No Experience Needed?
Just what is a superintendent anyway? An educator? A CEO? What’s the right resume?
No school system is advertising these days for a superintendent to maintain the status quo. School boards and mayors are looking for someone to close the achievement gap, and stretch dwindling dollars, if not totally reform their schools. This is a tall order, especially when you consider the politically charged environment and multiple groups to satisfy.
The question becomes, who is best suited to take on this challenge?
Traditionally, administrators steeped in education expertise have moved through the ranks to lead school systems. However, in the past 15 years, executives from corporate America, government, and the military are being tapped to take a crack at running struggling school districts. The recent appointment of publisher Cathie Black as chancellor of the New York City DOE reignites the debate over what it takes to lead a district.
Education outsiders can offer fresh ideas, yet aren't experts in teaching and learning. Lifelong educators have the academic pedigree, but may lack the managerial and political acumen needed. Programs are emerging to train leaders in both business and education skills to be successful as superintendents. The jury is still out as to whether this influx of outsiders is good for education or if this is a trend that's here to stay. One thing's for certain: As the push intensifies to improve public education, superintendent qualifications will continue to be a hot topic.
The Landscape of Leaders
As the average age of the nation's superintendents climbs from 56 to 60, about half will likely retire in the next five years, according to a December survey by the American Association of School Administrators. "That's a huge turnover factor and it's going to create a vacuum in leadership at a time when the conditions of the job are the worst they've ever been," says Dan Domenech, AASA executive director.
In the past decade, there has been a significant decline in the number and quality of applicants for superintendent as the job becomes more complex. With the economy forcing staff layoffs and program cutbacks, superintendents are not popular and often become a lightning rod for community displeasure, says Domenech. "People expected to rise to the position—deputy superintendents and assistant superintendents—are saying the pay differential is not worth the risk, the headaches, being on call 24/7," he says.
Some districts have turned to non-traditional candidates, though the number are quite small and most are in large, urban areas with mayoral control of schools. Domenech sees no movement to change the laws in 42 of the 50 states that require professional education credentials to be a superintendent.
Michigan removed certification requirements for superintendents in the mid-1990s to open the doors for businesspeople. "One thing that happened was nobody came," except for few in the large districts, says Susan Printy, associate professor of K-12 educational administration at Michigan State University. In fact, despite the change, Michigan's applicant pool decreased in the past decade, mirroring the nationwide trend.
The takeaway: With shrinking central office staffs, superintendents are expected to do more, including being an instructional leader. "In most cases, districts want some evidence that the people in charge know something about the instructional program," says Printy.
About 10 percent to 20 percent of superintendents in big cities at any one time in the past 15 years have come from nontraditional ranks and the mix has been constant, says Mike Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools. "They've been with us for some time and continue to add value," he says. A new survey by the council shows superintendent tenure is rising from 2.33 years in 1999 to 3.64 years today—with nontraditional leaders experiencing the same average length of stay as others—a positive sign for future recruiting efforts.
School executive search firms, such as Ray and Associates in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, are finding large districts increasingly want the option of a nontraditional candidate with experience running a sizeable organization.
"A lot of school districts are saying, We need someone with leadership skills to pull all this together, make this work, and that does not necessarily mean someone with an education background," says Gary Ray, president of the company.
Is There an Ideal Resume?
in the past 30 years, ray has witnessed a shift in demand for educational leaders to individuals who can motivate and lead people. "The qualifications have changed. Now you hear about consensus building, working with diversity, and communication skills," says Ray. "You have to be able to convey trust." Superintendents must have outstanding people skills, be good listeners, be able to work with various stakeholders, and be able to communicate a message, he says.
"There is a trend in recognizing that great leadership matters," says Becca Bracy Knight, executive director of The Broad Center for the Management of School Systems. The Broad Center is a nonprofit in Los Angeles that recruits people inside education and from other professions to its superintendent training program. "We need to cast a wide net to find great leaders to take on these roles—to look nationally, not just locally."
"You have to be a change agent," says Knight. "No one is happy with the current state of education. You have to have skills to fundamentally transform the system."
For nontraditional leaders to succeed, they have to build a team with expertise in teaching and learning-just as a career educator could use businesspeople to balance their skills, says Knight.
The notion of putting a chief academic officer as the deputy to a superintendent who doesn't have an education background baffles Robert Peterkin, professor emeritus at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. "That's the second-best solution," he says. "I don't understand why you wouldn't put the best person in the number-one spot."
In the doctoral program that Peterkin led for 20 years to train urban superintendents, students had a foundation in education and then honed their managerial and political skills to prepare to be leaders. A nontraditional superintendent can bone up on their education reading, but that's not the same as being in and around a classroom, says Peterkin. "What it doesn't do is put the most important thing at the forefront: instructional improvement," he says. "It's dangerous for the CEO of a school system to have no knowledge of teaching and learning."
Peterkin's list of top qualities for a superintendent: courage, integrity, a strong sense of planning and follow-through, and a commitment to equity. Districts looking for a "savior" with a different set of skills will continue to have a certain cache, says Peterkin, but he'd rather have an educator as a leader who then brings in someone with business skills to match the educational plan.
