“Great” Superintendents?

Judging the greatness of superintendents has gone on for decades. Longevity is usually trotted out as the gold standard for being a “good,” “effective,” or “great” superintendent. How long did the superintendent serve? Superintendent-watchers usually dismiss school chiefs who served less than five years as wannabe “great” ones. Between five to ten years, well, perhaps, they can be considered. Serving more than a decade? Then, clearly a candidate.

Why is time such an important factor in judging “greatness?” Every district superintendent is hired to accomplish one or more key tasks defined by the school board or mayor that appoints the eager candidate. Those tasks may be to sustain a successful system, improve a middling one, or resuscitate a collapsed district. As most often happens in the latter case when a school board expects their school chief to turn around a failing district, the newly appointed superintendent even a veteran such as Rudy Crew in Miami-Dade County— disappoints supporters mostly through piling up enemies after tough decisions, budget retrenchment, and political slips with the school board, teachers, or community (or all three).

After serving in Chicago and Philadelphia before taking up the top post in New Orleans, Paul Vallas put the saga of urban superintendents in stark, if not humorous, terms:

“What happens with turnaround superintendents is that the first two years you’re a demolitions expert. By the third year, if you get improvements, do school construction, and test scores go up, people start to think this isn’t so hard. By year four, people start to think you’re getting way too much credit. By year five, you’re chopped liver.”

That has occurred enough times in the last four decades to account for urban school chiefs’ tenure being just over five years.Longevity and the degree of success (as perceived by those who hire and fire superintendents) in accomplishing critical tasks surely become standards to judge “greatness.” But there are other criteria.

As with principals who have to juggle multiple roles in their posts (instructional, managerial, and political), another criterion has recently entered the equation in judging a superintendent’s “goodness.” Has he or she raised student test scores, improved graduation rates, and prepared students to enter college and career?

As with teachers and principals, this standard in determining whether the superintendent is “good” comes from the past quarter-century of the testing and accountability movement launched in the mid-1970s when states turned to annual testing and publishing school-by-school scores. The Nation at Risk report (1983) added muscle and No Child Left Behind put the movement on steroids. Champions and opponents of the current school board or mayor trumpet loudly annual gains and dips in test scores as evidence of success or failure for the current school chief. One has to read no further than articles on any sitting superintendent to get the picture.

Because the political role superintendents have to perform is more intense than the politicking teachers and principals have to do, beginning in the 1970s, superintendent careers have surged and some have crashed on the basis of student outcomes. Even though stability in test scores is statistically suspect, clauses paying superintendents annual bonuses for gains in student achievement began to appear in the 1980s, accelerated in the 1990s, and is now a fixture in urban superintendents’ contracts.

So here we have three practical measures of superintendent “greatness:” Longevity, achievement of key tasks, and improved overall student outcomes.

Some current and recent superintendents have met these standards: Carl Cohn, Long Beach (CA), Tom Payzant in Boston, Laura Schwalm, Garden Grove (CA), and Pat Forgione in Austin.

But here’s the rub. Being a “great” teacher, principal, or superintendent in one place at a particular time does not easily transfer to another setting at another time. Being satisfactory or even inadequate in one classroom, school, or district may become “greatness” elsewhere. Context, for example, trumped greatness for Carl Cohn after Long Beach and for Tom Payzant in San Diego before Boston. “Great” superintendents in the 1920s during the height of progressive education would hardly earn the label by today’s standards.

So there are standards–shaped by the setting and times–used to judge “great” superintendents, principals, and teachers. Except for longevity.

In a world where fast, fast, fast dominates daily life, where an ever-shifting economy put a premium on moving from one job to another, where staying in one position for ten-plus years is often seen as a negative—(Teach for America novices sign up for two years), the gains in expertise and wisdom that come to certain reflective veteran teachers, principals, and superintendents in working their magic are seldom appreciated or encouraged. Both context and longevity may not be sufficient conditions for “greatness,” but they are surely necessary ones.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to ““Great” Superintendents?

  1. Bob Calder

    If the job were unique, your observation might rate as worthwhile.

    Look at municipal managers.

    Longevity correlates with city size and city council stability. Not ability.

    • larrycuban

      Dear Bob,
      Your comment got me to look at an article on city managers (“Long-Serving City Managers: Why Do They Stay?” Douglas J. Watson and Wendy L. Hassett, Public Administration Review, Vol. 63, No. 1 (Jan. – Feb., 2003), pp. 71-78). The researchers who surveyed the city managers pointed out that their tenure was nearly seven years (urban superintendents are around five years) and long-serving ones (at least 20 years) served in small cities (30,000 population) that were largely homogeneous. Longevity among “great” superintendents is a decade or more and that service is in large cities with culturally diverse populations. Strikes me that there are substantial differences between superintendents and city managers in longevity and city size.

  2. Bob Calder

    Argh! You’re right. There must be other factors at work. Maybe we need at terms of employment?

    I have been told City managers have portable retirement plans because they move so often.

    I’m still leery of using the word “great” in any kind of measurement.

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