Choosing Reform-Minded Urban Superintendents

If I had to choose an urban superintendent between Michelle Rhee in Washington,D.C.(2007-2010) and  John Deasy in Los Angeles Unfied School District (2011-2014), I would choose Christopher Steinhauser, Long Beach (CA) superintendent since 2002. Why? Because Rhee and Deasy were sprinters in a job that requires marathoners like Steinhauser. Both Rhee and Deasy knew that teachers were the linchpin to achieve any degree of success and both ended up alienating the very people they depended upon. Steinhauser and his predecessor, Carl Cohn, who had served a decade earlier built close ties with their teachers over two decades.

Why are there so few long distance runners among urban superintendents? Answer: Sprinters want 180 degree change fast; in doing so, they rarely gain respect and confidence of teachers; marathoners work with teachers steadily from day 1 of their tenure.

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. Their teachers, by and large, were supportive of their school chiefs’ efforts even when local teacher unions disagreed with parts of each one’s reform agenda. These superintendents sought incremental changes moving carefully and slowly toward their goals walking hand-in-hand with teachers and their unions.

Sprinter superintendents, however, embrace a reform agenda that assumed what existed in each of their districts when they became school chiefs was awful and had to be dumped. They refused to be identified with the status quo. Out with the old, in with the new. And fast. The “new” and “fast” meant swift fundamental change, especially with teachers and administrators. On the Richter scale of reform, fundamental change translated to major earthquakes of 7.0 and above. No changes that registered as tremors.

So Rhee, appointed by D.C.’s elected mayor, Adrian Fenty, fired both teachers and principals within the early months of her brief tenure in D.C. She pushed through new salary arrangements where experienced and effective teachers would increase their salaries dramatically but would have to give up tenure in exchange. As a former Teach for America alumna, she relied upon recruiting from that pool of new teachers and elevated other alumni to administrative posts.Her statements about teachers and administrators who had been in the D.C.  schools prior to her arrival were tinged with disrespect for their work in schools, particularly if these practitioners expressed how difficult it was to work with students who arrived in their schools from poor families with limited academic skills. Rhee was one of many new leaders that trumpeted the slogan of “no excuses”for low student performance. Schools could reverse low achievement. She designed a new system of evaluating teachers that included multiple observations of teachers by principals and “master educators” with one segment of the evaluation dependent upon how the teacher’s students did on district standardized tests. All of these actions occurred within the first two years of Rhee’s administration. To say that the hard-working, feisty Chancellor alienated the majority of teachers in D.C. would be accurate from one simple fact: Mayor Adrian Fenty ran for re-election in 2010 and lost. Many D.C. teachers worked for his opponent. And Rhee admitted her mistake in not gaining the respect and confidence of teachers. She resigned shortly afterwards.

John Deasy’s short three years in Los Angeles Unified School District differed from Michelle Rhee’s experience in that the school board that appointed him changed into one that became increasingly hostile to him including a former teacher getting elected.  Even the Los Angeles Times which supported his superintendency right up to the moment he resigned gave Deasy a parting editorial that sung his praises for his accomplishments in getting rid of ineffective teachers and raising student attendance and graduation rates but also pointed out his errors in alienating teachers–he testified in one law suit against teacher due process and seniority rights –and the massive iPad purchase from Apple in which the superintendent pushed unrelentingly and ended in a debacle.

Rhee and Deasy sought fundamental reforms, no holds barred and as swiftly as possible. Payzant, Cohn, Schwalm  knew  (and Steinhauser knows) that designing and persisting with incremental changes that barely toggled the Richter scale of reform. Marathoners worked slowly and patiently with teachers knowing that success with students would occur. Sprinters gain media attention fast. They revel in it mistakenly thinking that such instant snapshots means things are changing in classrooms. That is not the case. Marathoners see the big picture and fill in the dots gradually over the years.



Filed under school leaders, school reform policies

26 responses to “Choosing Reform-Minded Urban Superintendents

  1. Since Reagan, the culture has anointed new Lords to whom we are bound to genuflect. “Leaders” they call them, to which we grant them super-knowledge, power, and above all, money. Superintendents, principals, teachers as leaders, mayors, Dept of Education types, administrators. We even want and have czars now (used to be a term of disparagement).

    Seems to me the creation of demi-gods like superintendents is the problem. Do they really know more than your regular run-of-the-mill worker-bee?

