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.

See Also...

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.”

Related Tags:

Events

Classroom Technology Webinar Making Big Technology Decisions: Advice for District Leaders, Principals, and Teachers
Educators at all levels make decisions that can have a huge impact on students. That’s especially true when it comes to the use of technology, which was activated like never before to help students learn
Professional Development Webinar Expand Digital Learning by Expanding Teacher Training
This discussion will examine how things have changed and offer guidance on smart, cost-effective ways to expand digital learning efforts and train teachers to maximize the use of new technologies for learning.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
The Social-Emotional Impact of the Covid-19 Pandemic on American Schoolchildren
Hear new findings from an analysis of our 300 million student survey responses along with district leaders on new trends in student SEL.
Content provided by Panorama

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management Opinion Q&A Collections: Education Policy Issues
Posts on the key education policy issues from the past 10 years.
13 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
iStock/Getty
School & District Management Opinion Leaders, Your Communication Plan Needs to Start With Your Staff
Staff members are the point of contact for thousands of interactions with the public each day. They can’t be the last to know of changes.
Gladys I. Cruz
2 min read
A staff meeting around a table.
Vanessa Solis/Education Week and Getty Images
School & District Management L.A. Unified to Require Testing of Students, Staff Regardless of Vaccination Status
The policy change in the nation's second-largest school district comes amid rising coronavirus cases, largely blamed on the Delta variant.
Howard Blume, Los Angeles Times
4 min read
L.A. schools interim Sup Megan K. Reilly visits Fairfax High School's "Field Day" event to launch the Ready Set volunteer recruitment campaign to highlight the nationwide need for mentors and tutors, to prepare the country's public education students for the upcoming school year. The event coincides with National Summer Learning Week, where U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona is highlighting the importance of re-engaging students and building excitement around returning to in-person learning this fall. high school, with interim LAUSD superintendent and others. Fairfax High School on Wednesday, July 14, 2021 in Los Angeles, CA.
In this July 14, 2021, photo, Los Angeles Unified School District interim Superintendent Megan K. Reilly speaks at an event at Fairfax High School in Los Angeles. Reilly announced a new district policy Thursday requiring all students and employees of the Los Angeles school district to take weekly coronavirus tests regardless of their vaccination status.
Al Seib/Los Angeles Times via TNS
School & District Management Spotlight Spotlight on New School Year Collaborations
In this Spotlight, learn where principals and teachers differ on what’s important, gain insights on collaborative learning, and more.