Recruitment & Retention Opinion

The Turnstile Superintendency?

By Larry Cuban — August 22, 2008 7 min read
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Over the past decade, a few urban superintendents have compiled uncommon records for longevity and accomplishment. With tenures of from five to 10 years and more, these intrepid schools chiefs have run largely minority and poor districts where test scores have risen, graduation rates have increased, and the number of students going on to college has climbed.

The list includes familiar names such as Boston’s former superintendent Thomas W. Payzant (11 years); Carl Cohn of the Long Beach, Calif., school district (10 years); New York City’s Joel I. Klein (since 2002); and Laura Schwalm of California’s Garden Grove Unified School District (since 1999). All of these leaders have made headlines and collected national prizes. But there are others who may not have won high-profile awards or attracted national media attention, but have presided over striking achievement gains in their districts. They include, among others, Pascal D. Forgione Jr. in Austin, Texas (since 1999), and Carol Johnson, who served for six years in Minneapolis before leaving to become the superintendent in Memphis, Tenn.

To be sure, these long-serving district chiefs were beset with problems that went unsolved and criticism that stung. But all of them remained quietly, steadily effective—more like long-distance runners than flashy sprinters. Collectively, they defy the dominant image of the field’s “turnstile superintendency.”

How to explain these apparent exceptions to the rule of short-tenured urban schools chiefs? I offer three different storylines that may help explain.

The Superintendent as Superman or Wonder Woman

These schools chiefs are extraordinary individuals. They have revived districts that were nearly terminal cases due to chronically low student performance, bureaucratic resistance to change, and managerial incompetence. They persuaded their respective mayors or boards of education to install new systems of parental choice and instructional support for teachers and principals, to refocus bureaucracies on improving teaching and learning, and to redesign large comprehensive high schools into small learning communities. And test scores have risen.

The urban districts they lead, once graveyards for superintendents, have become magnets attracting the best and the brightest among young professionals who want to be part of the Herculean effort to reclaim children and youths from the despair of living stunted lives.

By sheer force of individual will, together with political smarts and enormous expenditures of energy, these superintendents have ignored the conventional wisdom and succeeded. They are, as I say, remarkable individuals.

Matching the Person, Place, and Time

The key to success in many superintendencies comes down to being in the right place at the right time. After the state of New York gave New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg the authority to take over that city’s public schools, he appointed Joel I. Klein the system’s chancellor in 2002. Klein is still chancellor—the longest tenure of a New York City schools chief since the post was created in the early 1970s. Bloomberg’s predecessor, former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, had sought to control the schools in the 1990s without authority from the state. He and his supporters engineered the appointment and departure of two schools chancellors—Ramon C. Cortines and Rudolph F. Crew—in less than seven years.

If timing is crucial, so is context. Each of the chancellors Mayor Giuliani wanted in the top job had been hailed as a hero in his previous urban district. But in each case, the mayor became convinced that the schools chief didn’t fit him or the city.

Or consider Carl Cohn, who shepherded the Long Beach district through a decade of changes yielding strong gains in student achievement—a record sufficient to win the Broad award for urban district excellence. Cohn retired from Long Beach in 2002.

Then, in 2005, he was hired by the San Diego Unified school board to heal that district’s wounds of battle after six years of struggle and the forced exit of Superintendent Alan D. Bersin. But in December of 2007, barely two years into his tenure, Cohn left San Diego. His 40 years of urban school experience and extraordinary work in Long Beach could not find traction in San Diego.

For strong superintendent leadership to emerge in a district, then, it’s best not to look for a superstar. Leadership depends on finding the right person for the time and place. Cohn in Long Beach, Klein in New York City, Forgione in Austin, and Johnson in Minneapolis are examples of perfect pairings; Cortines and Crew in New York City, along with Cohn in San Diego, were imperfect ones. When the match is off-kilter by time, place, or person, those labeled heroes in one city fall flat in another.

Coping Smartly With Conflict and Limits

Improving urban students’ academic performance is hard work, filled with struggles, defeats, and small victories. Working closely with their school boards, these long-serving superintendents have accomplished a great deal through tough decisions, energetic actions, and handling conflicts with political savvy.

When superintendents introduce major changes, such as expanding parental choice, firing slackers, pressing principals to be instructional leaders, or redesigning comprehensive high schools, conflicts are inevitable. Often, they involve dilemma-rich, politically volatile choices. One such decision is whether to press for better test scores and higher graduation rates quickly, to avoid state and federal penalties, or build teacher and principal capacities that will lead to those better numbers. Another is whether to require district officials to ensure that all schools follow policies and meet uniform standards, or give principals and teachers sufficient autonomy to make school-based decisions, even if that produces variation across district in meeting uniform standards.

In managing these predictable dilemmas, superintendents find few clear-cut victories. The conflicts often require them to forge unappealing compromises. Successful, long-serving superintendents have learned to sell such compromises to powerful stakeholders as evidence of putting pressure on teachers and principals, while also providing support to those same key players.

The dirty secret these leaders know well is that they cannot permanently erase conflicts or solve all problems with the resources they have. This is particularly true when they are trying to turn around chronically low-performing, high-poverty schools and keep them turned around. They may feel that they can do better than their predecessors have done in coping with conflicts while achieving signal triumphs, but they know that, with all of their political moxie, they still will bump up against limits to what they can do.

Of the three storylines, the Superman/Wonder Woman narrative is currently the most popular explanation for success in the superintendency. It is also the one most often embedded in job descriptions for advertising—and in every news article greeting a new schools chief. Yet it is the least convincing of the three stories—especially for those decisionmakers (and people over the age of 40) who have learned from experience that the convergence of time, place, and a particular person probably accounts for a schools chief’s eventual success or failure.

Yet even the “best match” explanation for superintendent success and longevity must come to terms with the limits to fundamental changes inherent in urban schools. Here are social institutions strongly affected by a city’s demography, history, and economy—and by deeply embedded, often unbending socioeconomic structures in the larger society. Here are institutions constantly dealing with the human consequences of neglect and discrimination among poor and minority families.

These tough-minded, politically astute superintendents who have survived in various cities for upwards of a decade have achieved a great deal. What keeps their numbers from expanding, however, is the popular belief in a superhuman leader able to solve all problems swiftly and permanently. This belief reflects society’s deep desire for a heroic leader to rescue the city, state, or nation from overwhelming problems. But the idea of a superstar superintendent turning around a declining school system solely by virtue of extraordinary personal traits has created far-fetched expectations that few if any flesh-and-blood humans can ever meet.

To lessen the inevitable disappointment that follows by a year or two the appointment of a savior schools chief, mayors and school boards would do well to downsize expectations, display more patience, and pay far more attention to sniffing out better matches between the person and the city. They should also understand the inexorable, conflict-filled dilemmas all urban superintendents face, and find ways to help their own new chief manage these and thrive.

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A version of this article appeared in the August 27, 2008 edition of Education Week as The Turnstile Superintendency?

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