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Pooling Our Resources

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So nobody wants to be a school superintendent anymore. According to a new report sponsored by the New York State Council of School Superintendents, "Across the nation, there is a growing concern about the size and quality of the pool of candidates seeking administrative positions." The study's author, Raymond O'Connell of the State University of New York at Albany, explains that "the candidate pool is suffering from an increasing trend toward retirement among current administrators at the same time that fewer professionals are seeking to move into the administrative ranks."

Why are there so few candidates for superintendent? Maybe we're looking in the wrong places.

This situation, the professor concludes, portends a "significant crisis for those who believe that high-quality administrators are necessary for the success of today's public schools."

These findings from "A Report of the Status of the Administrative Candidate Pool in New York State--1995'' come as no surprise to some of us in the field. In the education-administration courses I teach for a local university, few if any of my interns aspire to line jobs. Instead, they hope to become department chairs, coordinators, directors--jobs that often require no direct accountability to parents, students, or boards of education. In addition to this removal from the firing line, many currently serving in these quasi-administrative positions still enjoy the classroom teacher's benefits, including tenure and school vacations.

This Commentary was selected for inclusion in The Last Word: The Best Commentary and Controversy in American Education, published in 2007. Get more information on the book from the publisher.

Moreover, administrative positions no longer guarantee significantly higher salaries. Increases in teachers' salaries over the past 10 years have narrowed the gap significantly between teachers and administrators; in some cases, teachers may even lose money by going into administration. When I was a building principal, I actually made less than several veteran teachers in my building. Now, as a superintendent, on a strictly per diem basis I make just slightly more than some experienced teachers in the district who work only 180 days.

The report points to other factors that make administration in general and the superintendency in particular unappealing to prospective candidates. In addition to salary issues, concerns about job security, about the difficulty of satisfying various interest groups, and about increasing criticism of school leadership are cited. These generalizations translate specifically into worries about budget votes, unreliable state aid, union demands, and residency requirements, all of which factor into the dwindling candidate pool.

Well ... no one said it would be easy.

But if we step back a moment from Professor O'Connell's more obvious findings, we might approach the apparent dearth of candidates from another angle. Perhaps the pool is shrinking if boards are looking for people who look just like all the other candidates they have been hiring over the years. In other words, there may be highly qualified candidates out there--but they may not be white, male, and middle-aged.

There may be highly qualified candidates out there—but they may not be white, male, and middle-aged.

Respondents to Mr. O'Connell's surveys were primarily district and regional superintendents (most of whom match the above description). They indicated that the candidate pool, especially for the superintendency, has declined in quality and in size. When asked how to improve the situation, according to the report, many suggested mentoring and "reaching out" to women and minorities. However, only about 5 percent of these gatekeepers for district administrative positions indicated that they personally felt a need to change their own recruitment and search processes.


While women have made some inroads to the superintendency, only about 10 percent of the 700-plus superintendents in New York state are women, and the majority of these head up small rural districts. Of the 41 regional superintendencies in the state, two are filled by women. Only six of the nation's 48 largest school districts are headed by women. And although women make up nearly three-quarters of the elementary and secondary teaching corps in this country, only 10 percent of superintendents nationwide are female.

Boards of education may make pronouncements about "casting a wide net" while ... they will not seriously entertain women candidates.

Despite lip service rendered at the state and national levels about encouraging and mentoring potential women candidates for the superintendency, the road to the top district leadership is daunting. Changes at the local level come hard. Boards of education may make public pronouncements about "casting a wide net" for candidates while surreptitiously indicating to their search consultants that they will not seriously entertain women candidates, explaining that "the community" ("parents," "other administrators," "the high school," etc.) isn't ready to accept a woman yet. Consultants, especially those who are paid for the service, deliver what the board wants. According to statistics from The American School Board Journal, over half of all board members in 1995 were male, 89 percent were white, and more than 70 percent were 40 years old or older. Successful candidates reflect those demographics.

Ellen Nakashima, writing for The Washington Post last April, noted that women who do make it to the interview stage for the superintendency are sometimes "stunned" by questions like, "Does your husband know you're here?" "Can you handle tough discipline problems?" Women candidates report that they are often asked about the impact on their husbands' jobs if they were to move. Worse yet are the brief "courtesy" interviews accorded women candidates by boards or consultants that have already made up their minds about gender but have no valid reason to disqualify a candidate in the first round.

And while mentoring has been recognized by both men and women as key to a potential candidate's success, a good mentor is hard to find. Women mentors are scarce, male mentors are rare. And, truth to tell, there are risks involved for the bright, often younger woman who is mentored by a highly visible man. Encouragement for women has more often come from women themselves, through statewide committees and organizations that promote women in administration. But while these groups have served effectively as lobbies, their members, unfortunately, are generally not gatekeepers for the top jobs in education.


I believe that we will see real changes in the candidate pool and in subsequent hiring practices when searches are conducted under the old classroom rubric: What gets measured gets done. To this I would add a corollary: What gets done gets funded.

We have raised all the consciousness we're going to raise, and we need to move on to develop a plan that includes goals and means to measure progress toward them. The plan needs to have rewards for achieving goals and penalties for ignoring them. Gatekeepers need to be accountable not just to some vague notion of "reaching out" to women and minorities, but to the reality that the report they must file at the end of a search will be scrutinized by the appropriate department of education and monies coming to a district will depend in some part on its hiring practices.

We have raised all the consciousness we're going to raise, and we need to move on.

During the Summer Olympics, I listened to a reporter interview the coach of one of the many women's teams that won gold medals for the United States. "To what do you attribute the amazing success of the women's teams?" the reporter asked. "Determination? Training? Hard work?" The coach had a two-word answer: "Title IX." Progress needs to be tied to funding, not to the raised consciousness and good will of the gatekeepers.

In 1993, another New York state document, the "Regents Policy Paper and Action Plan for the 1990s," was published. Entitled "Equal Opportunity for Women," it included several "action strategies" for ending gender discrimination by the year 2000, noting that there were fewer women in education administration now than there had been in the early part of the century. While the paper clearly identified both goals and strategies, no real penalties were attached for not meeting those goals. The report also noted that the last 20 years have seen the number of women superintendents in New York state increase by 7 percentage points--from roughly 3 percent of the total to roughly 10 percent. At this rate, half the superintendents will be women not in 2000, but in 2136, about 140 years from now.

It is not as if the results of the traditional educational system have been so outstanding that we don't want to tinker with them. In fact, some districts, dissatisfied with school leadership over the years, have turned to private management corporations with varying degrees of success. Clearly, we have not drawn educational leadership thus far from the widest ranks of the best and the brightest, and developing opportunities for all of the teaching force within the public schools seems to me a systemic change that may result in real improvement.

The superintendency is stressful. Employment is precarious, boards are demanding, state aid is random, and voters are unrealistic. But it may be time for the next wave to take on these challenges. Everyone into the pool.

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