Monday, June 8, 2015

PA: The Big Bucks

Can you guess who the highest-paid educator in Pennsylvania is?

It's Abington School Superintendent Amy Sichel, who on July 1 will see her salary rise to a healthy $319,714. 

Sichel may or may not be worth it. Okay, no-- nobody's worth that kind of money. But Sichel is also not the standard issue shiny bump-and-run superintendent that we see in so many districts. She has spent her entire career in the Abington School District (north of Philly), and she has held the superintendent job for fifteen years (which is roughly 143 in superintendent years).

A profile from 2012, when Sichel was tapped to lead the AASA (the school superintendents association), included praise from the teachers' union and from the school board:

“Amy is a tough cookie and a strong personality. When she comes into the room, you know she’s there,” Debra Lee, president of the Abington Education Association, says. “She’s a no-nonsense person. She expects the most of everyone, but she also gives us the most. She is a wonderful leader, someone you want to follow.”

“She doesn’t beat around the bush with good news or bad news,” [Board President Raymond] McGarry adds. “She has no hidden agendas. She tells you what she expects in terms of behavior and achievement. I appreciate that. There is nothing worse than a leader with unclear goals.”

She has made some gutsy choices, like eliminating all but college-bound tracks. But I give her points for making her changes and then sticking around to see them through. This puts her in a different class than superintendents who make some program changes and stick around just long enough to add those changes to their resume.

Sichel actually testified before Congress about rauthorizing ESEA-- in 2011. In that testimony she made seven recommendations based on the secrets of her own success:

1) Use a standards based model driven by assessment
2) Use a growth model to measure success
3) Make the growth model variable by individual students
4) Base ESEA on realistic and attainable goals
5) Encourage programs based on research on what works
6) Look to districts that are succeeding
7) Put locus of control at state and local level

There are other secrets of her success that she didn't list. For instance, I'll bet dollars to donut holes that she has benefited from having been in the district her whole professional career, thereby knowing the people and the history of her school and community. Building relationships and knowing the territory take time; the average curriculum cowboy riding in on a suprintendency steed cannot easily or quickly master those aspects of the job any more than you can get the person you just met this morning to marry you by tonight.

Another secret is her district itself. Abington School District does have some free and reduced lunch students, but they also have a median family income around $70K (the state and the nation median family income both come in around $49K). The district handles a bit over 7K students and employs about 550 teachers. They have one high school, one junior high, and seven elementary schools. It strikes me as a nearly perfect size and configuration for a school district. It is the kind of district that tells a new superintendent, "We want, during your tenure, for this district to be highlighted on the local, state, and national level" and doesn't balk at doing one-to-one computing for a few thousand students.

In other words, it may well take a village to raise a successful superintendent. I have no doubt that Sichel leads well (I have seen what happens in districts that have all the tools but no actual leadership), but it's also clear that where she is has contributed to her success. Nor is shy about saying she's earned her salary which (remember, this is where we started) the highest in the state, and comes loaded with various performance and retention bonuses on top. It's a huge pile of taxpayer dollars, but the whole story underline how much that rich school districts can do that poor districts cannot

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