Becoming a Superintendent: A Personal Odyssey*

After teaching for many years, I wanted to be an urban superintendent. To do that, I had to get a doctorate.  Accepted at Stanford as a middle-aged graduate student, I arrived in 1972 with family in tow. The two years I spent at Stanford was a powerful intellectual experience. I had told David Tyack, my adviser then, (years later my teaching colleague, co-author, and dear friend) that I wanted to get a degree swiftly and find a superintendency.

With an abiding interest in history, I pursued courses that Tyack taught in history of education but also studied political science, organizational sociology, and the economics of education. If motivation and readiness are prerequisites for learning, I had them in excess.

Moving from being a veteran teacher in Cleveland and Washington, D.C. to becoming a researcher, I had to embrace analytical thinking over personal involvement, generalizations over particular facts. Through graduate work I discovered connections with the past, seeing theories at work in what I had done and, most important to me, coming to see the world of schooling, past and present, through political, sociological, economic, and organizational lenses. These analytic tools drove me to re-examine my teaching and administrative experiences. Informative lectures, long discussions with other students, close contact with a handful of professors, and working on a dissertation about three big city superintendents  made the two years an intensely satisfying experience.

David Tyack’s patient and insightful prodding through well-aimed questions turned archival research and writing the dissertation into an intellectual high. I learned from Tyack to frame historical questions into puzzles to be solved, even if they ran counter to mainstream interpretations.

From theorist Jim March I learned the importance of seeing organizations in multiple ways, of learning to live with uncertainty, of the tenacious hold that rationalism has upon both policymakers and practitioners, and of understanding that ambiguity, conflict, and randomness is the natural order of organizations. So whenever I hear from superintendents and principals who found their graduate preparation insufferable, I recall how different my experiences were. Those two years at Stanford turned out to be first-rate preparation for the next seven years I served as a superintendent.

After being turned down by 50 (not a typo) school boards, I lucked out when a reform-minded (and risk-taking) school board appointed me school chief in Arlington in 1974, a city of around 160,000 population at that time, just across the Potomac from Washington, D.C.

For seven years I worked within a district becoming culturally diverse and shrinking in enrollment as its test scores declined. The school board and I framed the central problem as the public’s loss of confidence in the district reversing the downward spiral in academic achievement as minority children increased.  Close superintendent oversight of each school’s performance with measures assessing progress toward school board goals (e.g., increased academic achievement, critical thinking skills, growth in the arts and humanities, and community involvement) was the objective.  The board and I  believed that steady pressure on school staffs wedded to ample support of teachers and principals, would lift achievement, reach the goals we set, and renew community confidence in its schools. State test results marched steadily upward, local metrics on other goals showed improvement, and parent surveys documented growing support for Arlington schools.

Within that big picture, however, school board and superintendent policy initiatives of closing small schools and launching innovations aimed at making incremental changes in both school practices and the culture of the system stirred up fierce political conflicts, particularly during two economic recessions. Heading a complicated organization with multiple stakeholders inside and outside the system stretched my skills and knowledge to a breaking point. During crises I learned the hard way about managing dilemmas and negotiating political and organizational tradeoffs between prized district goals.

In 1981, a newly elected school board had taken office. They wanted a school chief more in sync with their values than I was. I completed my contract and departed for Stanford to teach graduate students and do research.

In those seven years as superintendent, I learned the difference between solvable problems and unsolvable dilemmas. I found out that reforms needed jump-starting in a system but once initiated had to be prodded, elaborated, massaged and adapted as they entered schools and were put into classroom practice. Yes, I did learn that problems of low achievement were intricately connected to what families and students brought with them to schools, what teachers did in their classrooms, how principals worked in their schools, and how boards and superintendents finessed (or fouled up) the intersecting political, social, and economic interests of various stakeholders. Most of all, my years as superintendent made me allergic to those who offered me fairy tale solutions—kissing a frog to get a prince–to the problem of low-performing schools. I returned to academia fully aware of the world in which districts, schools, and classrooms operated.

___________________________________

*Part of a forthcoming essay on my career as an educator

8 Comments

Filed under school leaders

8 responses to “Becoming a Superintendent: A Personal Odyssey*

  1. I always enjoy your reflective posts. What would be a good article or book to start with learning more about Jim March’s work?

    • larrycuban

      Hi Matt,
      I would start with this article: Jim March, “American Public School Administration: A Short Analysis.” School Review 86 (February 1978): 217-250.

  2. jack schneider

    I want the next book to be a memoir, Larry!

  3. Cal

    I really enjoyed this. Looking forward to the next installment.

  4. Megan

    Larry,
    Thank you so much for sharing these insights into what has informed your viewpoint as an educator and a researcher. I can see the threads of this experience in your subsequent writing and stance on change, and your powerful experiences give you a real-world insight to school change that many educational leaders and writers lack. I look forward to reading the complete essay!
    Megan

  5. RJW

    Well Larry, I didn’t know you were a school superintendent too and I do share your admiration of David Tyack and his work. One of these days I plan on finishing ‘Tinkering Toward Utopia.’ I found interesting your experience of being replaced by a new school board although student academic gains were being realized. Unlike others in a school district, good work by a superintendent does not guarantee future employment. School board reform is the only education reform continually not targeted by policy makers.

  6. Drew Hinds

    Dr. Cuban,
    I have thought a lot about the subject of “academic linage” lately as I begin a road that I hope will lead toward the completion of my doctorate at Portland State University under the wise council (advisement) of Tom Chenoweth. I believe Tom studied under you at Stanford. I have especially appreciated Tom’s guidance this past season in my learning.
    Over the past few years of study I have had habit to visit your writings as well as those of Elliot Eisner. I have found very few authors that I could relate to, both on a professional and experiential level. Having a background as a teacher, administrator, and now at a state department I have trouble thinking about again pursuing the job of a district administrator. After reading your post, I may soon be at a point where I consider the challenge. In your post above, I was especially appreciative of your comments about becoming aware of “reforms that needed jump-starting in a system but once initiated had to be prodded, elaborated, massaged and adapted as they entered schools and were put into classroom practice.” I also appreciate the credit of academic linage where you comment, “From theorist Jim March I learned the importance of seeing organizations in multiple ways, of learning to live with uncertainty, of the tenacious hold that rationalism has upon both policymakers and practitioners, and of understanding that ambiguity, conflict, and randomness is the natural order of organizations.”
    In short, thanks for your contribution,
    Drew Hinds

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