School chiefs on spot here, everywhere

Superintendents: A difficult job is made even harder by a politicized change in what is expected of public education.

March 02, 2003|By Jonathan D. Rockoff | Jonathan D. Rockoff,SUN STAFF

AFTER A tongue-lashing from a state legislator upset about the quality of the schools, Baltimore County Superintendent Joe A. Hairston stumbled shell-shocked out of the lawmaker's Annapolis office and took a deep breath.

"You think a superintendent's job is easy?" Hairston grimaced.

It most certainly is not, and he isn't the only local superintendent feeling the heat.

Prince George's County schools chief Iris T. Metts announced recently that she would not ask the school board to renew her contract. And Carmen V. Russo, chief executive of Baltimore schools, has lost the luster that accompanied her arrival three years ago because of a mismanaged budget deficit.

Indeed, Del. Howard P. Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat and influential legislator, told Baltimore's school board last month to conduct a nationwide search for a new schools chief, possibly to replace Russo.

Across the country, superintendents are being whipsawed by a highly politicized change in the role of public education, which is expected to guarantee students' high achievement.

And as the most public faces of public schools, superintendents are the ones on the chopping block. Many are losing their jobs well before their reforms get the three to five years needed to make an impact.

From 1992 to last year, the top 33 urban U.S. school districts employed 135 superintendents. Now, the authority they wield during their short tenures is being further diminished, as mayors wrest control from school boards.

"I see the superintendent as being a lightning rod for a lot of political bolts," says Thomas Glass, an education professor at the University of Memphis who studies the superintendency.

Superintendents, Glass says, must balance often-competing demands of unions, parents and other interest groups while trying to oversee quick turnarounds in student performance demanded by politicians.

It's an almost impossible task, he says. Especially now, because school systems lack resources. Constituencies oppose major reforms. And school boards and mayors often change, seeking their own superintendent.

Now, many districts face difficulty attracting candidates.

And every week brings new evidence of the job's impermanence. On Tuesday night, the Newark, N.J., school advisory board recommended replacing the superintendent of the state-run district. San Ysidro, Calif., just hired its seventh superintendent since 1989. The turmoil suggests significant change in duties of the superintendent.

When first hired in the 19th century, superintendents were the lions of newly created public education, revered in cities as their new, growing enterprises assimilated immigrant youths.

Certainly now, superintendents don't receive much deference, says John L. Keedy, an education professor at the University of Louisville, who is an authority on superintendents.

These days, Keedy says, "It's a superintendent trying to weave his way and constantly getting blindsided by the needs of various groups, so the superintendent tries to build a consensus."

But even a superintendent's power to cajole, influence and build consensus is being usurped, Keedy says, as governors and mayors elected on education platforms gain control of school systems.

From San Diego to New York, outsiders are being appointed district leaders for management skills, not education expertise.

And these new chancellors and chief executive officers of schools function like the head of any city department, reporting to the mayor on budgets while leaving instructional issues to underlings.

"The job has more to do with politics and structure and corporatism than reading and writing," says Bruce S. Cooper, an education professor at Fordham University who has written about the superintendency.

This should be no surprise considering the chronology of public education's growing politicization.

Public schooling was a political issue as far back as the 1950s, when leaders were forced to desegregate schools. After the Soviet Union launched its Sputnik I into orbit in 1957, Americans feared that the country had fallen behind in math and science, making students' schooling a matter of national importance.

Students themselves took up politics, staging protests over civil rights and the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s.

Yet perhaps the biggest catalyst of current changes was a federal commission's 36-page report in 1983 damning the "rising tide of mediocrity" in public schooling and demanding changes.

A Nation At Risk, as the report was called, had an explosive effect, experts say. What it caused, says Paul Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, was nothing less than a paradigm shift in the role of public education.

"There's a new imperative," says Houston, a former superintendent in Princeton, N.J., Riverside, Calif., and Tucson, Ariz.

For 150 years, he says, schools were asked to open their doors wider, first for immigrants, then minorities and finally children with learning disabilities.

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