  2. Beverly Carter

    Tug boats, that change the course of oil tankers . . . I remember that illustration from a class long ago. Sustained incremental change in the right direction can work wonders. It takes attention and patience. Both seem to be in short supply in our culture.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for the reminder of the metaphor, Beverly. I surely agree with your last sentence. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  3. Wilson Lambert

    Hi Larry

    Again, no argument with you at all! The life/tenure of a school superintendent is roughly 2-5 years. So they do not have a lot of time. School policy makers in school board members/community often clamor for change and a new direction in order to fix the perceived ills of the school district. Because of politics and community pressure new school superintendents have to appear pro active, and must act as if they are doing something. Most of this behavior fits a pattern of symbolic political activity and sends subtle messages that “things will be getting better soon.” In fact “Urban school system policy makers are highly sensitive to community and professional pressures than they are toward educational considerations” (Cibulka, 1993). Hess (1998) indicated that the “policy churn” that yields reform after reform in cities is largely symbolic although politically useful to school boards and superintendents survival. Urban school superintendents that want change now are indeed sprinters that will exhaust themselves early and never finish the race, nor get in place much needed reforms that will improve student achievement consistently over the long haul. I wholeheartedly agree with you, and wish there were more school leaders exhibiting the characteristics of a Steinhauser! Thanks for sharing…………Sincerely

  4. Gary Ravani

    I had the opportunity to work rather closely with Chris on Supt. Tom Torlakson’s Educator Excellence Task Force on the subcommittee dealing with teachers’ evaluation. We helped generate, Excellence by Design (or at least the evaluation section therein, with Linda Darling-Hammond doing most of the writing), which is the blueprint for CA’s education reform efforts. If there where more superintendents like Chris, who view teachers as an asset and not the “enemy” to be vanquished, we would not be at the kind of loggerheads re reform that we find ourselves in today.

  5. Carl Martinez

    I concur in all aspects of your essay, Larry, but you’re leaving out a big component of why new superintendents remain — or become? or continue to be? — sprinters.

    Look at what Rhee and Deasy did after leaving their sprints. They created or landed gigs with organizations (Students First, Broad Foundation) that advocate destroying the predominant model for managing, funding and governing public schools.

    It’s legitimate to criticize and reform these aspects of American public education, but it’s disingenuous to maintain that destroying teacher tenure or implementing universal voucher programs is the best immediate way forward. Otherwise, you’d be singing the praises of sprinters here, and Deasy and Rhee today would be pulling their umpteenth successful and universally praised hit-and-run gig at a large and troubled school district.

    Where leaders fall on that “sprinter-marathoner” spectrum is almost entirely a function of how badly they want to chase to chase big reactionary bucks after they end their long or short tenures as superintendents at high profile urban districts.

    In 21st Century America, there’s lots of money for people who sign on to destroy, and not necessarily build back up, public institutions. Follow the money — that’s what Rhee and Deasy did.

    • larrycuban

      Perhaps, Carl. But “follow the money” reduces the range of motives that “sprinters” bring to the superintendent suite to only one. That is not what I have observed directly about short-term school chiefs. They bring a range of motives to the table–from altruism to ambition to grasping for fame to a deep commitment to improving the chances of low-income and minority students. I believe that “Sprinters” leave for the reasons I offered in the post. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  6. Mike G

    I’m partial to the marathoner over sprinter narrative.

    However, one small point:

    If one counts the succession of Rhee’s deputy Kaya Henderson as a “continuation of Rhee” — I realize this is an oversimplification — then it’s been 8 years. Rhee’s policies continued. And, to some extent, allowed Henderson to be good cop.

    I’m sure Rhee would do some things differently if she had a do-over. Still, it would seem DC kids made large gains during these 8 years, no? Arguably among largest gains in urban districts (I think Long Beach has too; LA did not).

    • larrycuban

      A fair point on Kaya Henderson continuing Rhee policies–for nearly 8 years and the clock is still running. After all,Steinhauser who was a Long Beach insider continued Carl Cohn’s decade long run. As for test scores and improvements, with the cloud of test score fixing still hovering over DC–see John Merrow’s investigation–I remain agnostic. I am rooting for Henderson to stay much longer in DC. Thanks for the comment.

      • MG

        Thanks for the reply. Good pt about Merrow, though I thought DC was also measured to have large NAEP gains, and I don’t recall any test fixing raised there.

        I was thinking, too, that there are 2 ways to marathon. One is to avoid conflict…preserve status quo and stick to cosmetic changes. The other — sounds like you’re describing Steinhauser this way — is to very aggressively seek change, but to do so only after initial confidence-building.

