Running big-city schools: a job fewer want

Urban school administrators come and go, victims of politics, slim

Wanted: Politically savvy chief administrator to solve problems of big-city public school system. Must work with demanding parents, aggressive unions, and feisty mayors while improving test scores of hundreds of thousands of inner-city children. With scant budget, successful candidate must show progress immediately or face termination. Previous education experience not necessary.

Who out there would take such a job? Right now some of the largest urban school systems in the US are trying to find a new schools chief, a position fraught with administrative perils and political pitfalls.

Just 10 years ago, a job opening in a major city like New York or Los Angeles might have drawn up to 100 applicants - traditional educators as well as other administrators from the public sector. Today, however, search committees typically draw from a pool of only 15 or 20 applicants.

Indeed, running such districts has proven to be a tough and thankless job, and the average tenure for the administrators of big-city schools has been only 2 1/2 years. Instead of a superintendent, it seems, most of these districts need a superhero.

In New York, where there have been four school chancellors this decade, the Board of Education recently voted 4 to 3 to oust current Chancellor Rudy Crew.

And this October, the Los Angeles Board of Education voted to buy out the contract of Superintendent Ruben Zacarias - also by a narrow 4 to 3 margin.

Detroit, too, is now looking for a new chief executive to run its schools, its sixth over the past 10 years.

Why such a revolving door of superintendents and chancellors? Many observers point to the predictably magnified problems of poverty and race so common in large urban areas.

"Superintendents in these cities are traditionally operating in an environment that is much different than your average school system across the country,"says Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition of 57 of the nation's largest urban public school systems. "Communities are fractured by race and income and religion, and this makes for a very volatile situation."

Add to this volatility the intense pressure to solve these problems and show immediate results, and you have a nearly impossible task. As many education experts point out, the dilemma for educational leaders is that, while having to show progress right away, they face very entrenched problems that do not lend themselves to easy, short-term solutions.

"But the political cycle doesn't appreciate that," says Gary Natriello, professor of education at Columbia University's Teachers College.

"Politicians are on a much shorter career transition path. A mayor wants to be reelected or be elected a senator, and he wants to be able to say that on his watch things got better." Yet even if things don't get better, he says, politicians must show they're trying to make changes, and this often means ousting the head of schools.

Indeed, Chancellor Crew was well aware of these perils when he came to New York in 1995. "The politics around the simple things make this system far more complex,"Crew said then, when he first took the job. "Here, what it takes to win the debate, what it takes to leverage the money, get the support, requires almost a full-time person - just to work the politics."

By all accounts, Crew did well working them - his 4-1/2 year tenure was one of the longest in any city in recent years - and he cultivated a close relationship with Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in his first few years. But this past year their friendship unraveled in a series of spats over vouchers.

Their rift was just one example of a broader turmoil in education policy, however. Educators like Crew, who promote high standards, accountability, and a highly centralized system of education, often clash with those who promote competition, decentralization, and vouchers for private schools. These policy debates - themselves highly political - add even more pressure to the job.

"It's not as if anything is settled anymore,"says Mr. Natriello.

"People are questioning the fundamental organization of the system - how money is spent, how personnel is hired, what ... constitutes a public school."

With all this political turmoil, many big-city mayors are trying to gain greater control over their school boards and are pressing for non-educators to take over their systems. Mayor Giuliani said last week that he hoped the new chancellor in New York would be a "very, very skilled manager, the kind of person that could run a very, very complex business or multinational corporation."

Yet some education experts, like Mr. Casserly, are skeptical. "If the goal is to smoothly operate a large institution, then they should find a crackerjack manager," he says. "If the goal is to teach kids, however, they should find somebody who knows how to do that."

Still, many school boards have turned to nontraditional candidates to run their schools. Cities such as Seattle, New Orleans, and Jacksonville, Fla., have hired military officers over the past few years, and some, like Chicago, have hired financial experts. "The jury is still out on non-traditional superintendents," says Mr. Casserly. "But it's still going to be difficult for these cities as they go head to head to find a savior."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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