School & District Management

Old Hands, New Hurdles: State Chiefs Who Take the Local Reins

By Andrew Ujifusa — July 30, 2015 7 min read
Christopher Cerf, who was then acting New Jersey Commissioner of Education, addresses a 2011 news conference at an elementary school in Cherry Hill, N.J. Earlier this month, he became Newark’s superintendent until the district shifts from state to local control next year.

When state school superintendents decide to leave their posts in favor of running districts, an outsider might see it as a step down the traditional K-12 career ladder.

But at a time of unusual stress and relatively high turnover among state chiefs, a few who have made the switch say there’s no state-level substitute for being more directly engaged with their own set of schools, students, and teachers.

Perhaps the most prominent recent example of such a switch is former Rhode Island chief Deborah A. Gist. She stepped down earlier this year to take over as the Tulsa, Okla., superintendent, following a period of uncertainty about her contract and her relationship with the Ocean State’s board.

The last two state chiefs in Iowa, meanwhile, have left to become local superintendents. Jason Glass left the state in 2013 to take over the Eagle County district in Colorado, while Brad Buck left earlier this year to take over the district in Cedar Rapids.

And after leaving New Jersey’s top K-12 job in early 2014, Christopher Cerf earlier this month agreed to become Newark’s superintendent until the district shifts from state to local control next year.

In addition, Chiefs for Change, an organization that supports school choice and test-based accountability policies that formerly consisted solely of state superintendents, earlier this year expanded its membership ranks to include big-city district leaders.

Prompting the Shift

Personal circumstances can be clear factors in such switches. Both Mr. Buck and Ms. Gist, for example, are now district superintendents in their hometowns. Some district superintendents also earn more than their state counterparts—Mr. Buck, for example, is earning $229,000 in his first year in Cedar Rapids, compared with the $147,000 state salary for the position of Iowa’s state chief in 2013, according to a survey from the Council of State Governments.

The nature of the jobs themselves may also play a factor.

State school superintendents face high-profile but often grueling and controversial work on broad state policy, complicated by the rise of K-12 advocacy groups in states and federally driven initiatives like Race to the Top grants. And many have had to grapple with implementing the Common Core State Standards in their states, along with their aligned tests.

Switching Hats

These are among the former state superintendents who have recently made the transition to being local superintendents.

37 supes christopher cerf 280

Christopher Cerf
Earlier this year, agreed to take over as the superintendent of the Newark, N.J. district (the district is operated by the state, but will return to local control next year). From 2010 to 2014, was New Jersey’s state chief, after being appointed to the position by Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican. Left the New Jersey chief’s job in 2014 to take over as CEO of Amplify Insight. He graduated from the Broad Urban Superintendents Academy and subsequently worked in the New York City Department of Education.

Brad Buck

Brad Buck
Served as the director of the Iowa education department from 2013 until this year, when he agreed to become the superintendent of the Cedar Rapids, Iowa district. Was a science teacher in Iowa before taking over administrative roles in several districts in the state. As the former state chief, oversaw the beginning of the state’s push to alter the teaching profession enacted in a 2013 law. Among districts that sought state grants under that teaching initiative, Cedar Rapids received the highest score of all the first round applicants, Buck said.

Deborah A. Gist

Deborah A. Gist
Took over as superintendent of Tulsa schools last month, after the school board picked her for the job in February. From 2009 until this year, had been Rhode Island’s education commissioner. From 2007 to 2009, was the state superintendent for the District of Columbia. In both her Rhode Island and Tulsa jobs, has been a member of Chiefs for Change. In Rhode Island, pushed to lift the state’s cap on charter schools and also oversaw a new school funding formula in the state, as well as virtual learning regulations.

Jason Glass

Jason Glass
Was Mr. Buck’s predecessor as the Iowa chief, serving from 2011 to 2013, then left to become the superintendent of Eagle County schools in Colorado. Has grown disenchanted with policies that he says focus only on “measure and punishment” and not improving classroom instruction. Prior to Iowa, worked in the Colorado education department, and also taught as a high school teacher in Kentucky.

Source: Education Week

Some chiefs may now “want to get their hands on the real thing” in districts, said Paul Hill, the founder of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, Bothell.

“You can’t understand how weak and unreliable the policy tools at the state are until you try to use them,” Mr. Hill said. “It doesn’t mean they’re nothing, but it means they’re very hard to use.”

‘Dramatically More Direct’

In some cases, state chiefs who make the switch are returning to their leadership roots. Vicki Phillips, the director of Education, College Ready United States Program at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, was the superintendent of the Lancaster, Pa., district before taking over as Pennsylvania’s education secretary from 2003 to 2004. She then left to become superintendent of the Portland, Ore., district, where she worked until 2007.

More recently, John Barge, who was Georgia’s elected Republican state superintendent from 2011 until the start of this year, took over as head of Georgia’s McIntosh County district in April.

