Tag Archives: school & district leaders

The Personal Side of Superintending (Part 3)

In The Managerial Imperative: The Practice of Leadership in Schools (1988), I wrote of my experiences as a superintendent, husband, and father and how the job intersected with my life during and after the workday. In the post here, my wife is Barbara and my daughters are Sondra and Janice. All of what follows occurred between 1974-1981.

The superintendency was both exhilarating and exhausting. As a line from a song put it “Some days were diamonds; some days were stones.” What values I prized about public service and helping people were enacted daily; what skills I had were tapped frequently, and the post pushed me into learning new skills and plumbing hidden reserves of energy. In short, being superintendent stretched me in ways I keenly felt were worthwhile. I enjoyed the job immensely. But–there has to be a but–there were a number of job-related issues that arose over the years, softening my rosy assessment, forcing me to face the inevitable trade-offs that accompany the top executive post in a school district.

What initially turned our lives topsy-turvy was the time I had to spend on the job after two years as a graduate student and, before that, as a teacher. The days usually began at 8:00 A.M. in the office and ended at 11:00 P.M. about two to three nights a week (and even more nights out during budget season). On those long days, I would race home for dinner at 5:00 P.M. and leave two hours later for a board meeting, work session, or some other community event. During the week, I saw my family for a few minutes in the morning and at dinner. Fatigue tracked me relentlessly the first few years; I’d fall asleep watching the evening news and take long afternoon naps on weekends. Adjusting to new time demands proved difficult for all of us.

While we had not given too much thought to the issue of privacy,Barbara and I had made a few decisions about our family time. We had agreed that Friday evening dinners to celebrate the Sabbath were a high priority. I had asked the school board to be excused from obligations on Friday evenings, and they honored my request for the seven years, except for those few instances when I decided that I had to attend a meeting or event. Apart from critical county board meetings on Saturday, my bosses made few demands upon me during the week-ends, apart from phone calls.

A listed telephone number proved to be less of an issue than we had anticipated. I rarely received more than a half-dozen calls a week from parents, students, or citizens, except during snow storms or when I made a controversial recommendation to the school board. Surprisingly, we received few crank or obscene phone calls.

Buffering the family from the job was tough enough. Deciding what to do about those social situations where much business was transacted informally, without reducing time spent with my family troubled me. The first week on the job, for example, a principal who then headed the administrators union invited me to join a poker game with a number of principals and district office administrators that met twice a month. My predecessor, he said, had been a regular player for the five years that he was superintendent. Moreover, it would offer me a splendid chance to meet some of the veteran staff away from the office in relaxed surroundings. Aware of the advantage in joining and the costs to my family, I thanked the principal for the generous invitation but said no. It had also occurred to me that I would be making personnel changes and a certain amount of social distance from people I supervised might be best.

Dinner invitations proved troublesome as well. Invariably at these affairs, conversations would center on school matters and juicy political gossip. These evenings became work for me and difficult for Barbara who was immersed in completing her undergraduate degree. The last thing both of us wanted to hear on a Saturday night out was more about the Arlington schools. Except for socializing with the few friends that we had made in the county whom we could relax with and not be concerned about what we said, mainly members of the school board, we turned down most invitations after our second year in town.

We remained, however, part of the ceremonial life in Arlington. I ate chicken at boy scout dinners, sampled hors d’oeurves at chamber of commerce affairs (until I dropped out from the organization because of its persistent attacks upon the school budgets), spoke at church suppers; and represented the school board at civic meetings.

We were fortunate to have had a network of close friends in the Washington area since 1963. I could see now, in ways that I could not have seen earlier, that by entering the community as an outsider and remaining separate from existing social networks, that there would be certain costs. That was, I believe, one price we paid for being outsiders and for trying to prevent the superintendency from completely invading our home.

But, of course, the shadow of the superintendency, with all of its pluses and minuses, fell over the family nonetheless. For example, our daughters (ages ten and thirteen in 1974) were not only singled out,both positively and negatively by teachers, they also had to deal with all of the complications of being teenagers, losing old friends and gaining new ones, and coping with schoolwork and family issues. The desire to be accepted and just like the others put a constant strain on both girls; from early on they were singled out as being different because of their father’s position in the community and their religion. Active, smart, and friendly, Sondra and Janice both enjoyed and hated the attention. While some teachers were especially sensitive to the awkward position the girls were in, others were callous. Principals of the schools they attended were very understanding and tried to help, but little could be done with the occasionally insensitive teacher.

When salary negotiations heated up, for example, two of their teachers (in two separate schools) made caustic, remarks to each girl about her father’s lack of concern for the teachers’ economic, welfare. The pressures were such that our eldest daughter wanted to try another school. It proved to be the hardest decision that Barbara and I made while I was superintendent. For us, her welfare was more important than concerns over what others might think of a superintendent pulling his daughter out of the public, schools. We transferred her to a private school in Washington, D.C., where she began to thrive academically and socially. Of course, the local newspaper carried an article about it. Our other daughter went to a private school for one year but wanted very much to return to the Arlington schools and did so for her high school years.

Barbara was clear on what she wanted. She did not wish to be “the superintendent’s wife.” She wanted to complete her undergraduate degree and enter a profession. In seven years, she finished her degree at George Washington University and earned a masters in social work from Catholic University while completing the necessary internships for a career in clinical social work. Between caring for a family, doing coursework, research papers, tests, and coping with a tired husband, Barbara had little time or concern for meeting others expectations of how a superintendent’s wife should act.

