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Posted at 8:59 AM ET, 11/28/2010

Why non-educator school chiefs aren't the answer

By Valerie Strauss

This was written byLarry Cuban, a former high school social studies teacher (14 years, including seven at Cardozo and Roosevelt high schools in the District), district superintendent (seven years in Arlington, Virginia) and professor emeritus of education at Stanford University, where he has taught for 20 years. His latest book is "As Good As It Gets: What School Reform Brought to Austin." This appeared on his blog.

By Larry Cuban
Many questions accompany the current reform effort for mayors and urban districts to hire non-educators. Here are a few.

1. Where do non-educator superintendents serve?

Lawyers Harold Levy and Joel Klein served as Chancellors in New York City. Publishing executive Cathie Black was selected to replace Klein. Paul Vallas, former budget chief for Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, headed that city's schools. Colorado governor Roy Romer went to run Los Angeles schools. Generals John Stanford in Seattle and Julius Becton in Washington, D.C. confirm that nearly all non-educator superintendents serve in big cities. Few small town, suburban, or rural districts have sought non-educator superintendents.

2. Why has selecting non-educators become a strategy for improving teaching and learning in urban districts?

Beginning in the mid-1970s, the decline of U.S. workplace productivity, rising unemployment, losses in market share to Japan and Germany, and swift technological changes led corporate and civic leaders to locate reasons for poor economic performance. Within a few years, these policy elites “educationalized” the problem by pointing to low SAT test scores and high school graduates unprepared for the workplace. Schools got blamed for U.S. slipping competitiveness.

What glued together this alliance of public officials, corporate leaders, and foundation officials were key, but often unstated, assumptions. They assumed that:

* Excessive district bureaucracy, union contracts, and lack of accountability had lowered academic standards (particularly in math and science), undermined rigorous teaching, and produced students mismatched to the skill demands of an information-based workplace.

*Better management, high academic standards, increased competition among schools for students, and clear incentives (e.g., pay-for-performance) and penalties (e.g., firing ineffective teachers who fail to raise students’ test scores) would end the mismatch and improve teaching and learning.

* The best measures of improved teaching and learning were higher test scores

* Expanded parental choice (e.g., charters) would create more innovative urban schools and drive out failing ones.

These assumptions added up to a market-based prescription for all public schools (not just urban ones). Since the late 1990s, presidents and governors from both political parties have moved swiftly to establish curricular standards, impose tests, and hold teachers and administrators responsible for student outcomes.

This business-driven rationale has become the basis for picking urban district leaders. And the lingo: superintendents and principals became CEOs. The theory assumes that big companies are just like school systems but that corporate leaders are better managers than educators.

If you climbed the educator career ladder, the theory goes, your prior experiences make you unfit to manage thousands of employees, oversee multi-million dollar budgets or make hard decisions. You simply lack the managerial toughness of leaders who had to meet an unrelenting bottom line. If you were a corporate attorney for CitiCorp, you can run the district and improve student achievement.

3. How are non-educators superintendents supposed to improve teaching and learning?

Knowing the three core duties that every superintendent must perform in heading a district will help answer the question.

*Instructional (initiate classroom improvements; oversee their implementation and assessment; develop staff capacities to assess, revise, and continue improvements).

*Managerial (oversee budgets, make personnel decisions, supervise and evaluate staff, secure resources)

*Political (gain school board, teacher, civic, and community support for instructional reform; negotiate with multiple unions to endorse improvements).

So, the question is: In a big city school system, how can one non-educator superintendent–having to perform managerial, political, and instructional duties–reach into thousands of classrooms to improve teaching and learning?

A superintendent has to mobilize resources and support from many different people and groups inside and outside the system, build a climate for instructional improvement over a sustained period of time, and enlist principals and teachers to put into practice jointly shared ends in hundreds of schools and thousands of classrooms.

4. What is the evidence thus far for non-educator superintendents improving academic achievement?

While there are dueling studies from researchers on whether mayorally appointed non-educator superintendents have raised test scores, see here, and here, the policy-to-practice chain that stretches from the chancellor’s office to a first grade teacher’s classroom is very long with many links.

