Mayors Appointing Non-Educator Managers as Superintendents, Part 1

Many readers probably never heard of Benjamin Demps, Jr.

He is the son of a laborer who grew up in Manhattan and joined the Air Force after high school in 1951. He eventually worked as an air traffic controller becoming a manager of operations. As a married man with two daughters, he returned to school and got a bachelor’s degree at the age of 32 and a law degree at the age of 48. He served as a high-ranking federal civil aviation official for six years. After leaving the FAA, he served as Oklahoma’s secretary of health and human services. In 1999, he was appointed superintendent of the Kansas City (MO) public schools and walked into a firestorm of criticism about failing city schools.

“Some people are skeptical because I’m not from Kansas City…. Who is this guy? [ they ask. He had never been a teacher or principal].” Mr. Demps acknowledges that criticism but said his role was to lead the professionals, not do their job. “Does the general necessarily know how to drive the tank? Maybe not. But he knows how to lead the troops.” Mr. Demps left the superintendency in 2001.

Hiring non-educators like Benjamin Demps as superintendents has made national headlines. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg just appointed Cathie Black, corporate executive for Hearst Magazines as the first female Chancellor of the city schools. Black has no public school experience. Demps, Black, and more than a dozen other lawyers, corporate leaders, and ex-generals have served large urban districts across the nation. Appointing non-educators has been part of a larger multi-pronged strategy aimed at changing urban governance and leadership to improve teaching and learning in every classroom.

By school governance reform, I mean changing how major decisions are made and who has the primary authority to make them. First, a look at governance reform and then in the next post, I turn to non-educators as superintendents and the questions that arise about such leaders.


Over a century ago, a national reform movement swept across the public schools and got rid of large boards of education, politically appointed staff. Reformers divorced politics from education and created the civic-minded school boards and professional superintendents that ran urban district for the rest of the century.

In the late-1960s, the civil rights movements turned its attention to big cities and leaders called for decentralizing school board authority and community control of schools. Creating smaller organizational units where professionals make key decisions, such as 30 community districts in New York City or 8 area superintendencies in Detroit or having parents run a school occurred in many cities across the nation as part of these governance reforms.

By the late 1980s and early 1990s, those decentralizing reforms had run their course. Governors, legislatures, and state superintendents, under pressure to do something about low student scores on national and international tests, began centralizing curriculum standards, funding, and testing. State officials made major educational decisions, funded district budgets, and held cities and suburbs accountable for results. Yet even amid these centralization trends, states also encouraged parents and teachers to start new public schools through charter school legislation. Illinois empowered the Chicago school board to have each school site hire and fire principals between 1988-1995 and then gave that authority to the mayor. Thus, over the past century, there has been a shuttling back and forth between centralized and decentralized school governance reforms.

In the late-1990s, after almost two decades of non-stop criticism of urban school boards’ failure to improve schools, reduce dropouts, and raise students’ academic achievement and amid a record run of economic prosperity, many big-city mayors hit on a number of approaches to improve cities by making them attractive to business and young families. Public officials expressed hope that urban school districts just might be able to turn the corner in raising academic achievement and reducing the gap between minority and white scores on standardized tests by using one or more of these newly crafted governance strategies.

a. Mayoral control of schools (Chicago, Boston, New York City, Cleveland)

b. Corporate-led coalitions working closely with school boards and superintendents to adopt particular reforms (San Diego, Seattle, Pittsburgh)

c. Non-educators chosen to lead districts (Chicago, SanDiego, New York City, Seattle,etc.)

These reform strategies, of course, are not mutually exclusive. Some urban districts have forged combinations of these strategies.

Urban school governance reform became the newest new thing to improve failing schools. But questions remain. The next post takes up those questions.



Filed under leadership, Reforming schools

5 responses to “Mayors Appointing Non-Educator Managers as Superintendents, Part 1

  1. Larry, nice and concise. I love it. I am going to share it with my followers and my company. Thank you so much for your work.

  2. rjw

    Governance of public schools has been an interest of mine for some time and a focus of my dissertation. Few realize the ultra-political nature of public education though the politics of its elected officials. Many times, it is politics, not deeds or misdeeds that force superintendents out of their current positions. For example, Michelle Rhee, the former Washington DC Superintendent/Chancellor didn’t lose her job because she was ineffective. She lost her job because her boss, the mayor lost an election. Whether or not the superintendent is selected by a mayor or a school board, school Districts are political entities and like all democratic entities, designed to change slowly. Until the structure of governance and the responsibility of those who are elected to govern are reformed, true school reform will continue to be sidetracked by the political process and those determined to maintain the status quo through elections.

  3. rjw makes some good points. I work with school boards, trying to help them understand what effective leadership looks like in today’s changing world. And I would say they have much to learn.

    As do the professional leaders in public education. A number of groups in the state of Wisconsin have developed transformation plans. All of them contain exciting possibilities for change, rooted in experiential learning that uses technology to restructure time. And there is little recognition that this work requires support of the public, difficult as that may be to garner.

    Personally, I would love to see them succeed. I am concerned that they won’t, and what will happen if they don’t. Why? Because we have been down this road before. John Dewey and progressives in the 1930s and 1960s have tried to bring experiential learning into the school system. In spite of their best efforts, public education remains rooted in the industrial ideas of the late nineteenth century.

    The pull of the status quo is very strong, partly because of the political system rjw described. And it is because we do not have leaders who understand how to create the context for change. It is less about the technical skills of the leaders and more about the communication skills they possess (or don’t); what Ronald Heifitz calls adaptive leadership. Today’s successful leaders understand change and how to create contexts for change.

    The leaders described in this post did not have the adaptive skills needed to lead successfully. Case in point: Michelle Rhee had technical skilland a strong personality that she used to garner power to push through some significant changes. Now that she is gone it will be interesting to see if those changes stick, or if once again, we are seeing a case where change is more symbolic than systemic.

    Systemic change requires adaptive leadership. It is clear that Demp and Black do not possess the technical skill, Rhee did and it was not enough; the bigger question is this: How do they rank on adaptive leadership?

    • larrycuban

      Rjw makes the point clearly that school districts (and schools) are political instruments–“entities” is the word rjw uses. Leaders, therefore, as part of their duties have to think and act politically (not in a partisan way but in terms of mobilizing others to action, building coalitions in and out of the system, etc.). Rhee was naive politically although she had many technical skills. Your call for “adaptive leadership,” I thought should have been a call for district leaders to think and act politically. I wonder if that is what you meant.

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