America’s Largest School Systems are Facing a Serious Leadership Crisis
March 13, 2018

Two weeks ago, Miami superintendent Alberto Carvahlo embarrassed New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio, when he accepted, and then on live television, changed his mind and rejected, the mayor’s offer to become New York City’s school chancellor. Before he balked, Carvahlo seemed to be the last person standing who embodies the ephemeral qualifications of the “big city superintendent”: significant experience in a huge system, academic talent, charisma, facility with local politics, and the ability to build long-standing relationships with real people.

When DeBlasio had to double-back and name a second choice, the gap between the winner and the runner-up appeared vast. Richard Carranza, the newly appointed chancellor, spent less than two years as superintendent of Houston, where he received mixed reviews. That district, which is large and unwieldy, is at risk for state takeover; local conventional wisdom is that, at best, Carranza didn’t make things much worse.

Unlike the editors of some local papers, which are practically rooting for Carranza’s failure, I want the new Chancellor to be successful. New York City is the biggest school district in America, and after four years of weak leadership under a transitional chief officer, the district needs a jumpstart. There’s wide agreement that “equity” has become just another buzzword without teeth, too many lackluster schools stanch the unlocked brilliance of the city’s students, and de facto segregation seems to continue unabated.

But amidst the hubbub over the chancellor search, I couldn’t help wondering: Where the heck are America’s great superintendents?

The painful truth is that we have a serious leadership vacuum when it comes to America’s largest and most challenging school systems, and that’s a problem for all of us. In a country of over 300 million people, it’s hard to believe that there was only one great candidate for what is arguably the country’s most significant education leadership position. While there is a risk in overstating the importance of NYC schools to the rest of the country, it’s no accident that a disproportionate share of America’s education ideas and leaders incubate here. One needn’t look too far – chaos in DC, board shenanigans in Los Angeles, constant turnover in Chicago, shocking achievement gaps in the Pacific Northwest – to realize that the problem extends beyond the Big Apple.

No matter how you slice it, America’s big city school systems are facing a leadership conundrum. Turnover among “big city superintendents” is extraordinary, with the average tenure lasting just over three years, which “makes it harder for urban school systems to maintain and accelerate the positive academic momentum,” according to Michael Casserly of the Council of Great City Schools. The American Association of School Administrators estimates that more than two dozen national firms specialize in conducting superintendent searches, with some managing as many as fifty at a time.

Pinpointing the reasons for the crisis is somewhat trickier. The job is unquestionably hard, for starters. America’s cities are hotbeds of talent, diversity, ideas, innovations, and inventions. They also are scenes of massive wealth inequality, institutional racial division, and high concentrations of inter-generational poverty. Harnessing the power of those assets in service of ameliorating the existential challenges is not just rocket science … it’s harder. While the best minds in our country seem committed to designing apps that make upper-middle-class life even more convenient, the most vexing problems faced by our country will not be solved with slightly more optimal late-night food delivery. Until we are more serious about the complexity of the challenges faced by America’s largest school systems, we will never develop systemic leadership equal to the magnitude of the endeavor.

Misunderstanding the extent of the challenges leads to a second thing that feeds our current vacuum: last generation’s great education innovators matched substantial hubris with big ideas, while delivering only middling successes. That tendency to over-promise and under-deliver has been a setback. That’s an area where I must take some personal responsibility, as I participated most aggressive education reforms of the last generation, which relied on outsized personalities who tried to simplify the problem for the sake of expediency and political strategy. In the most extreme case – our current, incompetent U.S. Secretary of Education – the over-simplification of problems comes across as comical naivety. Unfortunately, the joke is on our kids. Betsy DeVos’s reliance on “school choice” as an educational panacea is not so different from other reformers’ infatuation with silver bullet solutions.

If the last generation of reform relied on outsized personalities to fix structural issues, the next generation should refocus on bread-and-butter academic improvements. There aren’t many obvious solutions to our current leadership nadir, but one big takeaway from the current morass should be that we need to be less reliant on individual hero superintendents, while investing more money, time, and national energy into supporting and preparing leaders at all levels of our school systems. Research conducted by the Brookings Institution suggests that the quality of a superintendent constitutes just 0.3% of the differences in student achievement across school systems. Teachers and principals are the frontline people dealing with children every day, and we systematically undervalue their contributions relative to other societal actors. When a 22-year-old entry-level engineer at a tech company makes five times more money than a teacher with 22 years of experience, we can be sure that there is something wrong with how our culture allocates resources. Investing in the leadership of teachers and principals will improve school performance in the short-term, while creating a more viable leadership pipeline in the long run.

The second thing we can do to improve leadership at the top of our biggest school systems is to make the job more doable. The challenges inherent to managing urban systems are exacerbated by the other general idiosyncrasies of American public schooling: the bizarrely unclear role of states, the federal government’s vacillations between utter impotence and overreach, and the antiquated notion of the local school board, to name a few big-ticket items. I stand by my earlier claim that it’s easy to get infatuated with governance change as the sine-qua-non of school improvement. That said, each layer of bureaucracy in American schooling adds rules and regulations that have negligible effects on actual instruction. Not all regulations are bad, but system leaders spend an inordinate amount of time navigating the rough seas between the various institutional masters they serve.

Finally, we must set-up our school system leaders for success. In reporting on Mayor DeBlasio’s botched Chancellor search, education writers revealed that the mayor wanted to appoint both the head of human resources and the chief of staff of the department of education. At best this constitutes micromanagement, and at worst, it is the twenty-first century incarnation of the most pernicious kind of machine politics. I’ve heard stories from old-time education leaders, about the days when political bosses wouldn’t be shy about demanding jobs in exchange for political favors, or even envelopes full of cash. The politicization of human resources is a giant red-flag for anyone with a nose for corruption, favoritism, and political gamesmanship. The job of chancellor is hard enough without meddling, and we will never improve the life outcomes of all children if we’re putting municipal politics ahead of academic leadership.

The narrative of urban schools in America has become one of boom and bust speculation. People become infatuated with places that fit their own ideological perspectives – Newark! Union City! New Orleans! Long Beach! – while ignoring the reality that complex social change cannot rely on either individual heroes or institutions alone. Improving schools relies on strong leadership at the top of systems, yes, but it also requires the constant participation of the people most affected by inadequate schooling, namely the parents and families who most rely on public schools as a ladder to opportunity. If school improvement doesn’t include their leadership and voices, there’s no amount of technical tinkering that can right the ship.


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