In addition to serving as Rhode Island’s chief for six years, Ms. Gist previously served as the state superintendent of education for the District of Columbia. Although her top educational concerns in Tulsa differ significantly from what they were in those two jobs, Ms. Gist said working as the state chief for these two relatively small departments prevented her from becoming too far removed from classrooms, schools, and districts.

It never crossed her mind to go work for a think tank or advocacy organization instead, Ms. Gist added.

“I appreciated the opportunity to be a state chief for many years, and that work is really important,” she wrote in an email. “However, the work that occurs in our districts has a dramatically more direct role in improving student success.”

State chiefs who wish to move on to state-level K-12 consulting and other similar work outside of government might find few avenues open to them, in contrast to their district counterparts, Mr. Hill said.

Ms. Gist, who started her new position this month, has had to transition quickly to new priorities. Whereas Rhode Island has steadily produced more teachers than state demand, she said that Oklahoma, and by extension Tulsa, are dealing with a significant teacher shortage. She also highlighted the disparity between teacher pay in Rhode Island and Oklahoma, where teachers earn relatively low annual salaries, as an issue she wants to address.

However, she’s carrying over something she practiced in Rhode Island by conducting a similar survey of the Tulsa community, from teachers to members of the business community, in order to formulate a new five-year plan for the district. And in both places, Ms. Gist has faced skepticism and opposition from teachers’ unions.

Changing Political Beliefs

A few years ago as the Iowa chief, Mr. Glass promoted policies like retaining 3rd graders if they fail to demonstrate academic readiness. He was also a supporter of educational choice, albeit a relatively moderate one. In his own words, he often looked for a “traditional education reform agenda.”

But toward the end of his tenure in the Hawkeye State in 2013, Mr. Glass said that his views began to change. Part of that shift, he said, was reflected in a K-12 policy the state adopted the same year that created a new teacher leadership structure, as well as an increase in minimum teacher salary.

He also said that his philosophical changes came from studying schools in Massachusetts, Singapore, and the Canadian province of Ontario. That study, he said, ultimately gave him an “aversion to sweeping, macro-level policies.”

“I learned that the systems that delivered genuine and sustained quality over time focused on teaching and learning,” Mr. Glass said. “They are not generally focused on accountability, testing, market-driven, or school-choice policies.”

As the Eagle County superintendent, Mr. Glass has sometimes been a vocal critic of Colorado education policies.

For example, he questioned a move by the state to require districts to upload their financial data, even as the “engine of education funding in Colorado has been starved for decades.” That’s a typical but flawed measure by the state, Mr. Glass said, that not only promotes a measurement-and-punishment approach, but refuses to let curricular and other instructional changes take root and grow for long periods of time.

In some cases, superintendents who make such ideological shifts do so at least in part as a survival technique, Mr. Hill noted—he’s known some district superintendents to switch their views on charter schools, for example, when they change jobs.

But Mr. Hill also said that it’s become more natural for these political swings to become more pronounced, since both state and district education politics have become much more polarized just over the last five years or so.

“The era of that being a career position is probably past us,” Mr. Glass said of being state chief. “The moment you enter that role, your fuse is burning.”

‘Pressures in the Field’

In Mr. Buck’s experience, changes in his state’s politics, rather than his own, helped him to decide to head back to Cedar Rapids. (He took over for Mr. Glass in Iowa in 2013.)

Iowa’s decision to decommit from giving the Smarter Balanced exam aligned to the common core, as well as Gov. Terry Branstad’s shifting public pronouncements on the common core itself, bothered Mr. Buck.

“As that narrative changed, it created a different dynamic in that role as director. It was part of the reason why I was less excited about that state-level work,” he said. “You felt some of that in the department, but you especially felt it in the field.”

After many theoretical concerns over the last two years, he’s grappling with how his school principals fit into the state’s Teacher Leadership and Compensation system (codified in the 2013 state law Mr. Glass worked on), and what it looks like in schools to have a more “distributed leadership structure.” And he is focusing on how to strengthen summer-learning programs that Cedar Rapids has piloted to help rising 3rd graders avoid repeating the grade—starting in 2017, Iowa 3rd graders who test below grade level in reading will be retained.

A Critic’s Eye

For a variety of reasons, not every state chief is cut out to lead districts, said John White, Louisiana’s superintendent and Chiefs for Change’s chairman. Thinking about local districts can be especially difficult for those state-level and other K-12 officials who have been “consumed with new policy rather than perfecting systems and practices,” he added.

“Too often, what you see are state chiefs and state boards at odds with local chiefs or local boards,” Mr. White said.

Mr. Glass said that although he’s a better superintendent in Eagle County for having been a state chief, he doesn’t make an effort to highlight his former role as state chief when dealing with education officials in Colorado.

“Statewide, I’m a critic, which is really fun,” Mr. Glass said.

A version of this article appeared in the August 05, 2015 edition of Education Week as Road Less Traveled When State Chiefs Take District Reins

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