Education Opinion

Do We Need Big-City School Superintendents?

By Nathan Glazer — March 18, 1992 4 min read

Nathan Glazer is professor of education and social structure at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

The article announcing the undertaking tells us that almost half the nation’s urban school districts had superintendent vacancies in 1990, and that the average tenure for such chief executive officers is now about two and a half years. One response is of course that the situation in finding good and survivable big-city school superintendents has become desperate and requires drastic action; but another is to consider whether one needs the office altogether. Boston and New York, both cities I observe closely, have gone through a succession of superintendents in recent years. The two cities contribute to that average tenure of two and a half years. All of their superintendents have had, in some places, for some purposes, distinguished careers, and have then been chewed up, to no visible advantage to the school systems of those cities.

When one reads what the program will try to do for aspiring big-city school superintendents, one is not impressed that it can change matters. They will be expected to “solve conflicts between different segments of the community or among special-interest groups; to communicate effectively with the news media and the general public; to work collaboratively with staff members and motivate people to meet common goals; to manage the business and financial sides of complex organizations; and to coordinate efforts with municipal leaders and human-service providers.’' “Theoretically, you’re looking for people who can walk on water,’' says Michael D. Usdan, president of the Institute for Educational Leadership. That should have been the giveaway signal that something radically different is needed.

The key to what is needed is the recognition that organizations of the size of the big-city school district, with their huge central staffs and “chief executive officers,’' are simply not necessary when the task is one of running schools at the elementary and secondary levels. Worse than not being needed, they only make trouble. This is no argument against big organizations in general: They are needed to run a war, to build an automobile efficiently, and for various other purposes one can think of. They are not needed to run schools.

Everyone in education should have engraved on his or her mind John Chubb’s story of his efforts to find out how many people worked at headquarters in the New York City Board of Education, and in the headquarters for education of the New York Archdiocese. The archdiocese educates only 115,000 children as against the board of education’s 900,000, but that still matches the size of big-city school districts. The figure for headquarters employees was something like 6,000 at the New York City Board of Education, established only after very determined efforts by Mr. Chubb to work his way through the New York City bureaucracy; and something like 35 in the archdiocese (a figure he got with a telephone call, after his respondent said, “Wait, I’ll count.’').

The task of the big-city school superintendent has become impossible because community disputes have become irresolvable at the level of centralized political decisions: how to desegregate, if at all? how to get rid of busing for desegregation, once one has it? how much education in the native tongue for the limited-English student? condoms, yes or no, and with parental permission or not, and for junior-high as well as high-school students? searches for drugs? metal detectors for schools? how much Afrocentrism, and how much multiculturalism, and what kind? how does one divide the jobs, ethnically and racially?

They are enough to chew up any good man or woman quite rapidly, long before he or she has addressed the central issues of education. The successful chief executive officer of a big-city school system is one who can hold the media and the various interest groups at bay. One may improve a class, one may improve a school, but one wonders how a big-city school system is improved by decisions of the center. The favored approach today is to devolve more responsibility to the local school, defining it as one or another configuration of principal, teachers, parents, and community, but the political struggle over how to define that configuration, and how much money it will have control over, and what it may do with it, simply adds to the enormous pressures on the chief executive officer.

The radical answer is to let the school do it, however it wants to. The counter-argument is it will never work with poor and less educated parents. The answer to that is that it does, as we see in black private schools in inner-city areas, which are delighted to do the job public urban schools try to do, for half the money, and with no worse results, as far as we can tell. The Catholic schools also do it (with very little in the way of central bureaucracy or guidance), fundamentalist schools do it, Jewish day schools do it, elite private schools of course do it.

Of course there are all the problems in getting rid of the superintendent and central control: how will we distribute the public money, how will we discipline the disastrous or outrageous school, what will we do about the union? But the wiser course would have recognized that the big-city school superintendency is broken, it can’t be fixed, and the question now is, how do we get out from under it, and its attendant bureaucracy?

A version of this article appeared in the March 18, 1992 edition of Education Week as Do We Need Big-City School Superintendents?