School & District Management

Chiefs’ Turnover Poses a Leadership Challenge

By Michele McNeil — June 17, 2008 8 min read
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Over the next year, seven long-serving state schools chiefs are scheduled to step down, taking with them a combined 77 years of leadership experience and leaving questions about the evolving role of a state’s top education officer.

The reasons for their departures vary, including policy conflicts with governors, term limits, and the simple desire for a change after years at the helm of a state education agency.

But the turnover comes at a precarious time for public schools, with state budgets in turmoil, the federal No Child Left Behind Act in flux, and education, as always, a contentious political issue.

At one time, the primary responsibility of a state chief was ensuring fiscal responsibility and oversight of state and federal resources, said Gene Wilhoit, the executive director of the Washington-based Council of Chief State School Officers.

Tracking Seniority

Here are the state schools chiefs, ranked by length of service.


Source: Council of Chief State School Officers

Now, he said, state superintendents and commissioners of education are expected to be “transformational leaders” capable of fixing public school systems that may be plagued by high dropout rates and big achievement gaps.

“These problems almost seem intractable, but the role of the chief is to do something about it,” said Mr. Wilhoit, a former chief in Kentucky and Arkansas.

The list of departing schools chiefs includes Rhode Island’s Peter J. McWalters, Indiana’s Suellen K. Reed, and Ohio’s Susan Tave Zelman, who all have had conflicts with their governors—although the degree to which these conflicts affected their decisions to step aside varied.

Nebraska’s Douglas D. Christensen is retiring to protest the legislature’s decision to switch from locally controlled student testing to a state test, which he has adamently opposed. (“Nebraska Education Sees Policy, Leadership Shifts,” April 30, 2008.)

Richard Cate, of Vermont, is leaving later this month after 4½ years because Gov. Jim Douglas, a Republican, and the legislature are trying to turn the position into a cabinet-level secretary appointed by the governor.

Montana’s Linda McCulloch can’t run for re-election because of term limits, and Delaware’s Valerie Woodruff, who is a member of the governor’s cabinet, will leave when Democratic Gov. Ruth Ann Minner does in January.

In addition, Lana C. Seivers left in February after five years as Tennessee’s education commissioner to lead a new foundation in Mississippi.

Collectively, this group of state education leaders helped usher in the standards and accountability movement in their states and the implementation of the 6-year-old NCLB law, which meant crucial new duties for their departments even as many of their own budgets were being squeezed.

The departures will leave just 14 chiefs with more than five years of experience, according to the CCSSO. (North Dakota’s Wayne G. Sanstead tops the seniority list, with 23 years in the job; he’s running for re-election this year.)

“The job is a lot more political now. Everyone wants to have a say in education,” said Mr. Wilhoit. “The chiefs are all operating under an ‘education governor’ who has a sense of impatience because [a governor’s] life is measured in four-year cycles.”

Paul Manna, an assistant professor of government at the College of William and Mary, in Williamsburg, Va., who studies education governance, said some early research he’s conducted suggests a link between student achievement and the longevity of a chief. He added that more research is needed.

“We found that there was some benefit to chiefs’ remaining in office for a while, but there was some sort of tipping point where the benefits start declining,” said Mr. Manna, who compared scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress dating back to 1992 against turnover in state chiefs’ offices.

Rivals for Influence

More than ever, some chiefs say, they must compete for influence with a growing crowd of those wanting to remake the schools, including business leaders, philanthropists, lobbyists, teachers’ unions, and the general public.

Things can get even more complicated for chiefs depending on how they come to office and who their boss is: About one-third are elected, one-third are appointed by state boards, and the other third are appointed by governors.

“I think, as chiefs, you’re not a leader unless you can navigate the political minefield. It’s becoming more and more partisan,” said Mr. Christensen, who was first appointed by his state’s education board in December 1994 and is now making good on his vow to quit the job if Nebraska ever went to a state test.

Last year, the unicameral, nonpartisan legislature approved a uniform, statewide testing system that eventually could replace Nebraska’s unique system of district-level tests.

“Sometimes, we’re forgetting that we’re first educators,” Mr. Christensen said of the chiefs. “We’ve lost at the table.”

From many of the departing chiefs’ points of view, the most aggressive education activists during their terms have been governors.

Rhode Island’s Mr. McWalters, who is set to leave next June after 16 years in office, said that NCLB—and the publicity surrounding schools identified as not meeting their achievement goals—helped push governors into action.

