Depressurizing education's toughest job

Running the schools in America's big cities has never been a cushy 9-to-5 job. Since at least the mid-1960s the high salaries and public notoriety many urban school superintendents enjoy have been counterbalanced by chronic financial woes, spectacular demographic shifts, and, perhaps most debilitating, the slipping of many school systems into the bubbly cauldron of local politics. The suicide late last month of Cleveland schools superintendent Frederick Holliday has led not only to considerable soul-searching in Ohio's largest city, but to discussion among educators about the difficulties superintendents face and steps that might be taken to help them do their jobs.

In a note he left that read very much like a letter of resignation, Dr. Holliday told Clevelanders he was appalled by the ``fighting among school board members and what petty politics is doing to the system'' and by a ``mindlessness that has nothing to do with the education of children or the welfare of the city.''

No one will ever know why Dr. Holliday -- an educator from Pennsylvania who had been at the helm of Cleveland's schools for less than three years -- took the action he did. But coming from a nationally recognized educator who had been considered for the top education posts in Chicago and Philadelphia, among other cities, his words nevertheless ring true for many educators.

A number of them say they believe that the urban schools in the United States could find themselves in less able hands if the role of superintendent does not receive more of the consideration -- and understanding -- it deserves. They point to a failure of the plethora of education reports and commissions over the past few years to take up the question of school administration in any depth. In addition, there is concern that able administrators are shunning urban in favor of suburban posts and that the nation's strongest graduate programs in education are surrendering the lead in turning out administrative candidates to second-rate programs.

``I think a lot of the reasons why more [big-city superintendents] don't stay with one job longer than they do were in the letter that Dr. Holliday left,'' says Frank Macchiarola, former chancellor of New York City schools who now directs a public-private school partnership organization in New York. ``They run afoul of the system of governance.''

Superintendents in large cities have a much faster turnover than do their colleagues in general. The average length of stay in any one job for all superintendents is about eight years, according to the American Association of School Administrators; for big-city superintendents it's about four years.

One of the major reasons for the shorter tenure of urban superintendents is the heightened politicization of the school boards that hire -- and fire -- them.

Richard Rossmiller, a specialist in school administration at the University of Wisconsin, points out two trends among school board members since the 1960s that have made running schools more difficult: They have increasingly used the school board as a steppingstone to higher political office; and more school board members, especialy in urban areas, have been single-issue candidates with allegiances to one group or topic once they get in office.

``Such people find it difficult to see other points of view,'' says Professor Rossmiller, ``and in situations like that, the superintendent always ends up in the middle.''

One of the better-known examples of politics in the schools developed last year in Chicago: Superintendent Ruth Love, a black, was refused a contract renewal after Hispanics opposed her reappointment. Mayor Harold Washington apparently supported the Hispanics because Dr. Love, wishing to maintain neutrality, had declined to make an endorsement in the 1983 mayoral election. In Cleveland, Dr. Holliday's highly visible businesslike style played well in the suburbs and with city students, but rankled black school board members, who looked with suspicion on his oft-stated frustration with desegregation orders (Dr. Holliday, too, was black).

Significantly, several prime examples of school board members going on to other political offices (in Los Angeles and Boston) took place a number of years ago.

``In my career, 95 percent of the school board members have been pure in motive,'' says Boston superintendent Robert Spillane, ``but all you need are those few who run for the wrong reasons -- either to get the superintendent, to lower the cost of education, or maybe for their own political future -- and that really multiplies the day-to-day problems.''

There is also concern that the large number of reports accompanying the education reform movement have not addressed the issue of how schools might be better run and the role administrators play in creating and maintaining strong school systems. ``The reports on education are telling us nothing about the administrative apparatus we will need to improve things,'' says Mr. Macchiarola. ``And yet there is a significant need for leadership and strong management in this area.''

Professor Rossmiller says, ``What I find most disturbing is that many of our leading education institutions are taking a much less active interest in administrative preparation.'' He points, for example, to a study showing that California produces five times as many people for administrative positions as it needs. ``But most of those people are not being turned out by the strong, high-prestige academic institutions such as Berkeley or Stanford,'' says Rossmiller. ``It appears that in many places, the strong programs are being done in by relatively weak ones.''

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