Choosing A Superintendent - Or A Chancellor
Our guest author today is Sol Hurwitz, president emeritus of the Committee for Economic Development and a member of the Albert Shanker Institute’s Board of Directors.
Early in January, less than two weeks into her tenure as chancellor of the New York City Public Schools, Cathleen P. Black found herself mired in controversy over a remark she made to parents distraught over their children’s overcrowded schools. “Couldn’t we just have some birth control for a while?" she joked.
The media pounced, and Ms. Black squandered an opportunity to address one of the school system’s most acute problems. The chancellor’s subsequent public appearances have provoked boos and jeering, to which her responses have veered from silence to mocking sarcasm. Her challenge now is to dispel the widely-held notion that she is unfit to hold her job.
An experienced educator facing a group of worried parents probably would not have made such a gaffe. But Ms. Black, the former president and chairwoman of Hearst Magazines, is not an educator; nor has she or her children ever attended a public school. Clearly, her experience as a publishing executive did not prepare her for the rough-and- tumble, media-driven politics of New York City’s schools.
Ms. Black’s troubles began even before she took office. When her surprise appointment by New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg was announced, it drew protests from parent groups and city council members, who decried Ms. Black’s lack of educational credentials and the secrecy that surrounded the choice. (Mayor Bloomberg alone has the power to make the appointment; the school board was abolished when he took office.) Since Ms. Black failed to meet state requirements for the position, the mayor sought and obtained a waiver from the state education commissioner, conditional on the mayor’s appointment of a qualified educator as her chief deputy.
The choice of a non-educator to head the nation’s largest public school system raises a question many mayors and school boards nationwide have wrestled with for years: Should a superintendent (or chancellor) be a traditional educator or an outsider, someone from business, law, politics, or the military, for example, who will “think outside the box” and “shake things up”?
Mayor Bloomberg’s unconventional choice for chancellor, far from shaking things up, is publicly committed to preserving the status quo, in particular some of the questionable measures championed by the mayor and Ms. Black’s predecessor, Joel I. Klein. Insisting that above all New York City’s large, complex system needs “a world-class manager," the mayor carefully avoided any mention of Ms. Black’s qualifications for assessing the merits of existing educational policies—among them, a dramatic increase in the number of charter schools and an excessive use of student test scores to evaluate teachers and close schools. The looming issues of teacher tenure and seniority in determining teacher layoffs will test even a world-class manager’s competence.
There is little agreement on what blend of training and experience is needed to succeed as a superintendent of schools. Currently, the position is open or a vacancy is expected in Atlanta, Chicago, Cleveland, Newark, Seattle, and countless other cities. In making their selection, mayors and school boards can only be guided by a thorough evaluation of the candidate’s credentials, informed by good judgment and common sense.
The choice between an educator and a “world-class manager," however, is a false choice. Most mayors and school boards want and need both—and more. Superintendents operate in a volatile political atmosphere with multiple and often competing interests to satisfy—those of students, administrators, teachers, and parents as well as their bosses in city hall, federal and state officials, and the board of education. As one observer put it, “school boards are looking for God on a good day."
What then should mayors and school boards require in the man or woman who will determine the direction of their public schools? The superintendent should be an educational leader capable of providing all students with the opportunity for progress in learning, excellence in teaching, and well-managed schools and school services. What’s more, he or she should be able to communicate to parents and the public a clear vision of the policies and strategies required for meeting those goals.
Mayors and school boards should also seek a person with a collaborative style, who can build trust among the school district’s diverse constituencies. Ms. Black, for example, would do well to engage the school system’s key interest groups in a detailed examination of current policies, with a view to determining their impact on all segments of the school community.
Once chosen, a superintendent deserves time to adjust to the job and the community. Following an initial rough patch, Ms. Black is beginning to listen respectfully, even to her critics—a marked contrast from the acerbic, confrontational style of her predecessor. Given time, she might possibly win their trust. She might even be willing to challenge the status quo and the man who handed her the job.