School & District Management Opinion

Inexperience Not Preferred

By Ami Novoryta — August 11, 2009 3 min read
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Those who cannot teach, lead.

Too many urban school districts hire charismatic superintendents with less experience in schools than first-year teachers. Meanwhile, seasoned school leaders are overlooked. Sadly, our students pay a high price for leaders with style, not substance.

Some say desperate times call for desperate measures. Urban schools are in crisis. What we need, they contend, are “outside the box” innovators.

But how many Hail Mary passes are we willing to throw on behalf of our most disadvantaged children?

More than we should. In January, Mayor Richard M. Daley of Chicago appointed former police officer Ron Huberman to lead the city’s public schools. Huberman is a Daley protégé who spent two years as his chief of staff and 21 months leading Chicago’s Transit Authority. With more experience in law enforcement than classroom management, he now leads America’s third-largest school district.

Perhaps Mayor Daley grasps the magnitude of this risky undertaking. He hired Huberman, but he also retained the district’s longtime chief education officer, Barbara J. Eason-Watkins. A former teacher and principal, she is Huberman’s “right-hand woman.” But it is the politically savvy cop who will chart the course for the city’s high-minority, high-poverty children.

Chicago is not the first city to gamble on its students’ future.

In 2006, the Los Angeles school board appointed retired Navy Vice Admiral David L. Brewer III as superintendent. Brewer’s wife and parents—all teachers—represented his only prior connection to the school system.

Huberman and Brewer have lots in common. The charismatic Brewer prevailed over Los Angeles’ chief academic officer, Maria Ott, a lifelong educator with a doctoral degree in educational management. She was deemed “boring.” Unlike Eason-Watkins, however, Ott did not stick around. Brewer, who promised to “transform” schools, never found his footing. He was ousted last December, and taxpayers bought out his contract for more than $500,000. That’s a lot of textbooks.

This alarming trend has also hit the Big Apple. Joel I. Klein, an accomplished Washington lawyer, was appointed New York City’s schools chancellor in 2002. Aside from his having attended New York public schools as a child—a fact highlighted in his biography—the only other experience he had in public education dated back to 1969. That was the year he left law school to “study education” and teach math.

Today, education reformers flock to Manhattan. But Klein has yet to win over teachers, and thousands of children struggle. During Klein’s tenure, according to New York University professor Diane Ravitch, students’ reading scores declined as they progressed through his school system.

School districts are not alone in hiring unorthodox leaders to shake things up. But it turns out that larger-than-life leaders from outside a system do not dramatically improve results. Quite the contrary. The author and business-management guru Jim Collins found that 91 percent of leaders who took their organizations from “good to great” were insiders.

We cannot afford to hire school leaders whose learning curve is steeper than our children’s. It’s time to stop scouring other professions for silver-bullet-wielding saviors.

Instead, let’s identify, prepare, and promote leaders from within. There are extraordinary teachers who understand how children learn and how to improve their education. There are principals who motivate and empower teachers, and who make the most of every dollar spent and every hour devoted to learning. These leaders have a fighting chance to improve—not just shake up—our schools.

Consider Boston’s schools superintendent, Carol R. Johnson. When she takes the lead, children learn. Not coincidentally, Johnson has decades of experience as a teacher, principal, and administrator.

Before coming to Boston, Johnson led the schools in Memphis, Tenn. Under her watch, 100 schools moved off the No Child Left Behind law’s dreaded “high priority” list. In Minneapolis, test scores and graduation rates improved during her superintendency.

In 2007, Johnson succeeded Thomas W. Payzant, another lifelong educator, as Boston’s superintendent. During Payzant’s tenure, the school system was recognized by the Broad Foundation as the country’s best urban district.

When mayors and school boards choose educators to take the lead, the payoffs can be high. In fact, all five districts selected as finalists for last year’s Broad Prize for Urban Education are led by former teachers with extensive public school experience.

Not every teacher should be leading a school district. But more of them should. Every district should be led by someone who understands what happens in our classrooms.

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A version of this article appeared in the August 12, 2009 edition of Education Week as Inexperience Not Preferred


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