CEOs, Ex-military, and Lawyers Heading School Districts, Part 2

This photo is of Lt. General Julius W. Becton,...

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Many questions accompany the current reform effort for mayors and urban districts to hire non-educators. Here are a few.

1. Where do non-educator superintendents serve?

Lawyers Harold Levy and Joel Klein served as Chancellors in New York City. Publishing executive Cathie Black just replaced Klein. Paul Vallas, former budget chief for Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, headed those schools. Colorado governor Roy Romer went to Los Angeles. Generals John Stanford in Seattle and Julius Becton in Washington, D.C. confirm that nearly all non-educator superintendents serve in big cities. Few small town, suburban, or rural districts have sought non-educator superintendents.

2. Why has selecting non-educators become a strategy for improving teaching and learning in urban districts?

Beginning in the mid-1970s, the decline of U.S. workplace productivity, rising unemployment, losses in market share to Japan and Germany, and swift technological changes led corporate and civic leaders to locate reasons for poor economic performance. Within a few years, these policy elites “educationalized” the problem by pointing to low SAT test scores and high school graduates unprepared for the workplace. Schools got blamed for U.S. slipping competitiveness.

What glued together this alliance of public officials, corporate leaders, and foundation officials were key, but often unstated, assumptions. They assumed that:

* Excessive district bureaucracy, union contracts, and lack of accountability had lowered academic standards (particularly in math and science), undermined rigorous teaching, and produced students mismatched to the skill demands of an information-based workplace.

*Better management, high academic standards, increased competition among schools for students, and clear incentives (e.g., pay-for-performance) and penalties (e.g., firing ineffective teachers who fail to raise students’ test scores) would end the mismatch and improve teaching and learning.

* The best measures of improved teaching and learning were higher test scores

* Expanded parental choice (e.g., charters) would create more innovative urban schools and drive out failing ones.

These assumptions added up to a market-based prescription for all public schools (not just urban ones). Since the late 1990s, Presidents and governors from both political parties have moved swiftly to establish curricular standards, impose tests, and hold teachers and administrators responsible for student outcomes.

This business-driven rationale has become the basis for picking urban district leaders. And the lingo: superintendents and principals became CEOs. The theory assumes that big companies are just like school systems but that corporate leaders are better managers than educators. If you climbed the educator career ladder, the theory goes, your prior experiences unfit you to manage thousands of employees, oversee multi-million dollar budgets or make hard decisions. You simply lack the managerial toughness of leaders who had to meet an unrelenting bottom line. If you were a corporate attorney for CitiCorp, you can run the district and improve student achievement.

4. How are non-educators superintendents supposed to improve teaching and learning?

Knowing the three core duties that every superintendent must perform in heading a district will help answer the question.

*Instructional (initiate classroom improvements; oversee their implementation and assessment; develop staff capacities to assess, revise, and continue improvements).

*Managerial (oversee budgets, make personnel decisions, supervise and evaluate staff, secure resources)

*Political (gain school board, teacher, civic, and community support for instructional reform; negotiate with multiple unions to endorse improvements).

So, the question is: in a big city school system, how can one non-educator superintendent–having to perform managerial, political, and instructional duties–reach into thousands of classrooms to improve teaching and learning?

A superintendent has to mobilize resources and support from many different people and groups inside and outside the system, build a climate for instructional improvement over a sustained period of time, and enlist principals and teachers to put into practice jointly shared ends in hundreds of schools and thousands of classrooms.

4. What is the evidence thus far for non-educator superintendents improving academic achievement?

While there are dueling studies from researchers on whether mayorally-appointed non-educator superintendents have raised test scores, see here and here, the policy-to-practice chain that stretches from the Chancellor’s office to a first grade teacher’s classroom is very long with many links. Superintendents can create district learning climates–one link– where principals and teachers are inspired, supported, and pressed to do well in their schools and classrooms. Such district cultures can influence test scores indirectly but these cultures are hard to develop and sustain, particularly if superintendents exit after a few years.

Furthermore, the metrics of success are worrisome. High stakes state tests used year after year show gains as teachers become familiar with test items and prepare students for the exams. But when state officials dump the test and adopt a new one, scores plummet. New York City’s Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein who previously had trumpeted a rise in test scores, backtracked after test scores dropped following a new state test.

The dream of corporate-inspired reformers for nearly two decades that governance changes and non-educators as managers in urban districts will turnaround failing schools and erase the test score achievement gap has yet to materialize.


Filed under leadership, Reforming schools

4 responses to “CEOs, Ex-military, and Lawyers Heading School Districts, Part 2

  1. larrycuban

    For a rebuttal to the points that I make in the last two posts, see Tom Vander Ark, a non-educator who became a superintendent in the state of Washington at:

  2. Steve Davis

    Conflicts of interest are starting to emerge as an unintended consequence of CEO and business model infiltration into public schools.

  3. Pingback: edReformer: Leadership by Any Means

  4. Pingback: The modern superintendent | Hechinger Report

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