In cities, superintendents face 'an impossible job,' report finds

Ask urban school superintendents about their job and they're likely to describe it as essentially undoable.

That's what researchers at the University of Washington's Center on Reinventing Public Education found when they surveyed 100 heads of urban school districts and conducted in-depth interviews with dozens of them.

The results are presented in "An Impossible Job?" a recently released report that concludes superintendents are all but set up to fail when "forced to deal with unrealistic expectations without the tools and authority they need to make a difference."

Superintendents say they're fed up with decades of fadish reform efforts and fear that new federal mandates overemphasize standards and accountability.

What's more, they feel unable to juggle the demands of their multiple constituencies, including local politicians, parents, teachers unions, and US Department of Education officials.

"They are just pulled in every direction - whipsawed," says James Harvey, a senior fellow at the Center of Reinventing Public Education. "They feel hamstrung in being able to move forward with so much micromanagement by various constituencies."

Those responses help explain why, in cities, superintendents seldom last more than a few years on the job.

Still, Mr. Harvey says, he was surprised by how frustrated superintendents seemed during an earlier round of interviews, particularly given public officials' usual tendency to be "congenitally optimistic."

University of Washington researchers then surveyed a much larger sample to make sure they just hadn't picked an unhappy batch to focus on, but discovered the same results.

Dispirited anecdotes abound. One veteran superintendent reported her daughter had dropped out of an education PhD program after watching him struggle at the job. Another found many around his district viewed superintendents as little more than a "big pot of money" to share.

The report suggests superintendents must receive clear goals, the authority to move forward, support from the governing bodies to which they report, reasonable time to achieve their goals, and incentives for success.

"While these criteria might seem overly simplistic, even for students of Management 101," the report states, "many urban superintendents cannot take them for granted."

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