Turnover in the Superintendency: A Hazard to Leadership and Reform

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When Ramon C. Cortines, the schools chancellor in New York City, resigned under pressure from City Hall last June, people in the schools were dismayed. According to The New York Times, a 9th-grade student worried, "What's going to happen to us?" and a teacher complained, "There's been no one to stay the course." Turnover at the top had again disrupted the life and work of a troubled school district that had seen four new chancellors in just seven years.

Though certainly the most publicized case of such upheaval, New York City is by no means unusual. In a recent study of 12 newly appointed superintendents, I found that half of the districts in my sample had experienced repeated turnover in the past decade. Counting both acting and permanent assignments, one school district had named its seventh superintendent in six years; another had appointed five individuals in three years. I had not completed interviews in a third district when the superintendent announced that he was leaving after little more than a year on the job. The district was on the brink of fiscal collapse and no one had warned him. Teachers who heard the news of his premature departure spoke much like their counterparts in New York City. One said, "There was a difference after he had been here a short while. ... There was a feeling of trust. That has now changed, as soon as we learned that he was seeking positions in other places. ... I feel a little bit betrayed."

The financial and organizational costs of such turnover are great. School board members must spend precious dollars meeting the terms of broken contracts and divert their attention from setting policy to finding new leadership. Children, like those in New York, feel confused and abandoned. Principals resent having spent time complying with directives from Downtown, and teachers firmly close their classroom doors, intent on ignoring the next plan for their improvement. The superintendents who failed to deliver higher test scores fast enough for their school boards, or who decided to find "better" jobs before local dissatisfaction set in, find themselves discredited. The pattern of turnover has a domino effect, as a vacancy in one district leads to a resignation in another. With each change come abandoned programs and disillusioned staff members and children. In the end, it seems the only ones to profit are the headhunters.

What explains this repeated pattern by which district after district hails a new superintendent, becomes disenchanted with the results, buys out an unfinished contract, and sets forth once again to find a new superintendent? Repeated turnover is, in large part, the result of a futile search for heroic leaders--those mythic, take-charge, no-nonsense experts who dispel doubt, simplify problems, provide solutions, command respect, ensure compliance, and fix things fast. The promise of dramatic and effective leadership, aptly dubbed "follow me" leadership by Thomas Sergiovanni, is alluring given schooling's many difficulties. It is no surprise that local officials often regard the departure of an ineffective superintendent as the end of bad times while heralding the arrival of a new superintendent as the beginning of a new age.

But the reality necessarily falls short of the promise, and the glow of heroic leadership fades rapidly when the intended followers do not follow. Principals reject sure-fire solutions touted by their new bosses, or teachers continue to teach as they have always taught. Confidence in the new superintendent falters, and the board typically begins an intense performance review. The superintendent, sensing that professional success lies in securing a new position rather than seeing things through, moves on.

Nothing calcifies the routine and ineffective practices of the past more quickly than the unfounded proclamations, unwarranted expectations, or impractical demands of a lone leader. The more often heroic leaders appear on the scene, the more regular and persistent local educators' mantra becomes: "This too shall pass."

The difficulty is that real reform in education requires far more than one heroic leader and many compliant followers can deliver. Signing on to the superintendent's master plan, or endorsing incantations about how all children can learn, is never enough. True change in schooling depends on teachers and principals acting in new ways, creatively, persistently, and with conviction. Children and their communities differ, and this variation requires educators to respond with programs and teaching strategies that provide both support and challenge for all learners. So-called teacher-proof curricula and five-step lessons seriously underestimate both what students need and what teachers can do. Within the context of districtwide purposes and goals, each teacher and principal must regularly interpret children's needs, initiate change, assess results, and refine or redirect efforts. These are the acts of leaders, not followers.

The relationship between superintendents and their constituents is a collaborative one, not one of command and compliance. Such collaborative leadership exercised in concert by teachers and administrators throughout a district develops over time, not overnight. Teachers do not wait expectantly for a new superintendent to tell them what to do. Rather, they withhold their support until they become convinced that their new superintendents deserve it; in the end they judge some to be worthy, others not. Teachers and principals seek assurance that a new superintendent stands for important values, understands educational issues and practices, will work hard with others, and can be trusted. They want to know that the superintendent will be there with them for the long term.

