School district superintendents are often nice people, but boring. They rarely have much effect on what happens in classrooms, where the most interesting and productive changes occur.
But because the nation's two largest districts, New York and Los Angeles, are looking for new superintendents, I forced myself to read a trenchant new guide for superintendent success by two scholars who think the man or woman at the top is important.
Can Paul Hill and Ashley Jochim of the University of Washington save NYC and LA from fractious politics and stopgap solutions? Probably not. But they offer enough shrewd insights to help us decide whether new superintendents in those cities and your city have any hope of progress.
Their report for the Center on Reinventing Public Education is titled "Unlocking Potential: How Political Skill Can Maximize Superintendent Effectiveness." The authors scold superintendents who insist that they are educators rather than politicians. I agree that such people should sign up for classroom jobs and let dealmakers run their districts.
Time is precious, Hill and Jochim say. Stop using so much of it on such favorite superintendent events as visiting schools or holding big community meetings. Figure out what you want early and convince powerful folk — such as school board chairs, business executives and union leaders — that your plan will be good for them, too. This means avoiding a beloved superintendent pastime: making off-the-record fun of board members. "The resolution of any important question depends on someone assembling a strong enough coalition to prevail over the long term," the authors say.
That is what some superintendents I have known tried to do. The least boring of them, D.C. Chancellor Michelle Rhee, made some initial progress when she arrived in 2007 by employing the backing of several rich foundations and of the mayor who appointed her. She streamlined an inbred central office, appointed promising principals, abandoned the district's enmity toward charter schools and imposed a teacher rating system.
But she ignored one of Hill and Jochim's maxims: "Superintendents who want to make real changes must treat school staff as professionals who respond better to fair bargains than coercion." Being not boring often means making unnecessary enemies. Consider Rhee's freewheeling approach to the media. She complained about specific Washington Post writers to their editors — a big no-no in newsrooms — and, most spectacularly, let a TV news crew record her firing a principal.
But she also used a cynical tactic Hill and Jochim endorse: Let everyone know the district is a disaster. The threat of a takeover from the state or the mayor helps, but in Rhee's case, she was the takeover, since the power to pick a chancellor — her — had moved from the school board to the mayor.
So she emphasized the negative when she arrived. One expert in education politics told Hill and Jochim he admired this technique; he praised William Bennett when he was U.S. education secretary under President Ronald Reagan for saying Chicago had the worst schools in the country. "That brought the whole city together and broke a lot of logjams," the expert said.
Rhee held back promised pay raises to teachers until other changes, such as the new teacher rating system, were in place. Hill and Jochim approve: "Once a group (a union, for example) has a benefit in hand, they have no reason to compensate the superintendent retroactively."
Smart superintendents should groom potential successors, the authors say. Rhee brought in Kaya Henderson as her deputy. Henderson had Rhee's passion for reform but was better at treating others as professionals. Rhee left in 2010 when her protector, the mayor, was voted out of office. The gentler Henderson took over and lasted six years — a long run for an urban district.
So it is Henderson, not Rhee, being talked about as the possible new superintendent in New York or Los Angeles. As the authors say, whoever takes over those schools will need new coalitions and the patience to pursue them with respect. I advise those new district leaders also to ignore writers such as me who are looking for excitement, because a superintendent's path to lasting success can often seem dull.