UW News

August 7, 2003

Study: Superintendents set up to fail

Nine out of 10 urban school superintendents say they need more authority to fix bad schools and boost student achievement, according to a survey of the superintendents of the nation’s 100 largest districts.

In “An Impossible Job?” the first report to probe these key school leaders and offer policy solutions, the superintendents — who collectively oversee 6.5 million students — warned that many of their best efforts at reform are stymied by the way power is divvied up among micromanaging school boards, inflexible teacher unions and other pressure groups.

And with the upcoming school year promising heightened public scrutiny of test scores, an overwhelming majority of those leading the 100 largest districts said they have little chance of significantly improving student performance without clearer executive authority to hire, fire and move teachers, reconfigure bad schools and adjust the curriculum.

“The consensus of urban school superintendents is that many of their job conditions set them up to fail,” said Howard Fuller, a former Milwaukee superintendent and one of the authors of the study by the UW’s Center on Reinventing Public Education and commissioned by The Wallace Foundation.

Co-author James Harvey said the results point to urgent changes needed if the No Child Left Behind Act is to succeed in raising accountability and closing achievement gaps.

“Districts and states will have to rewrite the rules of how schools are governed,” Harvey said. “Trying to reach the federal goals under the present system is like trying to build BMWs on a Chevrolet assembly line.”

Districts tend to respond more to adults’ demands than to children’s educational needs, according to many of the superintendents, who cited cases in which demands from vendors or employees trumped the educational requirements of students and quashed valuable programs. One superintendent endured political attacks for hiring an out-of-town contractor over an inferior local one, while another was pushed to preserve the jobs of lightly trained teacher aides.

Such pressures often come via school boards that reach beyond policy into execution. Six in 10 of the superintendents found microman-agement by boards to be at least a moderate problem, and 89 percent said school boards should stick to developing the budget, setting educational goals, ensuring accountability for results, assessing the superintendent’s performance and planning for his or her succession.

Overall, the authors found, the lack of clear, CEO-like authority was a barrier to school reform — a barrier which could not be overcome simply by hiring new and better leaders.

The results make it clear that leaders cannot succeed in systems that fail to support them, said Richard Laine, director of education programs at The Wallace Foundation.

“We need not only to enhance the superintendent’s knowledge and skills,” Laine said, “but also to improve the working conditions and systems in which they work.”

To do that, the researchers propose that:

  • School boards operate with clearly defined, and limited, responsibilities, and
  • Districts recruit superintendents who have — or can be trained in — the political, leadership and public-management skills necessary to garner community support.

In other findings, the average tenure of current superintendents in the largest 100 districts was found to be 8.2 years. But durability did not necessarily equal effectiveness. One superintendent hired from outside the education profession admitted he was succumbing to the forces around him, like a cucumber in a pickle jar.

“We’re only going to stay a cucumber for so long,” he said. “Eventually we’re going to become a pickle, and when we do, we’re going to have to go, because we won’t be making a contribution.”

The report’s findings and recommendations are based on a written survey of superintendents from 100 of the nation’s largest urban and exurban districts, plus extensive interviews with 40 other large-district superintendents (and some former superintendents).

The Center on Reinventing Public Education, at the UW’s Daniel J. Evans School of Public Affairs, studies major issues in education reform and governance.

The full study is available at http://www.crpe.org.