Yet, try as we might, it was difficult to insulate ourselves from the fact that I was a superintendent in a small city. My efforts, for example, to keep my family and my job separate when serious decisions had to be made often did not work. Firing a teacher, determining the size of a pay raise, recommending which schools to close, and dozens of other decisions had to be made. After listening to many individuals and groups, receiving advice from my staff, and hearing all the pros and cons from my closest advisers, I still had to make the decision. At these times, I might discuss the situation with Barbara. Often, however, there were family concerns that required our attention instead.

Yet I would still come home with the arguments ricocheting in my mind; and I would carry on an internal dialogue while I was eating dinner, raking leaves, playing with the girls, or on a weekend trip with the family. I was home, but I was distant.

Over the years I became more skilled at telling my family that something from the job was bothering me and that if I seemed distracted it had nothing to do with them. But I never acquired the knack of leaving serious Issues on the doorstep when I came home. Some-times, escaping the job was impossible. Newspaper articles or the 11:00 p.m. television news reports on the schools entered our home whether we liked it or not.

What did stun me, however, was the lengths that some people would go for political advantage, including destroying someone’s reputation. Elected officials, accustomed to the political in-fighting, might find such back-biting trivial. It jolted me and my family.

I’ll give one example. Shortly before the school board reappointed me for another four years, a board member called to ask if I had ever been arrested in Washington, D.C., on a drug charge. No, I hadn’t, I told her. She said that there was a story that would appear in the next day’s newspaper stating that I had been arrested and put in jail for possession of heroin. Within the next hour, I received a dozen calls from county officials, parents, friends of school board members, and the head of the teachers’ union asking me if the newspaper story were true and if there was anything they could do to help. Finally a newspaper reporter called to say that they were printing the story and did I have any comments to make. I told the reporter that there was no basis for the allegation and that before printing such a lie they would do well to get a record of the alleged arrest and other documentation. The newspaper did not print the story.

What shocked me most was the fragility of a professional reputation, the willingness of people to believe the worst (this occurred a few years after Watergate), and the lengths some people would go to destroy someone they disliked politically.

The seven years as superintendent taught me a great deal about the mixing of public and private lives for officials like myself. More prosaic than senators who party or congressmen who resign for disclosure of sexual jaunts, or corrupt governors our experiences still map an unfamiliar terrain for a superintendent and family who tried to maintain privacy.


Filed under raising children, school leaders

Superintendents’ Daily Schedules, 1975-2011 (Part 2)

Part 1 of this series on what superintendents do daily looked at early 20th century superintendents and what they typically did. Fast forward to October 24, 1975 and look at what my schedule and activities were on a particular day when I served in Arlington (VA) between 1974-1981. All names are actual people I worked with. This section is taken from “The Managerial Imperative and The Practice of Leadership in Schools” (1988), pp. 163-166.

Scheduled Appointments 7:30AM-10 AM

Henry Gardner, director of personnel(15 minutes): discussed proposed Corrective Action procedure for use with all employees; reviewed workshop for administrators on the new process of evaluating them.

Todd Endo, executive assistant (35minutes): in an effort to begin coordinating all locally and federally funded multicultural programs, Endo had taken the initiative to determine where the problems were and which people were needed. His judgments on bilingual programs and negotiations with the federal Office of Civil Rights’ position were weekly matters that we discussed. He developed proposals to plug the holes we encountered in dealing with underserved populations in the district. We discussed a broad range of issues and how we should move ahead to bring order to unconnected programs.

Ed Oliver, director of employee relations and collective bargain-ing, (15 minutes): Oliver reported the grievances that had been filed that week, his estimate of the legitimacy of the complaint, and recommendations on what to do if they went unresolved, that is, should we go to arbitration. On those issues that were clear losers for the school board, I had to decide whether or not the principle embedded within the grievance was worth going to arbitration given the board’s and superintendent’s goals.

Joe Ringers, assistant superintendent for business and facilities(25 minutes): Ringers briefed me on the renovation plans for Washington-Lee high school; the last meeting of the school’s citizen-staff advisory commission to the board on their views of the renovation; some glitches in busing special education students; and more complaints from the district office staff on parking.

Hal Wilson, associated superintendent for instruction (25 minutes): discussed where we should go with the Teacher Innovation Fund next year; two problems with teachers at Washington-Lee that he wanted me to be aware of; told me of his plans to keep an orchestra in the high schools by trying to have the offering at the centrally located new Career Center. We went over his recommendations for budget cuts mandated by the county board because of shortfalls in state and federal revenues announced last week. We both knew that the county board would not pick up the lost revenues and that we would have to make mid-year program and staffing reductions. I wanted to be ready when the board asked for recommendations. I deleted two items that he had on the list and suggested one that he balked at. We compromised on another.

Tom Weber, principal of Stratford Junior High (25 minutes): was still having trouble doing his Annual School Plan (one of the criteria I would use in evaluating his performance) and wanted to see if he was on the right track. We went over the guidelines and compared them to what he had been doing with a few members of his faculty. We discussed at length the importance of his broadening teacher involvement in the ASP. I asked him to tell me what he would like to see Stratford become and discussed how he might take a piece of his vision for the school and make an ASP goal out of it.