Lessons from Non-Traditionalists districts that hire a superinten-dent from a non-educational discipline are typically looking for a new approach. "Non-traditionals add fresh ideas, new perspectives, and new energy," says Casserly. "Those people add to our ability to think more creatively."
Roy Romer, who led the Los Angeles Unified School District from 2000 until 2006, says his background as governor of Colorado helped him bring political and management skills and policy expertise to the job. "They were so desperately in search of leadership that they welcomed somebody who could lead," he says. "The management is similar. What's different is the subject matter you are managing."
Romer says his job was totally focused on and measured by what happened with student learning in the classroom. "I was not the expert in how to teach kids, but I had the ability to find out who were the experts, and I put them in charge."
"At any level, a person can make a contribution from the outside," adds Romer. "You can't bring just anybody in. There is no guarantee it will succeed. It takes a really unique and dedicated person to make it work, and you have to acquire a whole lot of knowledge of educational practice and strategy."
When Tom Brady made the transition from being a colonel in the U.S. Army to managing in the public school system, his experience with collaboration and moving a large complex organization was useful. Still, his job change was a culture shock, of sorts, even though he was trained through the Broad program. Brady worked as chief operating officer in Fairfax County, Virginia, and is now superintendent of Providence schools in Rhode Island.
"Academicians as a group love to talk about a problem, wring their hands and make sure everybody says everything that needs to be said until no one has anything left to say. I love them—but that's kind of the culture," Brady says. He brought in some discipline and focus on the key issues. "I enjoy the 3 Bs: Be bright, be brief, and be gone," he says.
Paul Vallas, former CEO of the Chicago and Philadelphia districts and current head of the Recovery School District of Louisiana, came into school leadership from a policy background working in the Illinois state legislature. The ability to understand public finance and outcome-based budgeting is an edge for nontraditional leaders, he says. "Everything we do is impacted by our ability to stabilize finances," says Vallas. "The problem with a lot of reforms is not that the reforms attempted weren't well thought out, it's that they couldn't be sustained because of unstable finances."
Educators Show Skepticism
"I've never been a believer that people without medical degrees should be able to practice or lawyers without appropriate training should be in a courtroom. I have a similar belief about educators," says Rudy Crew, former superintendent of the Miami-Dade County Public Schools, ex-chancellor of the New York City DOE, and
now professor of clinical education at the University of Southern California's Rossier School of Education.
"I think it's a profession with a discrete set of skills and specific certification requirements. It does require some level of preparation beyond having attended a school oneself."
Crew, who has a doctorate of education from the University of Massachusetts- Amherst, says someone with an education background knows the core of the business from the ground up. "Despite all the noise around politics and deals that have to be struck, if you cut your teeth by being in the industry itself, you really do understand where the bottom line finally is."
Hiring nontraditional leaders is reaching for a "political Hail Mary" of desperation, says Crew. "This is America's latest educational petri dish—we ought to just give it to someone else to run." The trend misses important conversations about strategies for instructional delivery that can really make a difference, he says.
Superintendents who don't understand firsthand educational issues, such as teacher planning time, may not be in position to advocate for them, says Printy. "Teaching and learning are really complex human endeavors. You don't have fixed materials or technology."
Operating in a public arena where all your decisions are transparent and subject to scrutiny can also be challenging, especially for those new to public service, says Michael Usdan, senior fellow at the Institute for Educational Leadership. "In a corporate hierarchy, you may be used to making a decision and everyone going along. In the public sector, the minute you do something, somebody will disagree with it and your constituencies will be out to unravel your decisions."
Are Blended Programs the Future?
Reaching out for new leaders has prompted colleges to rethink their training programs for administrators. The University of Virginia Curry School of Education has redesigned its principal and superintendent programs to include management experience in the field, says Robert Pianta, dean of the school and director of the Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning.
"There is plenty of opportunity for professionals to be prepared well and do a good job whatever route they come through," says Pianta.
As more people from Teach for America or with alternative certification stay in the field and consider moving into leadership positions, experts suggest the demand for joint business-education programs may grow.
Knight says the Broad Center receives about 7,000 applications for its superintendent training program a year, but only takes 10 to 15. "It's hard to find people to meet the bar of what's needed," she says. "It's one of the toughest jobs in America, and you have to have the skill and interest to take it on."
When someone outside of education contacts Brady about the idea of moving into public education leadership, he is frank about the frustration of having multiple bosses and politics involved. He emphasizes the need to have a burning desire to help kids learn. "Being an outsider is not a silver bullet. You aren't going to turn a school district around just because you were a success in another career field," he says. "It's a challenge, but if good people are willing to take it up, I think nontraditionals are a very fertile field for new ways of looking at how to do things."
As long as there continues to be disaffection with schools, the incumbents who lead them, and a general anti-government sentiment, Usdan anticipates cities will continue to look for talent outside of the traditional routes.
"A superintendent is one of the most complex jobs in America today," says Domenech. "Whoever takes it needs to be an individual with exceptional skills and expertise. It doesn't matter where they come from—their success will depend on having the skills to get the job done."