        I wonder if that could still work with the sprinters: use Year 1 to win cred from “median teacher” (even as you do lots of “Fail Fast” trial and error to learn about what works in very small contests), then use Years 2 to 4 to drive change agenda at scale.

      • larrycuban

        I don’t know about NAEP gains in DC, Mike. I would have to check. Yes, on two ways to be a marathoner and Cohn/Steinhauser were the latter. Rhee, Deasy,et. al, I believe, show the folly of swift, deep changes that alienate both top and median teachers. Sure, superintending is a political contest as much as anything else the school chief does. But keeping a sharp eye on the politics of change be it with a mayor or elected school board is a duty that superintendents must fulfill. If they do not, there is no fourth year for such sprinters.

  7. natercole

    I wonder what the influence of the No Child Left Behind Act has on these “sprinter” superintendents who feel pressured to bring up their test scores in only a few years. Could the pressure of a lack of funding cause these superintendents to look for short-term solutions rather than wait it out for long ones?

    • larrycuban

      You offer a hunch that can be tested. Define a “sprinter” superintendent–someone who lasts, say, 3-4 years and find those who served in big cities before 2002 (NCLB)and ones who served after the law. Test it out.Thanks for the comment.

    • From the standpoint of students, for many it’s already too late, and for decades past it’s been too late. There is certainly a case to be made against these national tests, but we have been experiencing school reforms for over 40 years with seemingly no progress especially for poor and minority families and their kids. That is, 40 years is two whole generations that we’ve failed to deliver. Have we really tried? I mean, really tried!

      Seems slow and deliberate non-quick-fix solutions had no effect. Doesn’t it make sense to give up on those ideas and the people who have been promising and never delivering?

      Really, now! The contents of elementary and middle school curriculum is not rocket science. I find it absurd to claim that mastery is beyond students capability. Failure to deliver does give unscrupulous operators an in to scam the system, but the educational system failed first, often and completely on delivering the goods.

      • larrycuban

        Thanks for commenting, Larry.

      • Gary Ravani

        Can you identify a lot of school systems that failed in wealth, middle class and above, communities? You note that the problems are with “poor and minority families,” with “minority” in the US being a pretty accurate proxy for poor. The Educational Testing Service (ETS) has done a number of studies, and many other scholars have done parallel work, that identifies in-school factors as accounting for around 1/3rd of the variations in test scores (mostly on the NAEP). That means the 1/3rd school tail has somehow failed to wag the 2/3rds out-of-school-factor dog. So just who has failed to “deliver the goods,” the schools, or the rapacious US social, economic, and political system that condemns a greater number of children to live in poverty than almost any other major industrialized nation in the world?

      • larrycuban

        Thanks for comment on Larry Winkler’s remarks.

      • Wilson Lambert

        Hi Larry

        It is interesting when you say “but we have been experiencing school reforms for over 40 years with seemingly no progress especially for poor and minority families and their kids. That is, 40 years is two whole generations that we’ve failed to deliver. Have we really tried? I mean, really tried!” It is my opinion that most people in society expect too much from the public school system. Our schools cannot fix the ills of society by themselves. We need more in the form of federal/state legislation and other programs that seek to end the problems of poverty and many other inequities in the United States. This is where most of the problem lies. However I do agree with you that urban public school systems have not really tried. Currently we have a “one size” fits all educational system, which is not going to work for everybody, and actually reinforces the status-quo in American society. Most students from poor and minority families and African American students in particular are not equipped in high school with even the most basic skills for effective participation in American society. But yet the school house clamors for college and career readiness. The problem is most of the districts do not provide opportunities for skilled trades (e.g. automotive techs, masons, carpentry, plumbing, etc) except for a select few. Many of the Vocational schools are always complaining about lack of students, but yet if one would bring a wheel barrel to school along with a mortar pan, bricks, and bags of cement, and then made an announcement over the school intercom that male volunteer students are needed to build a brick flower wall in front of the high school the academic classrooms would empty. Very little effort is made in schools to connect with the lived reality of many urban students.

      • larrycuban

        Thanks for comment, Larry. Gary Ravani replied to your comment.

  8. haileynt1023

    I like the analogy you used of the sprinters and the marathoners. There are many different actors in the education world including these superintendents as well as teachers and policy-makers. It would take a marathoner to make and see a difference. Thanks for the post!

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