Allan Norris, director of Planning,Management, and Budget (15 minutes): brought the most recent simulations for closing Madison, Taylor, and Woodmont elementary schools. We reviewed the data to make sure what the board wanted and the criteria that they had approved were included in the printouts. I made some minor points and told him to get it ready for next week’s public work session with the board.

School visit to Tuckahoe Elementary (three hours)

Visited seven classrooms that I had missed on my last visit in the spring.Talked with John Willis, the principal, before and after about how things were going and issues of importance to him.

Unscheduled Appointments 3PM-5PM

My office had three doors. One door connected from inside the office to my associate superintendent for instruction, Hal Wilson, and one to the clerk of the school board. The third door was to the outside area where Bettye Dudley, my secretary, had her desk and where visitors checked in. Since that door was left open (except for confidential meetings) staff members, including principals and teachers, knew that they could see me if the door was open. On this particular day, I spent about an hour with eight drop-ins on a variety of topics: construction problems at Washington-Lee, which Hal Wilson and Joe Ringers brought in, Judy Gillies, public information officer, sensed that the questions a Washington Post reporter was asking about an incident at a school might be more serious than the principal had told us and that I might wish to tell the board; and Adele Pennifull, clerk to the school board, reviewed items for next week’s agenda.

Phone Calls and Desk Work

On this day I spent over an hour and a half on the following: Drafting a speech I would give to teachers who had been awarded Innovation grants. Drafting a Dear Colleague letter on my views about staff development for teachers and principals.

Spoke with board members Ann Broder and Diane Henderson, who had called about a variety of complaints they had received from parents and teachers; discussed what the district was planning to do about the surge in Vietnamese students arriving in Arlington; and discussed the memorials ervice that we were to attend that evening for Floyd Gravitt.Took two phone calls from parents about their special education children and the long time that they were spending on the buses in the morninga. Afternoons were alright. I listened and took notes for Joe Ringers to respond. Put a reminder in my tickler file under Ringers’ name to check later.

Wrote short notes to seven teachers I had visited at Tuckahoe.

Reviewed letters to two principals about their ASPs. Ralph Stone, a principal on assignment to me (funded by state monies that Endo had discovered), reviewed and assessed ASPs that I had already read. We discussed each and talked through the main points to be included in the letter that he would draft. Took a phone call from a former Glenville student who lived in Washington, D.C., and wanted to get together.

Read draft of Newscheck, important information Gillies had prepared for all employees about the district that was enclosed with paychecks. Signed letters I had dictated to Dudley yesterday and documents (retirement papers for teachers, award certificates, special payroll vouchers for employees that had missed their checks, and so forth).


After going home at 5:30 for dinner, I left at about 7:30 to attend a memorial service for Floyd Gravitt, our director of human relations, who had been found murdered in his Washington, D.C. apartment the previous week. Hank Gardner and I had gone to his funeral a few days earlier in a small town in Southside Virginia. The service brought together hundreds of friends and admirers, adults and students of the popular Gravitt who had been the first black to serve in a top position in the district office and had worked hard to bridge the large differences that still existed in a school system that had formally desegregated its last all-black elementary school in1971. I arrived home at 10:00 P.M.

For readers that wish to examine schedules of superintendents in the past few years and compare early 20th century superintendents with early 21st century ones, see the following:

*Article describing Superintendent Kimberle Ward of Naples (NY) early days on the job in 2009; 

*Newspaper account in 2010 of Jon Felske, Superintendent of Wyoming and Godwin Heights districts (MI);

*There is also a YouTube video of Superintendent Edgar Hatrick of Loudon County (VA) in  2011.


Filed under school leaders

What Superintendents Do Daily (Part 1)

In this blog over the past few years, I have posted accounts of a day in the life of a principal and what some teachers do daily. But I have not looked at what district superintendents do at work.

In this three-part post, I will present what I have found over the years of what superintendents did daily on the job over a century ago, 85 years ago, 40 years ago, and the work schedule of contemporary superintendents.

Getting a picture of what superintendents do every day, then and now, is useful in understanding the multiple roles that superintendents perform with the school board who hire and fire them, interactions with teachers and principals, parents, local politicians, and the unpredictability of their work. The high expectations that educators and non-educators have about superintendents arise from these many daily tasks they have performed for over a century. In the last post, I will also offer one superintendent’s views of the impact of a superintendent’s job on one family.


William Chancellor, a former superintendent who served in large and small cities wrote what a typical day looked like for the school chief in a district at the beginning of the 20th century.

1. Inspected school building. Sent messenger for painter to repair window glass. Notified chief of police to follow up street “hoodlums”who broke glass.

2. Read mail; business letters from places large and small: correspondence with colleges; teachers’ applications, requests for subscriptions to help national charities, calls to give addresses here and there, generally gratis; answered mail.

3. Talked to mayor about next year’s appropriations.

4. Looked into a new textbook.

5. Visited a school; sent one child home who had apparently an infectious disease, discussed salary with a discontented teacher.

6. Dictated circular letter to board of education regarding educational and financial matters.

7. Saw a textbook agent.

8. Ate lunch; interrupted by call from mother of sick child.

9. Read and signed letters of reply to morning mail.

10. Called at business place of board member, saw two politicians there; discussed three R’s as usual.

11. Held grade meeting; gave sample lesson on mensuration [branch of geometry that deals with measuring area and volume]

12. Visited by Catholic sisters from parochial school, regarding truants.

13. Read afternoon mail; sent notes regretting absence from office to following callers: Presbyterian minister, carpenter to discuss repairs in a school building, mother of child suspended from school for misconduct.

