Muriel Bowser, the mayor of Washington D.C., is in the market for a new leader of the city’s public school system. The current occupant of the job, Kaya Henderson, is leaving in a few months and Bowser has launched a nationwide search for a successor. Who and what should she be looking for? Someone from inside the district? Outside?

In this post, education historian Larry Cuban looks at the historical trends of district leadership — and offers the D.C. mayor some advice about how to make a solid decision. Cuban is as qualified as anyone to write about the subject. He was a high school social studies teacher for 14 years, a district superintendent (seven years in Arlington, VA), and is professor emeritus of education at Stanford University, where he has taught for more than two decades. He is the author of numerous books, including “Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice: Change without Reform in American Education.” This appeared on his education blog and he gave me permission to republish.

By Larry Cuban

In Los Angeles Unified School District, the school board appointed an insider — Michelle King — superintendent earlier this year after a string of prior superintendents came from outside the district.

In New York City, Mayor Bill De Blasio appointed an insider – Carmen Farina –   as chancellor in 2014 after then Mayor Michael Bloomberg had appointed three outsiders since 2000.

These appointments of insiders to big-city districts, people who spent their careers within the district as teachers, principals, and district office administrators, are the exception, not the rule. For large urban districts, the rule has been to appoint outsiders who promise major changes in course to solve serious problems.

Why is that?

Outsiders have been appointed time and again in these districts because the unspoken and strong belief was that the serious educational, social, and political problems besetting the schools needed an innovative, energetic outsider, someone supposedly unbeholden to those inside the district.

An outsider, policy elites assumed, would shake the system by the scruff of its neck in turning around a failing district – “disrupt” is the fashionable word today. Insiders who had risen through the ranks would prize stability while looking for incremental improvements. Insiders  immersed in a network of relationships with peers and subordinates would supposedly be reluctant to disturb bureaucratic procedures, rules in effect for decades, and bonds of affection and respect for long-time peers and subordinates. Insiders would be loath to importing new staff and  innovations from elsewhere. They would rather seek new ideas and programs from sharp, knowledgeable insiders.

These strongly held beliefs about insiders and outsiders have shaped the appointment of superintendents to big city posts for well over a half-century.

In brief, the folk wisdom surrounding superintendents or chancellors heading urban districts says to appoint insiders if you like what has been happening in the system under the exiting superintendent in order to extend and protect what is working well for students, teachers, and the community. Stability and tweaking what works is the order of the day when insiders are appointed school chiefs. However, if you dislike what has been happening in the system, the dysfunctions, mediocre performance, the proliferation of problems, and the accompanying disarray, for heaven’s sake, appoint an outsider.

Washington, D.C. schools

This situation now faces the mayor of Washington, D.C., who has to replace exiting Chancellor Kaya Henderson who has served six years. Her predecessor outsider, Michelle Rhee, who brought in Henderson with her, was then Mayor Adrian Fenty’s first mayoral appointment; Rhee served from 2007-2010. Now with the departure of Henderson,  Mayor Muriel Bowser, who recently announced a national search for a successor to Henderson, is faced with a similar issue of appointing an insider or outsider after the search is completed (see here).

The mayor knows well that the District of Columbia schools have had a long string of school-board appointed outsiders. To be specific,  over nearly 60 years, there have been 14 superintendents (excluding interim appointees) of whom 11 were outsiders (including Rhee and Henderson). The three insiders were Vince Reed, 1975-1980; Floretta McKenzie,  1981-1988; and Andrew Jenkins, 1988-1990. Reed and McKenzie served with distinction; Jenkins was fired.

What does the research say?

Scholars who have written about “superintendent succession” – the academic phrase for picking the next district leader – have studied this issue for over a half-century. Looking at insiders and outsiders who school boards appoint to the highest district post has produced a growing body of literature on a series of questions arising from who follows whom in a school district. These questions include:

*Do outsider or insider superintendents outperform one another?

*Do insiders or outsiders stay longer?

*Does superintendent succession resemble succession in corporations and other organizations?

*What does matter when decision-makers (e.g., school boards, mayors)  in choosing an insider or outsider?

The answer is the first two questions is no. To the third question, the answer is yes. The last question I answer with more than one word.

On performance, 30 years of research have determined that neither outsider or insider school chiefs perform better because of where they come from. Sure, how one defines performance is important and will vary. But on various measures of the district’s  student outcomes,  teacher and parental satisfaction, relationships with community and unions, there is no substantial differences between districts appointing insiders or outsiders (see here, here, and here).

As to length of service for insiders or outsiders, studies of big cities show little difference also (see here and here)

Superintendent succession, researchers have found, similar to CEOs and other top leadership posts in non-school organizations (see here, here, here, and here).

So  Bowser doing a national search to replace Kaya Henderson – such a search already tilts toward appointing an outsider – should at the very least consider what researchers have found out about superintendent succession.

Were she to do so, she should also consider the factors that come into play in influencing how either an insider or outsider appointee will perform. That includes the fit between the goals of school boards or mayors and the candidate’s experiences with, for example, the political decision-making that occurs in making educational policy and the features of the organizational setting and community and their match with the knowledge and skills of the applicant.

These and other factors have to be considered in deciding whether to pick an insider or outsider to head a district. Simply picking one or the other because it is time to do so, is a mindless way of making the most important decision for a major city’s schools.