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What Should Urban School Boards Do Now?

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The recent ouster of the chancellor of the New York City Public Schools has focused renewed attention on an alarming national trend: the growing instability of the job of big-city school superintendents. Forty of the 45 superintendents of the Council of the Great City Schools have been in their current positions only since 1990--with some hired since then already leaving their jobs. The estimated two-year tenure of the average big-city school superintendent is believed now to be at an all-time low, prompting some of us to measure our time as school leaders in "dog years.''

The problem is as complex and thorny as they come. Just as local boards of education tend to blame superintendents, many observers blame school boards for the instability of the urban superintendency. Suggested solutions are widespread--and as varied as the personalities and interests involved, ranging from the break-up of large city public school systems to the dissolution of school boards. Still others propose moving the entire school enterprise under the mayors' aegis, while others suggest eliminating the governing authority of school boards and replacing it with a more advisory status. Finally, there are some who suggest that schools abandon the contentious health and social needs that no one else will meet, in order to focus solely on reading, writing, and arithmetic.

So what about the structure of the school boards themselves? Is there a clear model of success? Unfortunately no. Almost every model suggested for solving the problems of one city board has been tried by another. In cities like Chicago, Baltimore, and Philadelphia, for instance, the mayor does appoint the board of education but the result is hardly harmonious. The city of Phoenix has several boards of education governing different grade levels but consensus is rarely found. And some cities do surprisingly little in health care, yet dispose of their superintendents with the same abandon that George Steinbrenner used to fire Billy Martin. Our Great City school boards have staggered and concurrent terms of office, function with and without staff, are paid and unpaid, and serve for long terms and short. All appear to be fractured.

Then what is behind the turmoil, not just in New York City but nationally, and what are the solutions that will lead to

See a related Commentary, "Deconstructing Decentralization,'' by Paul Hill, on page 28.

greater stability for urban superintendents and their boards of education? And is the problem any different in the big cities than anywhere else?

We believe that the problems of the nation's large city school systems are indeed more prominent. But we do not think the issue is solely structural or related to "boards qua boards,'' however much the recent spectacle in New York suggests otherwise.

The problem is more complicated and lies in the overwhelming pressure and impatience for immediate educational improvement woven with the unusually severe needs of the inner cities. Big-city public school systems operate within high concentrations of poverty, homelessness, crime, drug abuse, teen pregnancies, racial tension, disabilities, and limited English proficiency. These realities are further complicated by a mind-boggling mix of outside challenges: declining financial resources and few job opportunities; economic, cultural, racial, physical, and political isolation; heavy media scrutiny; and fractured, but often desperately aggressive, unions and community groups. Add to this the often critical--and always high-profile--corporate and think-tank voices impatient with the pace of reform and restructuring in big city schools, the "riding crop'' of national and state standards and accountability, the disparate calls for multiculturalism, and the explosion of innovation and technology and you have many people--many good people--who get pitted against one another in ways that are often unthinkable in more advantaged and homogeneous communities.

While many urban boards of education do have their share of amateurs and single-issue members with axes to grind, the current paralysis of many big-city school systems has more to do with the inability of school board members to guide change and innovation than with being buffeted from pillar to post. Big-city boards need to continually recognize that vital relationship between individual and group decisions--over seemingly disconnected issues--decisions that really do advance or retard needed change. Furthermore, they need to be innovative enough to mesh that sense of change with a superintendent who has the same view of the world.

A recent survey of school board members hints at the problem. The boards of education were ranked low--by themselves and by others--in both their willingness to try new things, and in their creativity and innovation. With this reluctance to innovate, it becomes easy for board members to devote themselves to micro-managing administrative affairs, fighting over secondary issues, and playing out narrow, usually individual, agenda items. This behavior--however well-meaning--tends to disintegrate into a maelstrom of bickering over details. Eventually, the board members become fed up and finger the one person it's easiest to blame--the superintendent.

The solution, then, seems to lie in the ability of big-city school boards to see broad change and streamline decisionmaking to advance that change. School boards must work with the superintendent through thick and thin, and over an extended period, to recognize the larger context swirling around them. They must mesh their visions, agendas, and decisionmaking for change--sometimes at the expense of their private needs and concerns.

There are some encouraging examples. Cities like Philadelphia, San Diego, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Portland, Omaha, and Seattle have retained their superintendents in spite of the usual turmoil, and have managed to create meaningful and substantial educational improvement. Their successes would seem to indicate that a big-city superintendent needs between three and five years to create momentum and to sustain progress--a chance that many superintendents will never be allowed to have.

What happened in the New York City Schools provides us with an important national lesson that can halt the downwardly spiraling tenure of our big-city school superintendents: Mandates must be shared and special interests must be tempered. Structural changes designed to serve one governing interest or another, information sharing, or sensitivity training will not help in isolation. Over the next several months, the Council of the Great City Schools, the nation's only education group that is solely urban and whose membership is made up equally of superintendents and board-of-education members, will be working to devise a national strategy and program to make this imperative ring true, so the children of New York and every other urban area can count on adults who have only their best interests at heart. It is time to lower our voices, learn the right lessons, and get back to work for the kids.

Michael Casserly is the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools.

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