14. Made a statistical table.

15. Ate dinner; caller on school matters came at seven o’clock,

16. Went to evening engagement and was called on to speak.

17. Read an hour and retired for the night.

Chancellor commented that this was an easy day. Were it a “hard day”, one would need to “add a board or committee of the board meeting, a formal public address or the making of a test.”

1928: National survey of administrators

In that year a national survey of 663 principals and superintendents in various-sized districts reported on which tasks were performed and how frequently. Four of five superintendents reported that they did the following;

*Go to the post office

*Deliver messages to teachers

*Draft special reports to state and U.S. Bureau of Education,prepare annual reports for school board

*Prepare letters of sympathy

*Conduct visitors through schools

*Examine school work sent to office

*Prevent salesmen from canvassing schools

*Answer questionnaires

*Gather school publicity data

*Adjust complaints of parents

*Consider applications, examine credentials, consult with principals in selecting teachers for district

*Secure substitute teachers

*Suggest professional books and articles for teachers

*Investigate criticism of teachers

*Assist teachers to find lodgings

*Attend summer school

*Visit schools elsewhere

*Talk before community groups

*Attend church social functions

Both lists of what superintendents do can be found in Larry Cuban, The Managerial Imperative and the Practice of Leadership in Schools (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1988), pp. 125-128. See: ED304758-1


The next post will document a day I spent as Superintendent in the Arlington (VA) schools nearly 40 years ago.


Filed under school leaders

Principals Helping Teachers Grow: A Task That Too Often Goes Unnoticed

Although I have never served as a principal, I have been a student under three elementary and secondary school principals and worked for six high school principals as a teacher. As a district superintendent, I supervised and evaluated nearly 35 elementary and secondary school principals for seven years. From below and above, then, I have seen principals up close and personal.

I have written in this blog about the core roles  that principals must perform (see here, here, and here). In this post, I describe my experiences with one of those six principals I worked—I was going to write “under”–but decided that a better word for my experience with Oliver Deex is “with.” Those years with Deex helped shape me intellectually, grounded me in practical classroom experience, and gave me a perspective on school reform.

First, some personal background.

I was the third son of Russian immigrants. I saw that my brothers who had to work during the Great Depression to provide family income and then serve the country in World War II lacked the chances that I had simply because I was born in the 1930s and they were born in the 1920s. Because sheer chance made me the youngest, I did not serve in World War II; because I had polio as a child, I could not serve in the Korean War. So I finished college in Pittsburgh and became a teacher in the mid-1950s, landing a job on Cleveland’s East side.

Meeting with Oliver Deex, Glenville High School’s new principal at a local deli a few days before school opened in 1956, was a new experience for me. I had never met with a principal one-on-one since I was a student in high school and the reasons then had nothing to do with my teaching responsibilities.

Talking with Deex, I was startled to find out that the school was over 95 percent black—the word then was Negro—and that he, too, was a tad nervous moving into his first high school principalship after leading a nearby junior high school. He told me  about segregated schools in Cleveland, the differences between the expanding black ghetto on the East side and the pristine white ghetto on the West side with the Cuyahoga River separating the two. He began my education in Cleveland’s residential segregation and the city’s numerous ethnic and racial ghettos.

Although I had grown up in Pittsburgh’s black ghetto, my memories of being one of a handful of white children in the neighborhood  elementary school were unpleasant and not calculated to instill sensitivity. Moreover, in 1955, I saw the popular film Blackboard Jungle, featuring Glenn Ford as an idealistic high school teacher—yes, I identified with Ford—and Vic Morrow and Sidney Poitier as cunning adolescents smoking in bathrooms and becoming lethal toward teachers such as Ford. The film shook me up as did the music: Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” played loud and often throughout the film.

Haltingly, I asked him questions about how many classes I would be teaching—five, he said. How large the classes were—between 25-30, he said. Then, he asked questions of me since he knew nothing about his new hire which is why he invited me to the deli. I told him about my background and eagerness to teach history. From that initial conversation with Deex, a working relationship evolved  between  a principal in his late-50s  and 21 year-old novice teacher.

In the first few years, I was a politically and intellectually naïve teacher pushing my unvarnished passion for teaching history onto urban students bored with traditional lectures and seatwork. At Glenville High School, I designed new lessons and materials in what was then called Negro history (see here). My success in engaging many (but not all) students in studying the past emboldened me to think that sharp, energetic teachers (yes, like me) creating and using can’t-miss history lessons could solve the problem of disengaged black youth. My principal supported my efforts in getting me a ditto machine, paper, and speaking to downtown district officials about what I was doing.

A former stock broker who after the crash of 1929 turned to education to support his family, got his degrees, taught, and then entered school-site administration, Oliver Deex was a voracious reader,  charming conversationalist, and skeptical of district office policies aimed at school improvement. I was a college graduate but had never seen Saturday Review of Literature, Harpers, Atlantic, Nation, and dozens of others magazines. Why he took this interest in me, I have, until this very day, no idea. But he did.

His insistent questioning of my beliefs and ideas and gentle guidance whetted my appetite for ideas and their application to daily life and teaching. Our monthly or so get-togethers to discuss books and articles left me with a great hunger for ideas and intellectual growth the rest of my life. And not only me.

