Great Superintendents?

Big city superintendents come and go regularly. In San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York City school chiefs have recently resigned or been booted out. Surely, Covid-19 has increased pressures on urban district leaders. But political pressure has been the norm in urban superintendents’ work life What has been missing from superintendents’ lives and reputations is one adjective: great. Seldom is the word “great” attached to an urban superintendent. Why is that?

Judging whether big city superintendents are (or were) great has gone on for decades. Longevity is usually trotted out as the gold standard for being a “good,” “effective,” or “great” superintendent. How long did the superintendent serve? Superintendent-watchers usually dismiss school chiefs who served less than five years as wannabe “great” ones. Between five to ten years, well, perhaps, they can be considered. Serving more than a decade? Then, clearly a candidate.

Why is time such an important factor in judging “greatness?” Every district superintendent is hired to accomplish one or more key tasks defined by the school board or mayor that appoints the eager candidate. Those tasks may be to sustain a successful system, improve a middling one, or resuscitate a collapsed district. As most often happens in the latter case when a school board expects their school chief to turn around a failing district, the newly appointed superintendent even a veteran such as Rudy Crew in Miami-Dade County— disappoints supporters mostly through piling up enemies after tough decisions, budget retrenchment, and political slips with the school board, teachers, or community (or all three).

After serving in Chicago and Philadelphia before taking up the top post in New Orleans (and leaving that position after four years converting most public schools to charters), Paul Vallas put the saga of urban superintendents in stark, if not humorous, terms:

“What happens with turnaround superintendents is that the first two years you’re a demolitions expert. By the third year, if you get improvements, do school construction, and test scores go up, people start to think this isn’t so hard. By year four, people start to think you’re getting way too much credit. By year five, you’re chopped liver.”

That has occurred enough times in the last four decades to account for urban school chiefs’ tenure being just over five years. A recent report says it is now six years. Longevity and effectiveness (as perceived by the school board, media, and the public) in accomplishing critical tasks surely become standards to judge “greatness.” But there are other criteria.

Has the superintendent raised student test scores, improved graduation rates, and prepared students to enter college and career?

As with teachers and principals, this standard in determining whether the superintendent is “good” comes from the past four decades of the standards,  testing and accountability movement launched in the mid-1980s with the Nation at Risk report (1983). What added muscle was the No Child Left Behind law (2002-2015) putting the testing and accountability movement on steroids.

Champions and opponents of current school boards or mayors trumpet loudly annual gains and dips in test scores as evidence of success or failure for the current school chief. One has to read no further than articles on any sitting superintendent to get the picture (see here and here)

Because the political role superintendents have to perform is more intense than the politicking teachers and principals have to do, beginning in the 1970s, superintendent careers have surged and some have crashed on the basis of student outcomes. Even though stability in test scores is statistically suspect, clauses paying superintendents annual bonuses for gains in student achievement began to appear in the 1980s, accelerated in the 1990s, and is now a fixture in urban superintendents’ contracts. The belief that big city superintendents can lift student test scores remains strong and abiding.

So here we have three practical measures of superintendent “greatness:” Longevity, achievement of key tasks, and improved overall student outcomes.

Over recent decades, some superintendents have met these standards: Carl Cohn in Long Beach (CA), Tom Payzant in Boston, Laura Schwalm, Garden Grove (CA), and Pat Forgione in Austin.

But here’s the rub. Being a “great” teacher, principal, or superintendent in one place at a particular time does not easily transfer to another setting at another time. Being satisfactory or even inadequate in one classroom, school, or district may become “greatness” elsewhere. Context, for example, trumped greatness for Carl Cohn after Long Beach and for Tom Payzant in San Diego before Boston.

So there are standards–shaped by the setting and times–used to judge “great” superintendents, principals, and teachers. Except for longevity.

In a world where fast, fast, fast dominates daily life, where social media fire-up or doom a career within weeks and an ever-shifting economy put a premium on moving from one job to another, where staying in one position for ten-plus years is often seen as a negative, the gains in expertise and wisdom that come to certain reflective superintendents in working their magic are seldom appreciated or encouraged. Both context and longevity may not be sufficient conditions for “greatness,” but they are surely necessary ones.


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4 responses to “Great Superintendents?

  1. John:
    Thanks for this effort. The best superintendents create the best cultures that are sustainable. They need to put forth a positive vision and support efforts to achieve it. They need to focus on hiring good people and getting out of their way. They need to be visible, positive, and constantly promote the district to the community, the staff, and the students.
    As we know, standardized tests are crappy tests. They are designed to sort students so for every student who does better there is one who does worse. This is what happens when you use percentiles as part of any metric. Efforts to improve test scores narrow the curriculum and encourage superintendents to cut back on recess, PE, the arts, science, and social studies. Any district that incentivizes superintendents for raising test scores is asking for negative outcomes for students.
    Longevity is key for leadership. In my last job, I was a principal for 13 years. I felt that I got better every year as did the school’s culture. If you have a positive impact on staff it will grow over time. My concern for smaller districts is that the superintendent they hire is taking the job as a “starter job” with an eye on a move to a larger district in a few years that can pay more and wants someone with experience in the job rather than loyalty to the district.

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