Superintendents can create district learning climates–one link– where principals and teachers are inspired, supported, and pressed to do well in their schools and classrooms. Such district cultures can influence test scores indirectly but these cultures are hard to develop and sustain, particularly if superintendents exit after a few years.

Furthermore, the metrics of success are worrisome. High stakes state tests used year after year show gains as teachers become familiar with test items and prepare students for the exams. But when state officials dump the test and adopt a new one, scores plummet. New York City’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein who previously had trumpeted a rise in test scores, backtracked after test scores dropped following a new state test.

The dream of corporate-inspired reformers for nearly two decades that governance changes and non-educators as managers in urban districts will turnaround failing schools and erase the test score achievement gap has yet to materialize.


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By Valerie Strauss  | November 28, 2010; 8:59 AM ET
Categories:  Educational leadership, Guest Bloggers, Larry Cuban  | Tags:  cathie black, cathleen black, educational leadership, qualifications for superintendents, school reform, school superintendents, schools, superintendents  
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No matter the training, large urban school system superintendents can, should, and do delegate the instructional and managerial duties for the most part. They absolutely must do a great job with the political aspects of their job.

Those with experience throughout the system may have greater empathy with the employees, but may still fail due to other shortcomings.

In short, the superintendent of a large urban school system can be anyone who can manage the various deputy superintendents and others just below the superintendent position and who can negotiate the political environment successfully. The superintendent should be able to inspire with action and rhetoric.

However, focusing on the superintendent ignores many factors that affect success in education. As you point out, it also ignores the true impact of education on our national competitiveness.

Let's say that a 50% dropout rate in high schools will impact our ability to compete and not worry so much about test scores and other details. I think that's fair.

Our children in many large urban schools spend hours and hours in a prison-like environment where they aren't challenged, inspired, or moved. It's all memorize this and memorize that. You can forget it all after the test because next year, you'll spend 25% or more of the year reviewing what you memorized and forgot. Nothing you do seems to have any bearing on your future success.

We must break this unending chain of ennui.

As a scientist and, recently, a science education expert, I look at science education particularly closely. In most science classes, students must simply memorize a bunch of difficult jargon and/or a series of difficult formulas and/or lots of procedures. They can pass the usual high-stakes handily without participating in a single science lab. All of the stuff they are supposedly learning has no meaning outside of their classroom, at least to them.

In science, we can change that problem dramatically by having students do lab work that challenges them to discover rather than asking them to find an answer they've been given or to follow a detailed lab procedure.

Hands-on labs can do this. Simulations do not. However, there's a third alternative provided by today's new technology: prerecorded real experiments. We can expand students' experimental experience enormously. Over 50 NYC schools are doing exactly that today. One reported that the Regents science pass rate jumped amazingly from 50% to 66% after just 12 months of assigning these "virtual labs" as homework.

My point is simple. We spend too much time on stuff like who the superintendent should be and too little on things that really can make a difference. We waste too much money of flashy technology that produces no improvement and too little on real innovations that can improve results AND save money.

Posted by: harry4 | November 28, 2010 12:31 PM | Report abuse

Amen, Harry4. I think in today's climate I want a manager running the school district, there are too many outside factors (budget, politics, federal and state mandates, etc) for a single administrator to focus on. But the more important issue that you pointed out is the fact that we are ignoring the things that can make a true difference in what students learn. Focusing on helping teachers improve their technique, providing them flexibility to adjust the speed and depth of the curriculum based on their class needs and teaching children to solve issues as opposed to teaching them to memorize facts without context are just some of the things we should focus on related to school reform.

Posted by: welangIII | November 28, 2010 2:10 PM | Report abuse

Having taught under one business "CEO" in a private high school and seeing close up the shambles that person created in the school, it is difficult for me to imagine that the continuing stream of power brokers with no education experience will do anything of real significance to improve U.S. Education.