Deex often invited to his home a small group of teachers committed to seeing more and more Glenville students go to college. When we were in his wood-paneled library, a room that looked as if it were a movie set, he would urge me to take this or that book. This group of teachers and one counselor stayed together as an informal group for the entire time I taught at Glenville and even morphed into a social group around making investments bringing in spouses to the mix of teachers.

Oliver Deex took an intellectual interest in me and supported me in my efforts to get a masters in history, apply for a one-year fellowship at Yale, and scrounged funds from the budget and downtown officials to advance what I was doing in my classes.

Today, Deex would be called a “mentor.” He supported, prodded, and encouraged a young teacher to grasp ideas and apply them to life and teaching. It was not part of his job description and surely went unnoticed by his superiors. But it had enormous influence on my life and career.


Filed under school leaders

A Superintendent’s Dreaded Decision

School closings due to snow and bad weather in the Midwest and along the East coast have occurred weekly this winter. While doing research at two high schools in Washington, D.C. in early December, sleet and rain mixed with snow closed schools in the city and surrounding counties. Winter storm Janus just a few days ago shut down schools from Boston through Washington, D.C.

Does closing schools harm student achievement? Probably not since most districts add “snow days” to the Spring calendar for every day schools are closed. One commentator even made the argument that closing schools helps students and their families. I have no opinion on the pundit’s point since I really do not know.

What I do know is that when I was Arlington (VA) superintendent for seven years (1974-1981), it was the one decision of many that I made that I dreaded. Over those years, I moved several elementary school principals for not improving academic achievement and a high school principal for inept leadership, survived teacher union votes of no confidence, consolidated seven schools–shutting them down permanently–and built a system of teacher professional development and accountability for student academic achievement.  Yet after all of those  consequential decisions, weather forecasts of snow between December and March scared me silly.


1. We lived in a weather zone where a change of a few degrees in temperature would turn a cold rain into sleet, hail, or inches of snow. Thus, we depended heavily on weather predictions and even ones within 24-hours generated by advanced computer models would often give a range of temperatures making a decision a nerve-wracking one.


2. Closing down 35 schools for 15,000 students (in the 1970s) meant that their health and safety–too wet and cold outside for students to wait for buses, roads too slippery and dangerous for school buses, public transportation, and private cars to negotiate–were primary considerations in making a decision.

images-13. Because up to half of the school population came from families where single parents or both parents worked outside the home, closing down schools would mean that these parents would have to scramble to get child care for the day. many could not locate child care the last moment and parents had to skip work or deal with kids being taken care of (or not). This factor also weighed heavily in any decision I made.

4. The superintendent makes the decision. In the first year of my superintendency, the procedure was for the assistant superintendent in charge of transportation, buildings and grounds calling me during the early evening and give me the forecast for the next day. He would then make a recommendation, based on some of his lieutenants being out on the streets seeing the conditions first-hand,  for keeping the schools open or closing them. I was tempted a few times to have him make the decision but resisted that temptation since any mistakes would fall on me as the superintendent, not him. Better, I felt, that I make the decision and take the heat should the decision go awry. And some did.

4. Because of the dicey weather zone we lived in, it was possible to close schools and end up with snow turning to rain and having a wet day rather than 5-10 inches of snow. Or worse yet, an unexpected clearing up of bad weather and at 1 PM in the afternoon the sun is shining. That happened to me once in seven years and the comments I got then, well, I do not want to pass them along.

5. Our two daughters were in the public schools at the time and it doesn’t take a leap of imagination to hear that their friends called them when bad weather was predicted for the area and asked whether I would be closing the schools tomorrow.  Sometimes, an unexpected weather front would move in during the school day and we had to decide to close school early. Those decisions would be easier than closing schools the next day because all you had to do was look outside and see for yourself.


For these and many other reasons, I dreaded making decisions about keeping schools open or shutting them down. But I did. And the reason is that such a decision is a human judgment not one driven by an algorithm. Sure, human judgments are flawed just as surely as the weighted factors that go into an algorithm.


Filed under school leaders

Turning Around Urban Districts: The Case of Paul Vallas


Lee Iaccoca, Steve Jobs, and Ann Mulcahy were CEOs that resurrected  Chrysler,  Apple, and Xerox from near (or actual) bankruptcy to profitability. They were turnaround heroes–saviors, if you like–to their corporate boards and shareholders.

Salvaging a sinking business means that the CEO charts a new direction, outsiders     arrive  and veterans exit, novel products appear and old ones disappear–constant and unrelenting change is the order of the day in saving a company.  A tough job that  demands a thick skin with little time for regrets.

Turning around low-performing urban school districts is in the same class as CEOs turning around failing companies.

After serving in Chicago for six years, Philadelphia five years, and New Orleans four years, 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.”

Vallas’s  operating principle, according to one journalist who covered his superintendency in Philadelphia, is: “Do things big, do them fast, and do them all at once.” For over a decade, the media christened Vallas as savior for each of the above three cities before exiting, but just last week, he stumbled in his fourth district–Bridgeport (CT) and ended up as “chopped liver” in less than two years.

