School & District Management

Districts Said To Lack ‘Enlightened’ Leaders

By Mark Stricherz — February 14, 2001 4 min read
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School district leaders should get paid more and receive more training if they’re going to keep pace with ever-increasing demands, a report argues.

For More Information

The report, “Leadership for Student Learning: Restructuring School District Leadership,” is available from the Institute for Educational Leadership. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

The paper, released last week, highlights the need to rethink the way superintendents and school board members do their jobs in an era when businesses are hiring away some of education’s best people and states are demanding that all students receive a high-quality education.

“Of the seemingly endless lineup of problems school districts face today,” the authors declare, “the critical need for strong, responsible, and enlightened leadership should be at or near the top.”

The Institute for Educational Leadership, a Washington-based nonprofit organization, prepared the study. Financed by the U.S. Department of Education and several corporate foundations, the report is the second of four planned to examine aspects of school leadership.(“Panel Calls for Fresh Look at Duties Facing Principals,” Nov. 1, 2000.)

Its intended audience is high-level educators and business groups, said Mary Podmostko, a project associate with the institute, who said the IEL hopes they will discuss the problems of district leadership.

The panel that prepared the report was chaired by Rod Paige, the new U.S. secretary of education, while he was the superintendent of schools in Houston, and Becky Montgomery, the chairwoman of the St. Paul, Minn., school board.

Because states have raised academic standards and imposed penalties for failing to meet them, the report says, school leaders need to reorganize districts to align their academic programs with state goals. It calls the task of restructuring school districts as vital “as any of those that currently dominate the education debate,” such as proposals for vouchers and policies mandating high-stakes testing.

Districts need to decide how to structure their governance systems in order to give leaders clear direction, however. The report praises the 146,000-student Orange County, Fla., district, where board members provide clear policy direction and leave the details to the superintendent. But it also touts Chicago and San Diego, where leadership is shared by several top district officials.

Lure of Private Sector

The report calls for district leaders to be paid salaries more in line with their duties. While noting that the average superintendent earns $106,000 a year, the report says the range of such salaries is broad. The result, it says, is that many superintendents quit their jobs in search of more lucrative work.

Corporations have already scooped up several principals in Minnesota, Ms. Montgomery said. “You have school superintendents making $125,000 with 8,000 students, and you have a CEO with 1,000 workers making $1 million,” she noted.

The report also recommends that school district leaders receive more and better preparation for their jobs, whether from universities or even corporations skilled at preparing managers. In addition, it notes, states such as Tennessee require new school board members to receive seven hours of training in their first year.

The need for higher pay and more training, the report says, is heightened by what it calls an “unsettling” shortage in the ranks of superintendents. More than half the nation’s 13,500 superintendents, it says, will have to be replaced by 2008.

Finally, the study calls for school board members to review superintendents’ performance each year. It endorses using multiple measures of student performance and progress toward improvement as measures of district chiefs’ effectiveness.

Clifford Janey, the superintendent of the 40,000- student Rochester, N.Y., schools and a member of the task force, said he wished the report had come out in favor of allowing schools chiefs to hire their own senior-level staff members. A change like that, Mr. Janey said, would enhance “the environment in which leaders work, ... allowing them to become executives.”

Other members of the task force on district leadership include: Gina Burkhardt, the executive director of the North Central Regional Educational Laboratory in Oak Brook, Ill.; Bonnie Copeland, the president of the Fund for Educational Excellence, in Baltimore; Cynthia Guyer, the executive director of the Portland Public Schools Foundation in Portland, Ore.; and Dale Kalkofen, the vice president for district services at New American Schools in Arlington, Va.

The other panelists include: Dannel Malloy, the mayor of Stamford, Conn.; James Shelton, the president of LearnNow Inc. in New York City; Marla Ucelli, the director of district redesign for the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, also in New York; and James Woolfolk, the president of the Saginaw, Mich., school board.

A version of this article appeared in the February 14, 2001 edition of Education Week as Districts Said To Lack ‘Enlightened’ Leaders

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