The University of Toronto educator Michael Fullan contends that fundamental change in a school district takes the consistent and compatible efforts of two successive superintendents working five to seven years each. Brief stints of two or three years seldom leave a mark of improvement. The respondents whom I interviewed would agree that long-term commitment by a superintendent is essential to build the trust needed for change.

In one district where the superintendent mandated many changes early in his administration, constituents questioned his motives for moving so quickly and speculated that he was professionally ambitious. A teacher said, "My concern is that he's going to go to [a larger, urban district] tomorrow. And then what the hell happens here? ... If he walks away now, we're in serious trouble." Convinced that their new superintendent had no long-term commitment to their schools and anticipating that the reforms he initiated might collapse upon his departure, teachers and principals were reluctant to devote time and energy to change their practices. The prospect of sudden turnover was a major hindrance to leadership.

If calls for heroic leadership by superintendents are misguided, what kind of leadership should school boards seek? What approach from the central office will engage teachers and principals as collaborators in systemwide school improvement? In my study of new superintendents, those individuals who won broad support for their initiatives began by learning about the district's past and current practices. They did not enter a district with fixed expectations or prefabricated plans, but developed visions for change jointly with others, in response to local definitions of local needs. These superintendents helped members of their communities--from teachers, principals, and custodians to mayors, school board members, and parents--identify their shared interests and common purposes. The superintendents promoted the open exchange of ideas and encouraged others to act in concert rather than at cross-purposes. They furthered purposeful and organized--though not lock-step--approaches to change. They stood for important values both in what they said and what they did. They were realistic about the pace of change, insisting on steady progress rather than instantaneous results. Seldom was their work dramatic; often their individual accomplishments were less visible than others' contributions. While these superintendents gave others credit, they also were there to provide support for those who took risks as they ventured to improve practice. Gradually, such superintendents won the trust of constituents, engaging them in new approaches, encouraging their commitment to lead along with others.

It is important to recognize that the turnover scenario begins during the search process when school boards convince themselves that a superior individual can single-handedly solve their problems. Search committees are often vague--sometimes even secretive--about their needs and expectations. Rather than educating candidates about the district, its professionals, and its children, they expect applicants to divine what is needed and to present prefabricated plans for improving the schools. Instead of doing the hard work of examining candidates' past records for evidence of effective leadership, school boards are too often won over by applicants' unsubstantiated claims or pat proposals.

Prospective superintendents, too, often set themselves up for a subsequent fall. Believing that the school board will not hire a candidate who speaks frankly about the difficulties ahead, the prospective superintendent simplifies both the problem and the solution of school reform. In some cases, candidates are convinced that their plans are foolproof and aspire to heroic leadership. Usually, though, if they make unrealistic promises, it is because candidates want a chance to do the job. In time, though, people who bought their puffed-up promises are disappointed and judge the new superintendents to be failed leaders.

The alternative, of course, is not to settle for stability at all costs, for stagnancy is no better than repeated turnover. There are surely circumstances when superintendents are not meeting their obligations and must be replaced, but those would be far fewer if school boards searched for collaborative rather than heroic leaders and made more deliberate, informed decisions about the individuals they hire. There are also certainly times when a superintendent has been deliberately misled and leaving may be both justified and necessary. But if prospective superintendents studied job opportunities more fully, learning about the experiences of past administrators and investigating the politics of local communities, such mistakes would be far less common.

Rewriting the turnover scenario is no simple matter. It requires that superintendents and boards take more responsibility for the choices and commitments they make, become realistic about the limits of heroic leadership, and confront the difficulties of educational change. Collaborative leadership takes time and, often, courage. But the payoff for the schools in stability, consistency, and steady progress is great.

Vol. 15, Issue 25, Pages 47, 60

Published in Print: March 13, 1996, as Turnover in the Superintendency
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