“If their state is going to be branded, then they want more and more access to the conversation,” said Mr. McWalters, who was appointed by the state board. “You have governors becoming more aggressive.”

And it’s not just governors, he said.

“Now, you literally have governors, mayors, and presidents who are hanging their reputations on education,” he said.

Assertive Governors

The high stakes have prompted some governors to seek more control—and have helped push some chiefs out.

In February, Ohio’s Ms. Zelman found out mere hours before Gov. Ted Strickland’s State of the State address that he would seek to strip the chief’s position and the state board of education of most of their authority so he could name his own education secretary. The Ohio commissioner is currently hired by the state board.

“I was very taken aback,” Ms. Zelman, who took office in March 1999 and whose resignation is effective in December, said last week. “I believe the state superintendent should work in partnership with the governor. ... It was clear to me this wasn’t going to be a very good partnership.”

She hopes Gov. Strickland, a Democrat, will have a hand in picking her successor and drop his plans to change the overall education governance structure. “I believe in an apolitical state board of education, in what’s good for the children as opposed to what’s good for a governor,” she said.

But governors must play a key role in education if states, and the country, are going to experience economic growth and the creation of good jobs, said former North Carolina Gov. James B. Hunt Jr., a Democrat.

“The truth is, the chiefs have had to carry the water through the years, and it’s natural when a governor comes along who wants to be active that there could be a little tension,” said Mr. Hunt, now the chairman of the James B. Hunt Jr. Institute for Educational Leadership and Policy, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Ms. Reed, Indiana’s elected Republican state chief, is working with her fourth governor and decided to not seek a fifth term so she could pursue other opportunities in the private sector. Over her tenure, she sought to work with both political parties, but was sometimes criticized for working too closely with Democrats and not more enthusiastically embracing her own party’s proposals.

This year, speculation mounted that Gov. Mitch Daniels, a Republican who has advocated switching the position to an appointed one, would not support her if she sought re-election. And Ms. Reed said she sees the governor’s point of view: “Whatever happens on their watch, people will drag it out at election time whether they’re directly responsible or not.”

In some ways, state education chiefs have an image problem.

“Commissioners and state departments look as if they are part of the old institutional incapacity,” said Mr. McWalters, who has not always seen eye to eye with Rhode Island Gov. Donald L. Carcieri, a Republican.

‘Critical Role’ Seen

But state education agencies, sometimes called SEAs, remain a vital element in education reform, said Dane Linn, the director of the education division of the National Governors Association’s Center for Best Practices.

“If we are ever going to improve student achievement, that’s got to start at the state level,” he said, “and the SEA must play a critical role not just in monitoring district compliance with state and federal regulations, but also in building capacity in districts.”

Mr. Wilhoit, of the state chiefs’ council, said chiefs have accepted the premise of the NCLB law and are ready for the next phase, to redesign assessments and to discover new ways of recruiting and supporting better teachers.

The philosophical shift in the role of state education departments has prompted the chiefs to refocus their missions, while state budget cuts that have not spared education departments have forced more restructuring.

In Indiana, Ms. Reed said she’s had to rely on getting more work done through contract employees, rather than adding staff. In Nebraska, Mr. Christensen got rid of middle managers to save money and ensure faster, more responsive decisionmaking.

The next class of state chiefs will face uncertain economic times, new governors in some states, a new president in Washington, and a No Child Left Behind law that is overdue for reauthorization. At the same time, global competition is increasing, and political and business leaders are linking the quality of public schools to the country’s economic health.

“In some ways, the stakes are higher,” Ms. Zelman, of Ohio, said.

If the NCLB law’s accountability system is not revised, the chiefs who serve in the coming years will have to deal with higher achievement targets and longer lists of failing schools, said Delaware’s Ms. Woodruff. “I don’t envy people coming in,” she said.

And still other chiefs see a bigger, broader problem.

“I worry most about the demand for leadership, which has never been as great,” Mr. Christensen said. “It’s almost crisis level, yet the space for it is getting squeezed out. Everyone is demanding a piece of leadership, but they don’t know a damned thing about how to use it, whether they be governors, legislators, and even educators.”

Coverage of leadership is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at
A version of this article appeared in the June 18, 2008 edition of Education Week as Chiefs’ Turnover Poses a Leadership Challenge


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