Kentucky voices: Superintendent evaluations must include student performance

Kentucky's two largest school districts soon will have new superintendents. In November, the Jefferson County Public Schools board voted not to renew the contract of Sheldon Berman, whose tenure has been marred by a controversial student-assignment plan to ensure classroom diversity but which has caused uproar in the community and loss of board support.

Efforts by the local teachers' union to force the JCPS board to reconsider its decision have been hampered by the fact that in each of the past two years, Berman's district had six of the 10 Kentucky schools with the lowest reading and math scores.

More recently, Stu Silberman, Fayette County Schools superintendent, announced his retirement.

While Silberman's departure was not forced by the board, his tenure has seen its share of management controversy and academic underperformance.

His questionable treatment of Peggy Petrilli, a former "Principal of the Year" whom the district accused of poor management and cheating on test scores, plus his determination to get rid of former district counsel Brenda Allen, who got an uncontested $200,000 settlement, should certainly concern the community.

While Silberman's supporters have grounds to disagree with me on my assessment of such controversial decisions, they face a much more difficult assignment if they wish to counter the district's uninspiring academic performance:

■ According to Kentucky's 2010 No Child Left Behind report, the Fayette school district failed to make adequate yearly progress in key academic areas for eight consecutive years.

■ Fifteen individual schools, including all of Fayette's high schools, failed to make adequate progress. Only the Jefferson County school district had more schools failing to meet even basic academic goals.

■ Between 2008 and 2010, the district's performance on ACT Benchmark Scores, which indicate college and career readiness, declined in every subject — including dramatic declines in math and science. Fewer than half of the district's high-school juniors reached the ACT Benchmark in reading, while little more than a third reached the goal in math and only 26 percent in science.

Credible research shows students who score at or above ACT Benchmarks have a 75 percent chance of earning a C and a 50 percent chance of earning a B in their first related college course.

Considering that nearly four out of every 10 entering freshmen in Kentucky's colleges and universities must take remedial courses, it seems like the failure of so many 11th graders to reach the mark in Kentucky's second-largest school district should be at least a factor in determining Silberman's legacy.

That might be too difficult for Silberman's fans who are too busy issuing warm fuzzies to consider academic underperformance. But can we at least agree that the primary responsibility of a school district and its leader is to ensure students are adequately prepared to face the rigors of the 21st century global marketplace?

Shouldn't the process used by local school boards to evaluate superintendents include goals and specific metrics to ensure schools — especially those in struggling districts — move toward demonstrable improvement?

Instead, Silberman's success was defined by the programs he set in motion and the way he managed the budget — not whether those programs and the money spurred student achievement.

But this isn't just Fayette County's problem. "Rewarding Failure: The Rubber-Stamping of Kentucky Superintendent Evaluations," an open-records project conducted by the Bluegrass Institute, found a pervasive pattern of deficiency in superintendent evaluations across Kentucky.

Common problems include no mention of goals, metrics or individual schools' performance. Instead, rave reviews of superintendents often are based on fluff. Sometimes, reviewers even offer excuses for failure to make academic progress instead of holding these leaders accountable.

For instance, prior to voting not to renew Berman's contract, the Jefferson County school board's evaluation praised him for being an "engaging public speaker," for managing budgets well and for his ability to get along with the unions.

However, no reference was made to the fact that the district was identified by the Kentucky Department of Education as being one of the 13 "persistently low-performing school districts" with 41 of its 132 schools serving thousands of children failing to achieve adequate yearly process.

Neither were there detailed, measurable goals and plans by which to hold the district's top leader — who will cash more than $200,000 worth of taxpayer-funded paychecks this year (as will Silberman) — accountable for future performances.

CEOs in the private sector are held accountable for their performance —with pay increases and even jobs at stake. We should expect no less from those entrusted with making decisions that determine the future success or failure of the group that should get the biggest "warm fuzzies" of all: our children.