Moving from Teacher to Superintendent: A Political Odyssey

After teaching for fourteen 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 experiencing shrinking enrollment, test scores declines, and becoming culturally diverse. The school board and I framed the central problem as the public’s loss of confidence in the district. The tasks were to reverse the downward spiral in academic achievement as numbers of minority children increased. 

With Board approval, I embarked on closely overseeing each school’s performance with specific measures assessing progress toward school board goals (e.g., increased academic achievement, critical thinking skills, growth in the arts and humanities, and community involvement).  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. Does sound a bit too rosy.

Here comes the “but.” Within that big picture of success, school board and superintendent policy initiatives to close small schools in the district and launch innovations aimed at changing  both school practices and the culture of the system stirred up fierce political conflicts, particularly during two economic recessions. Heading a complex 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 trade-offs between prized district goals.

In 1981, a newly appointed school board with a majority of conservative voices 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 University to teach graduate students, do research, and write.

In those seven years as superintendent, I learned the difference between solving problems and managing dilemmas that won’t go away. 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. In short, I learned that any successful district reform was as much political analysis, building coalitions, and mobilizing public support as it was having resources to do the job.

I also learned 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. Schooling was far more complex  than I had ever envisioned when I was a teacher.

Most of all, my years as superintendent made me allergic to those who offered me then (and even now) fairy tale solutions—kissing a frog to get a prince–to improving schools and districts. I returned to academia fully aware of the complex world in which districts, schools, and classrooms operated.



Filed under leadership, school reform policies

6 responses to “Moving from Teacher to Superintendent: A Political Odyssey

  1. Loved this piece. Proposed Motto…Larry Cuban: Embracing Complexity Since 1972.

  2. Ann Staley

    For whatever reason, I could not complete my “Comment” on-line. Feel free to “copy and paste this where others might read it:

    Larry, As I always do, I learned so much about you, your work and research, your time as a mid-life graduate student (as I was) at Stanford. Being a Superintend required so very much. How did you ever go home and fall asleep! Traumatic, is what it sounded like to me. I know you have not only “a heart of gold” but also a determination that is more than heart-driven, so that you could do all of what was required of you. I’d have ended up in some kind of mental hospital if I’d ever had a job like yours. The fact that you returned to Stanford and became an Organizational Skills expert (teaching the best class I ever had there) says a great deal about who you truly, deeply are. You are the reason I loved my time at Stanford so much, and the fact that you became a friend changed my life right down to my roots.

    I think of you often, share my experiences with colleagues, still. I hope you are well (Heck, another book to explore. Of course I liked the schools’ experiences best!) and enjoying the summer season. Here in Corvallis it is still cold and rainy. I’m wearing sweaters in mid-June (What about global warming?). I have a new collection of poems “going to press” today. I’ll send you a copy of the cover in a few moments…and the book as soon as I have copies.

    much love, ann


    • larrycuban

      Ann, Your words mean a lot to me. Congratulations on your forthcoming book of poems. The cover design and title–“Fire in the Desert”–are most appealing. Thanks for commenting.

  3. wjshan

    I have epitomized Prof. Cuban’s story about this Odyssey in my preliminary proposal to translate and annotate your great book in history of teaching “How Teachers Taught”(Cuban, 1993) into traditional Chinese. It will be submitted to Ministry of Science and Technology (Taiwan) by August 31, 2020. I am working very hard on it! (I have “motivation and readiness” for it!)
    By the way, I love the following sentence very much! “If motivation and readiness are prerequisites for learning, I had them in excess.” I will share it with my students in National Taiwan Normal U and Chinese Culture U, Taipei.
    Best wishes, Peter Wen-jing SHAN (Taiwan)

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