School Leadership

The modern superintendent

Michelle Rhee

No longer managers, they now must not only navigate but reform the local landscape.

The job of a modern school superintendent is drastically different from the original job description, when, in 1837, Oliver G. Steele, a Buffalo, New York native, became the nation’s first superintendent.

While the first superintendents tended to assist school boards in carrying out their work, by the turn of the 20th century many had transitioned into becoming career professionals, who were expected to be successful, efficient managers, whether navigating the waters of political infighting with union members or politicians at the statehouse. In this way, superintendents became endowed with the unique responsibility of defending public education, whether protecting it from the critics who sought to dismantle the system or advocating on behalf of more money for schools.

Flash forward to the 21st century, when standards and accountability have thrust academic achievement into the spotlight. But unlike teachers and principals, superintendents are twice removed from the classroom. Nevertheless, their role as educational leaders is no less important as they go about the business of setting district agendas behind the scenes, deciding on curricula, allocating resources, overseeing district-wide training programs and evaluating principals – hopefully all in concert with the school board.

Profile: Urban School Superintendents

Gender
74% male
27% female

Race/ethnicity
47% white
41% black
11% Hispanic
2% Asian

Average length of tenure in current position
1 year or less – 9%
1-5 years – 63%
5 years or more – 29%

Salary
$150,000-$199,999 – 27%
$200,000-$249,999 – 20%
$250,000 or more – 54%

Benefits
The average benefits package for Council of Great City Schools superintendents is valued at about $141,000.

Note: Calculations may not sum to 100 due to rounding.

Source: “Urban School Superintendents: Characteristics, Tenure, and Salary [Seventh Survey and Report],” Council of Great City Schools, Fall 2010

The job of superintendent is nothing if not an exercise in wearing many hats at the same time. “As instructional leaders, they bear ultimate responsibility for improving student achievement,” wrote Larry Lashway, who cites the work of Larry Cuban, a Stanford University emeritus professor of education. “As managerial leaders, they have to keep their districts operating efficiently, with a minimum of friction, yet taking risks to make necessary changes. As political leaders, they have to negotiate with multiple stakeholders to get approval for programs and resources.”

It is also a job that, while removed from the classroom, is often done under intense media scrutiny. In this way, the role of superintendent can be unrelentingly political. And while conflict is in many ways inevitable – because school districts often oversee the biggest local public budget, are significant purchasers of goods and services, and can set property (or parcel) taxes – it can be paralyzing nonetheless.

“You’re going to make enemies any time you’re instituting a new policy, abandoning one, or firing people,” said Judith Johnson, superintendent of schools in Peekskill, New York, who was also the state’s Superintendent of the Year in 2008. The challenge is one of modulating various pressures and ultimately arriving at some middle ground, where the superintendent is neither perpetually on the chopping block nor perceived as entirely ineffectual.

Historically, improving education was thought to be accomplished by issuing directives, reorganizing the central office or spending more money on professional development for principals and teachers. What we know now is that it requires a wholesale change in culture – from the classroom to the superintendent’s office and school board. One reason that the instructional core, or what goes on in classrooms, changed so little for so long was because of a lack of leadership in the superintendent’s office. Such a laidback attitude is no longer an option.

When it comes to changing the culture of not only a school but a district, something called “reculturing” must take place, according to education expert Michael Fullan. An obvious example would be former chancellor Michelle Rhee’s retooling of Washington, D.C.’s public schools. In troubled districts around the country, merely changing the culture is not enough, Fullan argues. Instead, he advocates that leaders develop a “culture of change” that fosters the “capacity to seek, critically assess, and selectively incorporate new ideas and practices.”

Michael Casserly, who has spent nearly two decades as executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition of 66 of the nation’s largest urban public school systems, says that superintendents need to focus on their instructional programs to move things forward. Superintendents “need to have a firm handle on how they’re trying to improve academics system-wide,” Casserly says, “and pay special attention to the schools that are furthest behind.”

Concerns about superintendents with little or no curriculum expertise – increasingly common in the last decade, as leaders from other fields have been tapped to run school districts – have led to arrangements where a “chief academic officer” is made second-in-command, as happened in New York City with Cathie Black.

A publishing executive with no background in public education, Black won the job as New York City Schools Chancellor in late 2010 only after a deal was brokered to appoint a long-time educator as her chief deputy. Elsewhere, similar solutions are likely in the near future, as the trend of hiring leaders with backgrounds in business, law, politics, the media or the military to run large urban school districts has shown little sign of abating.

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