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Buried Treasure: An Impossible Job? The View From the Urban Superintendent’s Chair

Over a decade ago, CRPE conducted a set of leadership studies funded by the Wallace Foundation’s Leaders Count Initiative. Of all the reports we produced, perhaps the most interesting was on the urban superintendency. (Other reports focused on the job of the principal, principal shortages, principal licensure, human resource development, and key indicators of school and district health.)

An Impossible Job? The View From the Urban Superintendent’s Chair was based on a survey of superintendents of the nation’s 100 largest districts (70 superintendents responded) and interviews and focus groups with dozens of then-current and former superintendents.

Reviewing it 10 years later, I was struck in several ways:

Expectations for superintendents have dramatically changed. Up until the time of this report in 2003, superintendents experienced almost no accountability for student achievement. A generation ago, for example, the urban superintendent who managed a large budget effectively and kept a major public enterprise functioning was likely to be considered a success. Superintendents might also have been asked to make sure that all children had access to a solid education, but few would have held them accountable for what students learned. For all its imperfections, the freshly minted No Child Left Behind Act produced a national mindset shift that was long overdue.

Many of the constraints on superintendents remain unchanged. From the report:

  • Although the policy discussion about schools revolves around student achievement, local school dynamics are driven by employment demands.
  • Some districts are making progress in improving the performance of minority students, but the skill in shortest supply is the ability to close the achievement gap.
  • While nontraditional superintendents try to think outside the box, they are struggling with the same issues as their traditional peers and their success is by no means assured.
  • Barriers to school reform are too numerous to overcome just with new and better leadership. Preparation must be improved and district governance should be reshaped.

As the report says bluntly, “The fact is that superintendents report to school boards, elected or appointed, that frequently micromanage district affairs. In addition, central offices contain a myriad of personal and political relationships that are often used to sabotage, delay, or dilute a superintendent’s initiatives.”

Finally, superintendents wanted the authority to become true educational CEOs. Growing out of a desire to address the newly identified achievement gap, superintendents uniformly wanted to take bold action. In the survey, 97% believed they should be able to replace low-performing schools, 93% believed they should enter into performance agreements with principals tied to academic achievement, 84% believed schools should control their own improvement and professional development funds, and 84% believed principals should be able to hire their own teachers.

Ten years later, dozens of CEOs and superintendents using the portfolio strategy are doing exactly these things. Shortly after the release of this report, Joel Klein began closing dozens of chronically low-performing high schools in New York City and replacing them with hundreds of smaller schools, Michael Bennet in Denver and Steven Adamowski in Hartford began to create new autonomous schools, leading up to today where leaders like Eric Gordon are piloting budget freedoms for principals in Cleveland and Chris Barbic in Tennessee is using charter schools to turn around the lowest-performing schools in the Tennessee Achievement School District.

Of course, hundreds of other urban superintendents are still stuck right about where our study respondents were 10 years ago…

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