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Published in Print: October 14, 1998, as The Superintendent Contradiction

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The Superintendent Contradiction

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How can short-tenured city superintendents turn academically depressed districts into ones that glow with success? The contradiction in expecting urban superintendents who serve, on average, around three years to totally reform a school system has seldom been confronted openly. It is about time to do so.

To understand clearly the linkage between superintendents and school reform, four points need to be made: (1) Conflict is the DNA of the superintendency. (2) Persistent conflicts create enduring dilemmas. (3) Surrounding these dilemmas are pervasive myths about superintendent tenure and effectiveness. (4) Without a practical understanding of these dilemmas and myths, expecting superintendents to reform schools will be little more than expecting sand castles to last beyond the incoming tide.

A concrete example of these genetically encoded dilemmas might help.

Consider the superintendent who has seen her student enrollment shift from predominantly white and middle-class to one heavily populated by working-class and poor Latino and black youths. Her school board has been pressed by activist parents to raise high school scores in reading and math that have fallen from the 70th percentile range to the mid-20s. She does not believe that these standardized achievement-test scores reflect the hard work and creativity that students have demonstrated in drama, music, varsity athletics, and securing jobs in local businesses through the district's vocational education program. Nor do the scores capture the increasing numbers of minority students entering community colleges and earning scholarships to nearby universities. None of this seems to matter greatly to the school board or vocal parents.

The superintendent's deputy comes to her with a plan for raising test scores: Buy a commercial package from a national company to train all academic teachers to prepare for the state standardized tests. Launch a campaign two months before the tests, complete with pep rallies, before- and after-school coaching sessions, and visits from local celebrities to urge students to do their best. Then give cash awards to those classes that improve their scores over last year by 5 percentile points.

The superintendent has sufficient money to buy the package, but she worries about using cash awards and setting aside so much time for test preparation and pep rallies. She asks herself: Suppose we do improve our scores from, say, the 25th percentile to the 30th. Will parental and school board views of academic decline change? She knows that the district is succeeding with students in nonacademic areas, but those arenas are less prized by critics. She will discuss it in her cabinet meeting, but she already feels the tensions over competing personal and professional values.

These and other common dilemmas facing superintendents, I argue, derive from a deeper, more fundamental tension that exists within the job of superintendent itself and accounts for these visible and wracking conflicts. Every superintendent faces at different points in his or her career a struggle over identity: Am I primarily a manager, a politician, or instructional leader? Each role contains desirable values that compete with one another. Reconciling the conflicting demands of these roles is the perpetual task that superintendents wrestle with silently. I will describe each briefly and then link them to school reform.

  • Instructional role. Historically, superintendents have been expected to be well versed in curriculum and instruction. Among the earliest school chiefs were teachers and scholars who prided themselves on being able to teach teachers and design curriculum. These instructional expectations for the superintendent continue today.

Exactly what kind of instructional role, however, is unclear. Just in the past decade, for example, mainstream thinking about superintendents leading the instructional team has shifted markedly to a strong focus on school-site decisionmaking only to, again, shift back to the superintendent's office. The superintendent is now expected to lead teachers and principals in aligning the curriculum, raising academic standards, and producing better test results.

  • Managerial role. Superintendents have always been hired to administer districts. Both managing and leading are core responsibilities expected from superintendents, even though they produce friction. Managing, for example, means keeping the organization working smoothly and efficiently toward its goals. Stability is the password. Reducing conflict is highly prized. Leading, on the other hand, means seeking changes, taking risks, and accepting conflict as a natural condition in the district.
  • Political role. A century ago, reformers divorced partisan politics from the conduct of schooling. Superintendents were (and are) expected to use their technical and organizational skills in implementing what others--school boards, governors, state legislatures, and the U.S. Congress--decide. The power of that norm remains strong today.

None of this means that superintendents avoid practicing politics. They do--within the organization. To advance their agendas, superintendents negotiate with school board members, unions, principals, parent groups, and city officials. They figure out ways to build coalitions for their schools at budget time or during crises. Such organizational politics aim to improve a district's image, implement a desired program, or secure new resources.

Some superintendents carve out a dominant role among the three and become characterized as political (Bob Alioto of San Francisco between 1975 and 1985), managerial (Dick Wallace in Pittsburgh in the 1980s), or instructional (Ella Flagg Young in Chicago before World War I). Yet each one of these superintendents still had to perform the other roles and endure the continuing tensions of finessing conflicting expectations.

Juggling these roles, the conflicting purposes of schools, and the constant impulse to reform schools--the DNA of superintending--makes nail-biters out of superintendents.

The job's genetic code is written in the diverse and conflicting goals of building literate citizens, preparing workers for the marketplace, and cultivating individual character. These goals conflict because public schools are limited in their human and financial resources, yet they are expected to overcome the grim effects of family background, poverty, and fragmented communities. Further, school boards are constantly whiplashed by political, social, economic, and demographic changes in the larger society. Superintendents who survive have learned to maneuver among the conflicting purposes of schooling and frequent calls for radical reform.

