School Leaders as Marathoners, not Sprinters*

Most urban superintendents serve between four to six years and move on. I call them sprinters. Think Michelle Rhee in Washington,D.C. (2007-2010) and John Deasy in Los Angeles Unified School District (2011-2014). A precious few serve a decade or more. Why are there so few long distance runners among urban superintendents?

Boston’s former superintendent Thomas W. Payzant, Carl Cohn of the Long Beach, Calif., school district, and Laura Schwalm of California’s Garden Grove Unified School District served a decade or longer. To be sure, these long-serving chiefs were beset with problems that went unsolved and criticism that stung but all of them remained quietly and steadily effective. They sought incremental changes moving carefully and slowly toward their goals.  Two story lines, one popular and one true, explain Sprinters nad Marathoners. Consider each explanation.

The Superintendent as Superman or Wonder Woman

These schools chiefs are rare; they are extraordinary individuals. They have turned around districts that were nearly terminal cases due to chronically low student performance, bureaucratic resistance to change, and managerial incompetence. They persuaded their bosses to install new systems of parental choice and teacher evaluation, to refocus bureaucracies on improving teaching and learning, and to create portfolios of different kinds of schools. By sheer force of individual will, together with political smarts and enormous expenditure of energy, these superintendents have succeeded. And test scores have risen. They are super-stars.

Matching the Person, Place, and Time

The key to success comes down to being in the right place at the right time. New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg appointed Joel I. Klein the system’s chancellor in 2002 and served until 2011—the longest tenure of a New York City schools chief since the early 1970s. Bloomberg’s predecessor, former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, however, engineered the appointment and departure of two schools chancellors—Ramon C. Cortines and Rudolph F. Crew—in less than seven years.

If timing is crucial, so is context. Each of the chancellors Mayor Giuliani wanted had been hailed as a super-star in his previous urban district. In each case, however, the mayor decided that the school chief didn’t fit him or the city.

Or consider Carl Cohn, who shepherded the Long Beach district through a decade of changes yielding strong gains in student achievement—a record sufficient to win the Broad award for urban district excellence. Cohn retired from Long Beach in 2002.

In 2005, the San Diego Unified school board hired Cohn to heal the district’s wounds after six years of struggle and the forced exit of Superintendent Alan D. Bersin. In December of 2007, barely two years into his tenure, Cohn left San Diego. His 40 years of urban school experience and extraordinary work in Long Beach could not find traction in San Diego.

For marathoner superintendents, then, it’s best not to look for a super-star. Leadership depends on finding the right person for the time and place. Cohn in Long Beach and Klein in New York City are examples of perfect pairings; Cortines and Crew in New York City, along with Cohn in San Diego, were imperfect ones.

WHICH STORY IS POPULAR? WHICH STORY IS TRUE?

Of the two story lines, Superman/Wonder Woman is currently the most popular explanation for superintendent success. America idolizes heroes. Yet it is the biggest gamble of all since saviors are rare, they depend upon others to do the work, and even get fired by school boards. Closer to the truth is the “best match” explanation and a tad less risky.

How is picking a superintendent a gamble? A school board assesses whether the person is going to fit the current situation and has sufficient expertise and experience to carry off the task and then bets that prior success will repeat itself. Some superintendents do have winning streaks in a string of jobs–and become heroes. But winning streaks—like playing the horses and blackjack—end. And school boards or mayors simply do not know when. That is why picking a superintendent, CEO, and football coach is gambling, pure and simple.

Yet even the “best match” explanation for superintendent success and longevity must also come to terms with the limits to fundamental changes inherent in urban schools. Here are social and political institutions strongly affected by a city’s demography, history, and economy—and by deeply embedded, often unbending socioeconomic structures in the larger society. Institutions constantly dealing with the human consequences of inequitable resources, community neglect and discrimination have limits that even a Superman or Wonder Woman cannot overcome.

To lessen the inevitable disappointment that follows the appointment of a savior school chief, mayors and school boards would do well to downsize expectations, display more patience, seek leaders who believe in incremental changes toward fundamental ends, and pay far more attention to sniffing out better matches between the person and the city than betting on a super-star bearing a tin-plated reputation.

_______________

*This post is a revision of an earlier one in light of Thursday’s resignation of John Deasy after three years as Superintendent of Los Angeles Unified School District.

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