Two basic reasons: 1)EGO - They aren't in it for the long haul - that basic lack of commitment to kids speaks volumes - and
2) Ignorance of what you are leading or trying to manage can lead to some really poor decision-making and vulnerability to manipulation. I don't care how great a collaborator you are, some learning curves are just too steep.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | November 28, 2010 5:44 PM | Report abuse

I wonder why these non-educational supes want to run school districts like a business, but then restrain teachers from upholding standards. Failure should not be the only motivation for a student to perform well, but it has been completely removed from any use - teachers are pressured to pass students who haven't learned the concepts of the subject. That doesn't occur in businesses.

Posted by: peonteacher | November 28, 2010 7:06 PM | Report abuse

"The theory assumes that big companies are just like school systems but that corporate leaders are better managers than educators."

Corporate leaders make huge mistakes, and make the employees pay for them by laying them off. Corporate leaders are ruthless in putting themselves before the company. They are willing to destroy anyone to take money out of the company.

They are destroying the American economy.

Posted by: jlp19 | November 29, 2010 10:52 AM | Report abuse

If the the people who destroyed the American economy were really in charge of of educating America's future leaders, we'd be in serious trouble, but they're only appointed to oversee the education of poor children. Wealthy and suburban families would never put up with a non-educator running their school system or TFA's teaching their kids. But as long as bad policy only hurts the poor, no one seems to care.

Posted by: mcstowy | November 29, 2010 11:54 AM | Report abuse

mcstowy: What an ignorant statement you made. CEOs didn't destroy the economy. Politicians did. Wake up.

Posted by: LarryG62 | November 29, 2010 12:36 PM | Report abuse

If the administrator of 25000+ employee and 100s of thousands of students spends time doing the following

*Instructional: initiate classroom improvements; oversee their implementation and assessment; develop staff capacities to assess,-------

I doubt if any person who would deal with the day-to-day classroom issues listed by the author is qualified to be a superintendent of a large public school system. What he must do is:

1) Insure that the system is adequately funded by what ever means. For a large school district this means dealing with the Statehouse and washington D.C. in addition to dealing with the mayor

2) Sucessfully deal with the myriad of outside influences seeking to influence curriculum and success criteria ranging from fundemental
religious groups to minority advocacy groups.

3) and most importantly they must successfully resist the unrelenting pressure for salary increase/class size reduction coming from the teachers unions, the basic cause of all financial problems in education today.

Posted by: rlgbob22 | November 29, 2010 1:53 PM | Report abuse


You're wrong. Read a book. They have them at the library.

America was at its strongest economically during the 25 years after WWII, when economic regulation was at its strongest, anti-trust laws were enforced, top marginal tax rates were above 70% and unions were at their strongest. I do agree that at least one politician is most directly responsible for America's economic destruction: Ronald Reagan. He began the attack on American working people and encouraged the theft of their wealth by Wall Street and the corporate welfare state.

Posted by: mcstowy | November 29, 2010 3:46 PM | Report abuse

Then why is the fed running healthcare?

shouldn't the doctors do it?

oh.... it's always good if it favors big govt and unions?

got it.

Posted by: docwhocuts | November 29, 2010 5:12 PM | Report abuse

mcstowy is wrong, again.

who"s destroying the country? the most pervasive factor is our lousy classroom education, now a decades-old phenom in many locales.

Posted by: axolotl | November 29, 2010 6:18 PM | Report abuse

When you have people running a school district (except for finance) who have not been in education as a career/calling, you have disaster. I worked in an urban district for 40 years and had both. I will always take a hard-headed administrator (and I had many) who spent some time in the ditches that one who comes from business and thinks the educational system is like making wideget, cars or computers.

Posted by: diamond2 | November 29, 2010 6:45 PM | Report abuse

Why limit superintendent's to ex-educators? Must you have been a teacher to mange teachers?

Posted by: camiolo | November 29, 2010 10:13 PM | Report abuse

Improving educational performance begins at home.
One need look no farther than changes over the last three decades in American family life to see why student performance is declining.
Families have failed the schools, not the other way around.

Posted by: virtualchemist | November 29, 2010 10:51 PM | Report abuse

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