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Education Opinion

The Other ‘Super Bowl’

By Walt Gardner — January 28, 2015 2 min read
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Although the focus most recently is on the sprawling Los Angeles Unified School District, where Ramon Cortines is serving as interim superintendent, the question is whether anyone is capable of leading any large urban district (“An insider or outsider as next head of L.A. Unified?” Los Angeles Times, Jan. 7).

It’s what I call the ‘super’ bowl because the tenure of almost all superintendents is brief. For example, the average tenure for a superintendent in Illinois is six years (“Superintendent turnover costly for some school districts,” Chicago Tribune, Jan. 5). Politics always is a factor. As a result, instead of putting the interests of students first, the superintendent first has to please the board of education. It takes a most unusual person to balance the two.

Frankly, I don’t know why anyone would want the job. As Sol Hurwitz, former president of the Committee for Economic Development, correctly noted: “Superintendents must be leaders, teachers, managers, punching bags” (“The Super Bowl, Education Life, Aug. 4, 2002). The long hours, incessant criticism and relatively unexceptional pay are hardly incentives. When the net is cast to recruit superintendents, the debate is whether only those with educational experience should be considered.

The answer, I say, is unequivocally yes. I don’t care how successful applicants have been in business, the military or philanthropy. What works there does not prepare candidates to be superintendents. For example, Joel Klein was an effective attorney in several federal positions. But as chancellor of schools in New York City from 2002 through 2010, he alienated almost all stakeholders (“Schools chancellor Joel Klein won’t be missed - he lost the respect of teachers and parents alike,” New York Daily News, Nov. 10, 2010). He finally resigned to become executive vice president in charge of educational ventures for Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation.

Leadership is a blend of personality and expertise. What works in one school district can backfire in another. That’s why it will be interesting to track the success of recipients of the new degree offered by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Started in the fall of 2010 with just 25 candidates, the Ed.L.D. is designed to turn out educational leaders. But if the graduates haven’t taught in a public school, I doubt that the degree will be worth the time, money and effort.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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