School & District Management

Urban Schools Chiefs Complain of Demands In ‘Impossible’ Roles

By Jeff Archer — August 06, 2003 4 min read

Imagine inviting a group of urban superintendents to a bar, buying them a round of drinks, and asking what they really think about school boards, unions, parent groups, and their own chances of success. Call it an “unhappy hour.”

The report, “An Impossible Job? The View From the Urban Superintendent’s Chair,” is available from the Center on Reinventing Education.

Researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle have captured that kind of candid talk in a new report on the superintendency. Based on interviews and surveys with superintendents in 100 of the country’s largest districts, the authors conclude that the politics of the job, along with the limits on those executives’ authority, make it almost impossible for district leaders to significantly improve their school systems.

“My sense is that in that environment, the expectations on superintendents to deliver on the promises of ‘No Child Left Behind’ are unrealistic,” said James Harvey, a senior fellow at the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education, referring to the federal law that has placed new demands on precollegiate education.

The center carried out the study with financial support from the New York City-based Wallace Foundation, which held a national conference in Eugene, Ore., last week for grantees in its educational leadership initiatives. Together, the superintendents polled for the research project oversee some 9,000 schools serving 6.5 million students in both urban and large suburban systems. The survey had a 70 percent response rate.

Leveraging Change

The report, “An Impossible Job? The View from the Urban Superintendent’s Chair,” shows strong support among superintendents for limiting the role of school boards, for evaluating principals based on school performance, and for allowing district chiefs to close failing schools.

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See the accompanying chart, “A Host of Challenges.”

District leaders in the study cited a litany of challenges that they say conspire against them. Nearly half those polled agreed that responding to public demands was difficult because those demands keep changing. More than 60 percent said micromanagement by school boards was a problem. And in interviews, many superintendents said that in making important decisions, the concerns of district employees often trump the need to raise student performance.

“We are constantly choosing between initiatives that might work, but would get you fired, and initiatives that are too weak to do much, but might survive long enough to make a little bit of difference,” said one of many administrators quoted anonymously in the report.

Overall, the survey found little difference in the level of frustration between district leaders who came up through the ranks in education and those who came from the military, legal, and corporate worlds. However, those with nontraditional backgrounds were more likely to see “constituency conflicts” as a problem, while career educators were somewhat less satisfied with the quality of their academic training for the job.

Also, although superintendents’ survey responses generally expressed confidence that they could close the achievement gap between needy students and their more advantaged peers, in interviews they were far less sanguine.

“When superintendents focus on the achievement gap, they quickly encounter opposition from the parents of children who are less at risk,” the authors write.

Helpful Pressure

On the flip side, the research does hint at how savvy district leaders can use the challenges they face to their advantage. Many of the superintendents agreed that pressure created by government mandates, the perception of a crisis, and community groups could help advance their own agendas. One schools chief interviewed, for instance, said enlisting the support of local business and religious leaders made for a winning combination.

Although he hadn’t seen the results of the report, former Sacramento, Calif., schools chief Jim Sweeney agreed that a good district leader knows how to exploit external pressure. Mr. Sweeney resigned his post in June after leading the 52,000-student system through five years of student improvement—and significant controversy.

His last year was dominated by debate over his support for converting a regular public high school into a charter school, a battle that continues.

“Since I took this job, I’ve leveraged everything with the fact that we had to get better because too many kids were failing,” Mr. Sweeney said.

“The more you’re really stirring things up,” he added, “the tougher, and meaner, and more difficult it gets.”

But such political skills aren’t enough, say the study’s authors. Based on the survey results, they argue that what district leaders need most is greater freedom to run their school systems.

All but 3 percent of the respondents said they wanted the power to close underperforming schools and reopen them with new staff members and management. And the vast majority agreed that school boards should stay out of personnel matters—except for hiring the schools chief—and focus instead on setting performance goals and budget priorities.

“We’ve got to change the nature of the job,” said Howard L. Fuller, an education professor at Marquette University and a former superintendent of the Milwaukee schools, who also worked on the study. “We’ve got to give these people the kind of power that goes with the responsibility that we give them.”

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