there."

Spears says it will take a superintendent certified in education and respected as an educator throughout the state to reconnect with districts and their leadership, to earn their trust and respect.

"A fellow educator is going to have a certain amount of respect coming into that office," he says.

Dastugue admits that a professional educator is more likely to secure what she calls "buy-in" from teachers and administrators. But she insists there exists a misconception that running the Department of Education is really nothing more than running a really large school district.

She notes the significant political side to the job. The state superintendent serves as a member of the governor's cabinet, and also has a leadership role and responsibility during legislative sessions to develop an educational agenda and get it worked through the Legislature.

"That takes a special kind of person, both to be a reformer and be successful and get the support of lawmakers," Dastugue says. "It's a tough task, and I don't think people really think about that."

In recent years, Louisiana has also become adept at attracting foundation support, an important accomplishment when one considers that K-12 education has received no new state funding for the past three years.

If that rainmaking is to continue, Dastugue says, Louisiana's next superintendent must be someone the foundations believe can be successful. That means a candidate with a national presence who has demonstrated success at the kinds of large-scale reforms in which the state is engaged.

"Louisiana is at a crossroads," Dastugue says. "We've had some hard-fought successes in creating more opportunities for children, and I don't think we're going to have the time nor the patience to let someone get up to speed. We're going to want someone who can step in, hit the ground running and continue our progress. We've got some big things coming down, and it's going to require some big leadership."

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