Supers in the City

Few jobs are more complex, more important, and more thankless than that of superintendent in a big-city school system.

Whenever people talk about failing public schools, the first impression is that of urban classrooms filled with kids who fail standardized tests and staffed by teachers who survive as much as teach.

Yet America's future will be shaped by how well it educates the largely nonwhite students of many of its big cities. Economic prosperity, to say nothing of social harmony, could depend on it.

The tenure for school superintendents in major cities can be very short indeed - often two or three years - while the problems they face take years to solve.

The bureaucracy can be impenetrable, school politics biting, and rewards (though superintendent pay is rising) marginal.

Increasingly, the job is being handed over to noneducation professionals. The latest, and perhaps most publicized example is Roy Romer, former Colorado governor who chose to be superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

A longtime campaigner for education reform, Mr. Romer says he is ready to "walk my talk." He brings ample energy, commitment, and management experience - if little in the way of formal education credentials.

The same could be said of Alan Bersin, the former US attorney now running San Diego's schools; Harold Levy, the corporate attorney heading New York City's schools; and Paul Vallas, the former city budget director overseeing Chicago's schools.

All bring significant talents to troubled school districts. Their ultimate success will depend largely on their ability to work with everyone from teachers to mayors, and on their own willingness to learn.

To wish such nontraditional superintendents well is not to disparage, at all, the many professional educators who ably steer big school districts.

It's simply to recognize that the task of improving America's huge public education enterprise needs all willing hands - particularly in schools that serve the children who represent the country's greatest education challenge.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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