Vallas is (or was) the premier “turnaround specialist.” Whether, indeed, Vallas turned around Chicago, Philadelphia, and New Orleans is contested. Supporters point to more charter schools, fresh faces in the classroom, new buildings, and slowly rising test scores; critics point to abysmal graduation rates for black and Latino students, enormous budget deficits, and implementation failures. After Bridgeport, however, his brand-name as a “turnaround specialist,” like “killer apps” of yore such as Lotus 1-2-3 and WordStar, may well fade.

Turning around a failing company or a school district is no work for sprinters, it is marathoners who refashion the company and district into successes. Lee Iaccoco was CEO of Chrysler from 1978-1992; Steve Jobs was CEO from 1997-2011, and Ann Mulcahy served 2001-2009.

Among big city superintendents, marathoners like Carl Cohn in Long Beach (CA), Pat Forgione in Austin (TX), and Tom Payzant in Boston (MA) took over failing districts and, serving over a decade in each place, built structures and leadership continuity that eventually earned awards for improved student achievement.

Superintendents with savior-like visions sprint through basket-case district for a few years and depart (e.g., Michelle Rhee in Washington, D.C., Rudy Crew in New York and Miami-Dade, Jean-Claude Brizard in Rochester and Chicago.

In many instances, sprinter superintendents follow a recipe: reorganize district administrators, take on teacher unions, and create new schools in their rush for better student achievement. They take dramatic and swift actions that will attract high media attention. But they also believe—here is where ideological myopia enters the picture—that low test scores and achievement gaps between whites and minorities are due in large part to reluctant (or inept) district bureaucrats, recalcitrant principals, and knuckle-dragging union leaders defending contracts that protect lousy teachers from pay-for-performance incentives.

Such beliefs, however, seriously misread why urban district students fail to reach proficiency levels and graduate high school. As important as it is to reorganize district offices, alter salary schedules, get rid of incompetent teachers and intractable principals, such actions in of themselves will not turn around a broken district. While there is both research and experiential evidence to support each of these beliefs as factors in hindering students’ academic performance, what undercuts sprinter-driven reforms in these arenas is the simple fact that fast-moving CEOs fast-track their solutions to these problems, get spent from there exertions or create too much turmoil, and soon exit leaving the debris of their reforms next to the skid marks in the parking lot. Swift actions certainly garner attention but sprinters quickly lose steam after completing 100 meters.

Consider long-distance runners. They carefully scrutinize and adapt reforms as they get implemented. Behind-the-scenes, they build teacher and administrator expertise to put changes into practice, mobilize staff and community to support long-term changes in teaching and learning, and, most important, create a pool of leaders ready to assume responsibility for sustaining the ever-shifting reform agenda.

They ask hard questions that few sprinter superintendents ask:

1. Did policies aimed at improving student achievement (e.g., small high schools, pay-for performance plans, new reading and math curricula, parental choice) get fully implemented?

2. When implemented fully, did they change the content and practice of teaching?

3. Did changed classroom practices account for what students learned?

4. Did what students learn achieve the goals set by policy makers?

Sprinter superintendents neither have the breathing capacity nor motivation to ask and answer these questions. They are too busy eyeing the finish line. Marathoners spend time and energy on these questions although 2 and 3 get skimpy attention from even the best of the long-distance runners. Still, urban children are better served by superintendents willing to go the distance rather than those swift runners who flash by without a backward glance.

Paul Vallas is (or was)* a sprinter at a time when marathoners are needed for turning around failing districts.


*A hearing on the removal of Vallas will occur in the Fall before the Connecticut Supreme Court


Filed under school leaders, school reform policies

Principaling in a Rural School (Gerald Carter, Larry Lee, and Owen Sweatt)

With all of the focus on principal leadership, attrition, and staying power, here’s a picture of an administrator who had an unlikely career path to the principalship and has stayed the course while becoming integral to the school and community. Richard Bryant performs all three core roles of the job (instructional, managerial, and political) and, according to those who are in the town and who have watched him  in action, he does them well.

This post is an excerpt from “Lessons Learned from Rural Schools,” May, 2009. The full report is at: LessonsLearnedRuralSchools2009-1

When Richard Bryant got his diploma from Camden Academy High School in 1971, he had one thing on his mind: heading to Arizona. But there was one problem. “I didn’t have any money,” he laughs.

So that fall he began working as a teacher’s aide and in 1973 became both an aide and a bus driver at F.S.Ervin in Pine Hill (Alabama). Little did he know that 36 years later he would still be at Ervin, where he has been principal for nine years. [Ervin elementary school has 360 students, of whom 100 percent are on free or reduced lunch].

With assistance from a Federal program, Bryant graduated from Alabama State University in 1975. He commuted to Montgomery from Wilcox County every Monday and Wednesday nights. “I would get off my school bus route and head for Montgomery, getting home about midnight,” he remembers.

Harry Mason has been mayor of Pine Hill for 16 years. Before that he served 18 years on the Wilcox County Board of Education. His life and Bryant’s have been intertwined for decades as he was on the board when Bryant was first hired.

Today Mason is one of the small town’s biggest supporters of the school and does anything he can to help. “There’s no doubt that the mayor and his wife (who taught school for 23 years) are our true community champions,” says Bryant.

“It’s real easy to figure out that without a good school, a town doesn’t have much future,” says Mason, who has lived in Pine Hill his entire life. “We’ve got the best school we’ve ever had, thanks in large part to Richard’s leadership.”

