Urban Superintendents Come and Go

New York City Chancellor of public schools, Richard Carranza, served three years and exited the post in 2021. He had been Houston Independent School District’s top leader for 18 months before being hired by the Mayor of New York City.

Former businessman Austin Beutner became Superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District in 2018. He resigned after serving for three years.

Boston superintendent Brenda Casellius will leave the top school post in June 2022 after only three years. She had been Minnesota state superintendent for eight years prior to coming to Boston.

High turnover among big city superintendents is a common article in newspapers, magazines, and mentioned in social media. You can count on resignations and firings as surely as you can count on Covid-19 variants being around for the next few years. And, of course, the higher rate of turnover, some argue, is attributable to the pandemic.

Yet long tenure of superintendents between 7-10 years is linked to school chiefs seeing recommended reforms approved by their school boards. Rapid turnover among district leaders, however, is a recipe for instability.

So how do urban superintendents stay around long enough to see their school board approve a reform platform that morphs into actual programs helping the city’s students, teachers, administrators, and parents?

Based upon my familiarity with the job and research I have done on urban superintendents, here is my answer to the question.

If I had to choose an urban superintendent between the highly touted Michelle Rhee in Washington,D.C.(2007-2010) and the experienced John Deasy in Los Angeles Unfied School District (2011-2014), I would choose neither. Instead, I would pick Christopher Steinhauser, the long-tenured Long Beach (CA) superintendent who served between 2002-2019.

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 yet 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 one in their suite of offices.

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 popular with their school board bosses and teachers. 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, slowly, and politically 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. “New” and “fast” meant swift change, especially with teachers and administrators. On the Richter scale of reform, such deep changes translated to major earthquakes of 7.0 and above. Incremental changes 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 those practitioners expressed how difficult it was to work with students 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 who appointed Rhee in 2007 ran for re-election in 2010 and lost. Many D.C. teachers worked for his opponent. Later on, 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, including a former LAUSD teacher, changed into one that became increasingly hostile to him. 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 a law suit against teacher due process and seniority rights) and presided over the massive iPad purchase that ended in a debacle.

Rhee and Deasy sought reforms, no holds barred and as swiftly as possible. Payzant, Cohn, and Schwalm knew (as did Steinhauser) that designing and persisting with incremental changes that barely toggled the Richter scale of reform was the path to take as an urban school chief. Marathoners worked slowly and patiently with teachers knowing that success with students is not a hundred yard dash.

Sprinters gain media attention fast. They revel in the reach of their dreams and the speed of putting them into practice, mistakenly thinking that adopted polices soon convert into classroom change. That is not the case. Marathoners see the big picture and fill in the dots gradually over years.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Urban Superintendents Come and Go

  1. David Patterson

    Larry, I understand the thought, go slow to go far. But at the same time have any of the incremental change superintendents moved their school system to a point where it is fundamentally more effective in serving students on an ongoing basis? Like you, after a lifetime of working in public education, it is not in any way good enough for me that in last 20 years or so that our students are (maybe) reading or doing math marginally better, that the majority of them are below grade level. And if you are black, brown and/or poor, the results continue to be horrible. We have seen individual schools achieve the results we seek, and some districts outperform their peers, but the system itself is still failing badly. As I lead classrooms of aspiring principals, what is the message for them?

    • larrycuban

      We live and work in a decentralized, underfunded, and unequal system of schooling in the U.S. Since all American schooling is both political and local (there are over 13,000 districts), incremental change is the norm that permits stability in schooling to reign.

      Given these historical and prevailing conditions, my message to any educator in the U.S. is get used to the fact that planned change is steady work. Yet change does not mean improvement because the road to better schools is filled with potholes. Successful changes in such a decentralized, underfunded, unequal system, then, cannot be taken for granted when completed. For just around the corner is another pothole that need fixing.

  2. Hello Larry,
    I took the liberty to edit your article on “urban” superintendents to include “all” superintendents. So true about a longer tenure being related to the “marathoner.”

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