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The Superintendent as Scapegoat

January 11, 2006 |
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It's a remarkable fact: Large-district school superintendents have the shortest job tenure of anyone in public education today. According to Tim Quinn, the director of the Broad Foundation's Urban Superintendents Academy, the average tenure of an urban superintendent, including interim superintendents, is 26 to 28 months. No one knows what percentage of these superintendents leave because they are squeezed out. But it is clearly a large fraction.

In one sense, this finding is no surprise at all. Over the decades, almost everyone else in education, from janitors on up to assistant superintendents, has used collective bargaining to win job protection. So, increasingly, the superintendent is the only person left in the public school system without some prospect of a lifetime-guaranteed job. But the fact that superintendents are so often on the hot seat also reflects a deeper political truth: Superintendents have become the convenient scapegoat of education politics.

This political truth was recently on display in Anne Arundel County, Md., where the school board pushed out the district's high-profile superintendent despite his having achieved the objectives that a previous board had brought him in to accomplish. During the last two decades, the average tenure of a superintendent in Anne Arundel County, the nation's 42nd-largest school district, has been under four years. Prior to that, the superintendent lasted more than a decade.

In 2002, the Anne Arundel school board hired Eric J. Smith to carry out an ambitious reform agenda centered on implementing the federal No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law that year. As the winner of the Council of the Great City Schools' 2000 award for exceptional contributions to urban schools, Smith came to the school system with a distinguished national reputation. And a few months after arriving, he was appointed the chairman of the board of trustees of the College Board. An article in The Washington Post described Smith's national stature this way: "Suddenly, reporters from Education Week were coming to the county's school board meetings. The object of their interest: Eric Smith." ("Agent of Change," July 9, 2003.)

The school board never argued that Smith didn't achieve the educational benchmarks it established for him. Nor, despite substantial public criticism, did it publicly question those goals. Nevertheless, during the summer of 2005, with a no-confidence vote from the teachers' union looming, the board began to publicly distance itself from Smith's means of achieving the goals. Quietly, a majority of board members made it clear they wanted him gone.

The reasons for the board's change of heart can be reduced to one primary cause: Smith alienated the teachers' union because his initiatives, including more textbooks, teacher paperwork, and teacher prep time, were perceived to come at teachers' expense. By 2005, board members got the clear message: They would have to choose between the teachers and the superintendent. With only one of the board members who had hired Smith three years earlier still on the board, the choice was easy.

But the board was in a bind. It wasn't politically astute to have an open and honest discussion about these tradeoffs. Nor did the board want to say publicly that the only way the issues could be resolved was by going to taxpayers for more funding. So instead of resolving these tensions, it began to quibble about other matters with the superintendent. For example, although the board three years earlier had promised the superintendent that it would not micromanage the district and would only judge the superintendent based on his results, the current board started complaining that all sorts of information it needed to manage the district weren't forthcoming from the superintendent. Smith saw the writing on the wall and diplomatically resigned, thus saving himself and the board from embarrassment.

Paul D. Houston, the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, describes Anne Arundel County as a classic case of the increasingly common "lightning rod" superintendent: "He has a great reputation, he raises test scores, he stabilizes the money, and he's still in trouble. What is he supposed to do?"

A 2003 report by the Council of the Great City Schools presciently observed: "The conventional wisdom that superintendents turn over every two years probably overstates the case, but newspapers around the country continually report on unsatisfactory terminations of superintendents' employment." Then it concluded: "What's striking is how infrequently superintendents are fired, or even asked to move on when their contracts expire, because they haven't done what they were hired to do: improve student achievement."

Although the justifications school boards use to replace superintendents differ over time and from district to district, the fundamental logic is remarkably similar. When things sour in a district, boards need a scapegoat, and the superintendent has increasingly become the most politically attractive one. In the old days, board members' need to blame others for school problems had many outlets. But as the politics of education have changed, the range of politically feasible scapegoats has shrunk. If the only major weapon left to a board is to fire and hire a superintendent, it can be irresistibly tempting to use it. But if superintendents are creatures of the boards that hire them, then when superintendents consistently fail, so has the institution of the board.

The pattern of high-turnover superintendencies is not lost on either superintendents or their staffs. Superintendents move into large districts knowing both that the honeymoon is likely to be short and that they will have to show immediate results or be out of a job. This forces them to rush prematurely to action and to game the system to get short-term results.

For example, instead of boosting reading scores by having children read fine books that will cultivate a lifelong love of reading and genuinely advanced language skills, a superintendent may teach to the test with second-rate reading materials to get a quick bump in test results.

When school employees know that they will long outlast any given superintendent, moreover, it makes it harder for superintendents to be effective leaders doing the job they were brought in to do.

Unfortunately, there is no easy cure for the democratic ills that beset our highly politicized large-district school boards. But if the problem is worst in our largest districts, then one obvious policy recommendation would be to divide them into smaller districts.

The work of Harvard University economist Caroline M. Hoxby on public school choice strongly supports such a recommendation. She has built a distinguished career arguing that small districts foster more choice for parents, with the resulting competition leading to significantly improved school performance. In a world where parents highly value neighborhood schools, and public schools therefore have substantial monopoly power, this type of school choice may be the best that can be hoped for.

In any case, the public needs to be wary when a school board pins the ills of a school system on a superintendent. Seen over time, all this turmoil at the top has done little to improve our school systems.

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