Like Bryant, the great majority of Ervin faculty members are from the local area. “It’s important that faculty can relate to students, to the homes they come from, to the churches they go to, to the way children are raised in this region,” says Bryant.To back up his point, the principal points out that he not only has teachers who live in Pine Hill, but in [nearby towns].

“You could say we are all peas in the same pod,” adds Bryant.  Like the rest of the Black Belt,Wilcox County’s economy was built on cotton in antebellum Alabama.The county had a population of 17,352 in 1850 (in 2011, the population was 11,482). Only nine other counties had greater farm income.There were 50 boat landings along the Alabama River where paddlewheel boats loaded cotton to ship to Mobile.

But timber—not cotton—has always dominated the economy around Pine Hill on the western side of the county.The International Paper mill eight miles away is the area’s largest employer.

Today, the forest products industry is being impacted with the rest of the economy.Weyerhaeuser’s sawmill and veneer mill at Yellow Bluff recently closed leaving 300 people without jobs. Unemployment in Wilcox County in February 2009 was 21.5 percent, the highest in Alabama.

However, Bryant is used to coping with tough times. “Sometimes I think that’s about all we’ve ever had around here,” he says, “which means you have got to look for help anywhere you think you can find it.”

For example, if Bryant plans to cut grass at the school on Saturday,  he may ask a parent what they are doing that day. If they say they are busy, then he is likely to ask them for a gallon of gas to put in a lawnmower.“We’ll probably get the gas, but more importantly, we get another person in the community to take ownership of what happens at the school,” he says.

One resource he turns to is International Paper’s local foundation.

In the last four years Ervin has received $17,346 in grant funds from the company, most directed at programs involving reading.“Ervin is a great school and they maintain good relations with our company,” says Anita Smith of IP.The company also helps with science fairs and reading projects such as Dr. Seuss Day.

It’s unlikely you will find a cleaner, better-kept school than F. S. Ervin. Bryant tries to paint the facility every two-three years. It is up to him to cover the cost of painting. The principal estimates that the school raises $15,000 or more each year to supplement funding.

Ervin was designated a Torchbearer school for the 2008-09 school year. They received $33,000 because of this recognition. [In 2010, Ervin 3rd grade students scored at the 79th percentile; across the state students scored at the 36th percentile.]

After 38 years in education, Bryant says retirement is not far down the road.What will he do then? “Well,” he laughs, “I still haven’t made it to Arizona.”




Filed under school leaders

Turning Around Failing School Districts: How Many Examples Do Policymakers Need??

David Kirp’s new book, Improbable Scholars, tells the quarter-century story of the Union City (NJ) victory in creating a successful, largely minority and poor school district as measured by test scores, college admissions, parent surveys, teacher accounts–take your pick. It is a story where stable city and district leadership, over the course of a generation, worked to build strong preschool, elementary, and secondary programs with cadres of knowledgeable and experienced teachers and administrators who stayed the course and who used new technologies to advance district goals. Stable leadership. Committed educators. Persistence. Adequate funding. Kirp lays out these and other principles that he extracted from the long-term school reform in this New Jersey district. For a conversation with Kirp and the President of Teachers College, Susan Fuhrman about the book, see here.


Of course, Union City is not the first nor last district to have turned itself around over a few decades and stayed effective. We know of Long Beach (CA), Aldine (TX), Montgomery County (MD), Sanger (CA), Cincinnati (OH) and many more. See, for example, Greg Anrig’s Beyond the Education Wars. The seven principles that Kirp extracts from Union City’s success mirror features of these other districts.

However, a long list of such districts that have learned the importance of adequate funding, strong preschool programs, continuous district leadership, supporting teachers, and building cultures that honor both teaching and learning does not add up to an easy recipe. For sustaining “good” districts is a set of inter-connected complex tasks that require ingenuity, resources, committed educators, and luck. Oops! I forgot to mention time. The very ingredient that policy elites eager to scale up school-by-school innovations, build new district structures of school choice, and add high-tech scrimshaw often forget or ignore.

For the dominant  thinking among federal and state policymakers is a rush-rush strategy of transforming low-performing school districts through fear, sanctions, and putting money on the stump for districts to grab. See Race to the Top. I have written about the the short-sightedness and, yes, foolishness of such strategies for individual schools but now I want to ask the simple question: with so many examples of school districts, big and small, past and present, raising student achievement and sustaining that achievement, why do policy elites keep preaching widespread school failure and reaching for more online schooling, outsourcing schools to private and for-profit managers, wholesale restructuring, and closing schools?

OK, I admit, the question is not simple. It points to the continuing split among reformers over the role of the school in combating poverty–the “no excuses” brand (e.g., ex-chancellors Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee)–and joining schools with community services early and systematically from prenatal through age 21. Squeezed resources, of course, make choices inevitable so the “no excuses” crowd whose slogan also means that reforming schools is much cheaper than the alternative continue to dominate the media and the conversation over what works while ignoring the striking results of investing limited resources in those districts that have the know-how and are creating success, however measured, over the  long-term.

Books like Improbable Scholars and Beyond the Education Wars  show a mix of large and small districts provide sufficient examples of what can be done within current governance and structures without resort to the next quick-fix-it solution coming around the corner.

The evidence is there. Policy elites choose to ignore such evidence because it is slower, requires different allocation of resources, and challenges the current orthodoxy that U.S. schools are irreversible failures and need total transformation.


