Education Opinion

The Role of School Superintendents

By Walt Gardner — October 17, 2014 2 min read
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Running a school district today requires a set of skills unprecedented in educational history in this country. But I maintain that the most important one is the ability to build and maintain teacher morale because that is indispensable in helping students learn (“Los Angeles School Superintendent Resigns,” The Wall Street Journal, Oct. 17). Instead, most boards of education focus almost exclusively on the ability of superintendents to boost standardized test scores, as if those numbers reflect the totality of a quality education.

Even if they were, a Brookings Institution study found almost no difference in student achievement that could be linked directly to superintendents. In other words, student success is independent of the person in the post. Moreover, longevity is irrelevant, even though I realize that the tenure of superintendents of large urban districts is on average shorter than that of superintendents of small suburban districts.

Perhaps the reason the role of superintendents is overrated is that they have no direct interraction with students. They may be the face of the school district, but what does that mean? It’s a public-relations term. It’s what takes place in the classroom between teachers and students that determines learning. Whatever little effect superintendents have on that relationship can be botched.

The latest example is the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second largest, where John Deasy was superintendent for 3 1/2 years before resigning on Oct. 16 after it became apparent that he lacked the board’s confidence. By a vote of 6 to 1, the board ratified Deasy’s separation agreement.

Deasy made headlines because he approved a $1-billion deal with Apple to give every student in the district an iPad after he and his top deputy had close communications about the project with both Apple and Pearson two years before the two companies won the contract (“LAUSD’s student information system becomes a technological disaster,” Los Angeles Times, Oct. 12). As a result of the revelation, Deasy sent a letter to the LAUSD Board of Education informing it that he had ended the contract.

But putting aside this scandal, I think Deasy’s major failure was that he didn’t support teachers at a time when so much is expected of them. The military has long recognized the importance of troop morale. When men and women are put in harm’s way, it is incumbent upon the top commanders to support their efforts.

This is the antithesis of what took place in the LAUSD, where Deasy’s autocratic style alienated teachers and members of the board of education. Teachers felt that their opinions didn’t count and that they were scapegoated for the ills of the district. In April 2013, a majority of teachers in United Teachers of Los Angeles expressed themselves by giving Deasy a no-confidence vote.

Looking ahead, I think prior public-school teaching experience is indispensable. What works in other fields has little transfer to public schools. For example, unless the Broad Superintendents Academy, whose mission it is to prepare future leaders in 10 months, demands such experience, its graduates will continue to be woefully ill-prepared. Nevertheless, corporate reformers are determined to run schools like businesses. And what is their first priority? It’s choosing a leader who possesses the qualities of CEOs.

Perhaps Deasy’s departure will serve as a cautionary tale, but I seriously doubt it.

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.