These dilemmas, encoded in the superintendency, raise an obvious question: As tenure gets increasingly shorter, how can urban superintendents who must struggle continually with calls for reform, competing roles, and conflicting purposes turn around failing districts? Can superintendents reform city schools as terms shrink?

The job's genetic code is written in the diverse and conflicting goals of building literate citizens, preparing workers for the marketplace, and cultivating individual character.

Behind this question is a complicated argument that goes like this: Critics and public officials claim that revitalizing cities is crucial to the social and political survival of the nation. Popular faith in education as a cure for social ills and a pathway to individual success makes reforming urban schools essential to that revitalization. School chiefs, hired to be instructional leaders, astute managers, and wily politicians, will ensure that reforms succeed and rebuild cities.

Yet, according to mainstream wisdom, most urban superintendents exit their posts in less than three years. Moreover, researchers report that it takes at least five to seven years for reforms to show results. The superintendent's job, therefore, has become seemingly impossible.

But the facts upon which the argument is built are weak. Short tenure for superintendents is largely a myth manufactured out of media reports of "turnstile" superintendencies on short tenure in urban posts.

Statistics on truncated superintendencies come from calculating how many superintendents leave office in any given year. That number produces a turnover rate. Such figures, while popular with media and professional organizations, say nothing about how long a term in office individual superintendents actually completed. Turnover rate has fed the popular belief that big-city superintendents serve about 2« years, bolstering the public perception that instability, low morale, and organizational inertia scar city schools.

By calculating completed tenure of superintendents, a very different picture emerges. Using data on urban superintendents since 1900, I and Gary Yee have calculated how long each superintendent in 25 cities actually served. We found, for example, that in 1990 urban superintendents who completed their terms served an average of almost six years in office--double the time reported in professional and popular articles. Furthermore, almost six years is in the range of what researchers claim is necessary to see results.

Will these facts alter the grim pessimism embedded in the image of a revolving-door superintendency? I doubt it. The myth of turnstile superintendents is buried deeply in the public mind and professional rhetoric. Even if wannabe superintendents and pundits were to embrace the new data, lasting six years does not easily translate into improving students' academic performance. In short, can superintendents improve (let's be blunt) test scores?

The literature on the superintendency, with few exceptions, assumes a "yes" answer to the question. Yet few researchers and administrators can explain how a superintendent--who is completely dependent on a school board, a cadre of principals in schools whom he or she may see monthly, and teachers who shut their doors once class begins--raises test scores, increases college attendance, and produces National Merit Scholarship finalists. Without a model to explain how superintendents influence teachers and students to perform better than they have, most district administrators have to create their own personal cause-effect model and rely upon luck.

Some superintendents, for example, figure that showering the district with reforms will eventually produce improved student performance. Such superintendents reorganize the central office, introduce charter schools, press for more phonics in the primary grades, and urge teachers to try the New Math. Other school chiefs size up the situation as basically unfathomable. Such superintendents work 70-hour weeks and hope that they will get lucky: Maybe the students who get tested next year will make higher scores than this year's group. The lack of research on the linkages between superintendent actions and student outcomes prompts working administrators to rely on personal cause-effect models of success while keeping their fingers crossed behind their backs.

Thus, another dilemma faces an intrepid superintendent: "I am utterly dependent upon others to improve schooling, yet I don't know for sure how to make success happen."

All of these dilemmas have persisted for decades. None are new. Why have they lasted? I have already suggested that they are in the DNA of the job, the conflicting purposes of public schooling, and spasms of reform. But DNA is a metaphor, and I speak of organizations, not the human body. Can these dilemmas not be resolved by reorganizing, by eliminating the conflicts--or, to stretch the metaphor--by gene splicing?

Such thinking has occurred in the past. For example, hiring superintendents who are noneducators--recent hires of generals and corporate executives in Chicago, Minneapolis, Washington, and Seattle come to mind--has been a periodic solution to avoid these conflicts. Such solutions will ultimately fail because these durable dilemmas are anchored in the goals of schooling, administrative roles, inflated expectations of those who hire superintendents, and core myths that surround this demanding job.

The dilemmas may be unsolvable, but they can be better managed. They need to be coped with imaginatively, since the myths that surround them will persist.

Superintendents need to have the following: a practical understanding of these dilemmas; a willingness to teach school boards, staff, and community the complexities of the value conflicts that they and their districts face; a clear cause-effect model of how they will influence others to do what has to be done; explicit criteria for what will constitute success as a superintendent; and, finally, the determination to counter the passion of so many policymakers, foundation officers, and corporate leaders seeking short-term solutions (that evaporate in a few years) for long-term dilemmas.


Larry Cuban is a professor of education at Stanford University in Stanford, Calif.

Vol. 18, Issue 7, Pages 43,56

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  • Read a biography of Larry Cuban, from Stanford University.
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