Filed under school leaders, school reform policies

Cartoons on Principals

Some school-site principals have been the subject of films (e.g.,  Joe Clark– in “Lean on Me”) and some have been caricatured (e.g., the fictitious Edward Rooney in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”). Both political realities–someone has to be in charge to manage a school building and staff of teachers, secretaries, aides, and custodians–and research studies position the principal as the key player in mobilizing teachers, students, and parents to put into practice school and district goals. Their importance, of course, only sharpens the pen that cartoonists wield in poking at the different roles (e.g., managerial, political, and instructional) that principals perform daily and the inevitable dilemmas that they face. As part of a monthly feature*, here are a few cartoons. Enjoy.

cartoon prin: tchr

mission statement chorus

no negative press

Stays in vegas

school reform

principal hiring tchr


hug a principal



*In previous months, the following cartoons have been posted:  “Digital Kids in School,” “Testing,” “Blaming Is So American,”  “Accountability in Action,” “Charter Schools,” and “Age-graded Schools,” Students and Teachers, Parent-Teacher Conferences, Digital Teachers, Addiction to Electronic DevicesTesting, Testing, and Testing, Business and Schools, Common Core Standards, Problems and Dilemmas, Digital Natives (2),  Online Courses,  , Students and Teachers Again, “Doctors and Teachers,Parent/teacher conferences, and “Preschools.”


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Principals as Instructional Leaders: Rhetoric and Reality (Part 2)

Past and current research on principals reveal that school-site leaders perform managerial, instructional, and political roles in and out of their schools. Of these multiple (and often conflicting) roles, however, the instructional leader role has been spotlighted as a “must” for these men and women because, as the theory (and rhetoric) goes, it is crucial to improving teacher performance and student academic achievement.

Yet studies of principal behavior in schools makes clear that spending time in classrooms to observe, monitor, and evaluate classroom lessons do not necessarily lead to better teaching or higher student achievement on standardized tests. Where there is a correlation between principals’ influence on teachers and student performance, it occurs when principals create and sustain an academic ethos in the school, organize instruction across the school, and align school lessons to district standards and standardized test items. There is hardly any positive association between principals walking in and out of classrooms a half-dozen times a day and conferring briefly with teaches about those five-minute visits.The reality of daily principal actions conflicts with the theory.

Much of the rhetoric of instructional leadership flowing from true believers in the theory rings hollow when researchers actually go into schools and shadow principals, observing what they do day-after-day in a school a week or more at a time. Such time-and-motion studies have been done ever since the days of Frederick Winslow Taylor and “scientific management” in the early 20th century. When such studies were done, they showed that the bulk of the a principal’s time was spent on managing the building, teachers, students, and parents. That was then.

Now, a few published studies make the same point: what principals do is largely manage people and buildings spending most of their time outside of the classroom, not inside watching teachers teach.

A recent report ( Shadow Study Miami-Dade Principals) of what 65 principals did each day during one week in 2008 in Miami-Dade county (FLA) shows that even under NCLB pressures for academic achievement and the widely accepted (and constantly spouted) ideology of instructional leadership, Miami-Dade principals spend most of their day in managerial tasks that influence the climate of the school but may or may not affect daily instruction. What’s more, those principals who spend the most time on organizing and managing the instructional program have test scores and teacher and parental satisfaction results  that are higher than those principals who spend time coaching teachers and popping into classroom lessons.

The researchers shadowed elementary and secondary principals and categorized their activities minute-by-minute through self-reports, interviews, and daily logs kept by the principals.

In the academic language of the study:

The authors find that time spent on Organization Management activities is associated with positive school outcomes, such as student test score gains and positive teacher and parent assessments of the instructional climate, whereas Day-to-Day Instruction activities are marginally or not at all related to improvements in student performance and often have a negative relationship with teacher and parent assessments. This paper suggests that a single-minded focus on principals as instructional leaders operationalized through direct contact with teachers may be detrimental if it forsakes the important role of principals as organizational leaders (p. iv)

Two things jump out of this study for me. First, the results of shadowing principals in 2008 mirror patterns in principal work that researchers have found since the 1920s although the methodologies of time-and-motion studies have changed.

Second, there is an association–a correlation, by no means a cause-effect relationship–between principals who spend more time managing the organization and climate of the school than those principals who spend time in direct contact with teachers in classrooms.

Another study of first- year urban principals prepared by New Leaders,  a program imbued with beliefs in instructional leadership, revealed that new principals, a large fraction of whom left the post after two years, had little impact on student achievement even while observing and monitoring teacher lessons (see RAND_TR1191)

A few studies, of course, will not banish a theory lacking convincing evidence, temper the rhetoric of principal-as-instructional-leader,  or alter principal preparation programs.  Current rhetoric and ideology highlighting instructional leadership trump research studies, past and present, again and again.

Some donor-funded efforts try combining the results of the above studies and earlier research about principals managing the instructional program with their direct involvement in teachers’ classroom practices. See, for example, the Wallace Foundation’s recent publication The-School-Principal-as-Leader-Guiding-Schools-to-Better-Teaching-and-Learning.    In their well-intentioned effort, however, they give life to a failed theory and pump oxygen into the prevailing rhetoric.

The rose-colored view that principals of schools, big and small, urban and suburban, elementary and secondary, can throw fairy dust over teacher lessons and improve student academic performance continues to dominate professional associations of principals and university preparation programs.


Filed under school leaders