Insider vs. Outsider Superintendents

In Los Angeles Unified School District, the school board just appointed an outsider, Austin Beutner. Former investment banker, current philanthropist and one-time deputy mayor. Nearly three years ago, the school board appointed insider–Michelle King–superintendent year after a string of prior superintendents came from outside the district.

In New York City, Mayor Bill De Blasio appointed an insider–Carmen Farina– Chancellor in 2014 after Mayor Michael Bloomberg had appointed three outsiders since 2000; in 2018, the Mayor appointed Alberto Carvalho, a veteran educator but outsider from Florida as Chancellor.

These appointments of insiders to big city districts, people who spent their careers within the district as teachers, principals, and district office administrators, are the exception, not the rule. For large urban districts the rule has been appoint outsiders who promise major changes to solve serious problems.

Why is that?

Outsiders have been appointed time and again in these districts because the unspoken and strong belief was that the serious educational, social, and political problems besetting the schools needed an innovative, energetic outsider, unbeholden to those within the district. An outsider, policy elites assumed, would shake the system by the scruff of its neck in turning around a failing district–-disrupt is the fashionable word today.

Insiders who had risen through the ranks prize stability while looking for incremental improvements. Insiders have been immersed in a network of relationships with peers and subordinates would be reluctant to disturb bureaucratic rules in effect for decades, and bonds of affection and respect for long-time peers and subordinates. Insiders would be loath to importing new staff and  innovations from elsewhere. They would rather seek new ideas and programs from sharp, knowledgeable insiders.

These strongly held beliefs about insiders and outsiders have shaped the appointment of superintendents to big city posts for well over a half-century.

In brief, the folk wisdom surrounding superintendents or chancellors heading urban districts says to appoint insiders if you like what has been happening in the system under the exiting superintendent in order to extend and protect what is working well for students, teachers, and the community. Stability and tweaking what works is the order of the day when insiders are appointed school chiefs. However, if you dislike what has been happening in the system, the dysfunctions, mediocre performance, the proliferation of problems, and the accompanying disarray, for heaven’s sake, appoint an outsider.

Washington, D.C. Schools

This situation now faces the mayor of Washington, D.C. again. Mayor Muriel Bowser replaced exiting Chancellor Kaya Henderson who had served six years with Oakland (CA) superintendent Antwan Wilson. Henderson’s predecessor was outsider Michelle Rhee (2007-2010) who had brought in Henderson after Mayor Adrian Fenty had appointed Rhee. Then, a few months ago, Wilson resigned after serving just over one year.

The current Mayor knows well that the DC schools have had a long string of school-board appointed outsiders. To be specific, over sixty years, there have been 15 superintendents (excluding interim appointees) of whom 12 were outsiders (including Rhee, Henderson, and Wilson). The three insiders were Vince Reed, 1975-1980, Floretta McKenzie,  1981-1988, and Andrew Jenkins, 1988-1990. Reed and McKenzie served with distinction; Jenkins was fired.

Los Angeles Unifed School District

Since 1971, the District has had 14 superintendents since 1962 of whom seven were insiders (Ray Cortines came from outside the district and served twice as interim superintendent and once as regular superintendent). The longest serving insider was William Johnston who served a decade (1971-1981). The longest serving outsider was ex-governor of Colorado, Roy Romer (2000-2006). Of the outsiders, three had experience as superintendents elsewhere (Leonard Britton, Ray Cortines, and John Deasy) and one (David Brewer) was a retired U.S. Navy admiral. Austin Beutner will be the first business leader tapped to lead LAUSD.

What Does The Research Say on Insider and Outsider School Chiefs?

Scholars who have written about “superintendent succession”–the academic phrase for picking the next district leader–have looked school board appointees of insiders and outsiders have asked a series of questions:

*Do outsider or insider superintendents outperform one another?

*Do outsiders stay longer than insiders?

*Does superintendent succession resemble succession in corporations and other organizations?

*What does matter when decision-makers (e.g., school boards, mayors)  in choosing an insider or outsider?

The answer to the first two questions is no. To the third question, the answer is yes. The last question I answer with more than one word.

On performance, thirty years of research have determined that neither outsider or insider school chiefs perform better because of where they come from. Sure, how one defines performance is important and will vary. But on various measures of the district’s  student outcomes,  teacher and parental satisfaction, relationships with community and unions, there is no substantial difference between districts appointing insiders or outsiders (see here, here, and here).

As to length of service for insiders or outsiders, studies of big cities show little difference also (see here and here)

Superintendent succession, researchers have found, is similar to  CEOs and other top leadership posts in non-school organizations (see here, here, here, and here).

I have no idea whether the LAUSD School Board considered such research. By picking a business leader, the Board is saying that the major problems of the district are managerial and political. Why else pick such a person?

Were the DC Mayor to become familiar with the research,  she should also consider the factors that come into play in influencing how either an insider or outsider appointee will perform. Such factors as the fit between school boards’ or mayors’ goals and the candidate’s experiences with, for example, the political decision-making that occurs in making educational policy and the features of the organizational setting and community and their match with the knowledge and skills of the applicant. These and other factors have to be considered in deciding whether to pick an insider or outsider to head a district. Simply picking one or the other because it is time to do so,  is a mindless way of making the most important decision for a major city’s schools.



Filed under leadership, school leaders

5 responses to “Insider vs. Outsider Superintendents

  1. Beverly Carter

    Very interesting piece, Larry. Would love to see you discuss further the points in your last paragraph — perhaps using ideas from your book, The Managerial Imperative and examples.

  2. Pingback: I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading | I Love You but You're Going to Hell

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