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The Nation | Ronald Brownstein WASHINGTON OUTLOOK

Ailing School Systems Prescribed an Injection of Leadership

June 24, 2002|Ronald Brownstein

John Lindsay, the mayor of New York City in the late 1960s, used to say that he had the second toughest job in America (after, presumably, the president). Today the toughest job outside of the Oval Office might be superintendent of a big-city school system. Caught between a public demanding change and a school system built to resist it, the average big-city superintendent now holds the job for only 2 1/2 years. Even baseball managers last longer.

Which makes it all the more admirable, if not remarkable, that two dozen accomplished men and women were cracking the books in an overcrowded, under-cooled conference room at a Washington hotel on a recent morning at what amounts to a boot camp for prospective urban superintendents. Gathered in the room was the first class of recruits in a new program meant to train mid-career professionals--especially those from outside the educational establishment--to direct big-city school systems.

The program, funded by billionaire Los Angeles developer and financial services magnate Eli Broad, acknowledges all the hurdles facing urban schools; indeed, participants say one of the things they have learned most clearly is the astonishing assortment of ways a superintendent can fail. But both the sponsors and the participants are operating on the stubborn, or naive, belief that dedicated individuals, with the right skills, can make schools work on even the meanest streets.

They also are powered by the conviction that lessons learned outside the classrooms can help the schools. Although several in the first class have some experience in education, many have spent most of their working lives elsewhere. The group includes a retired Army colonel now running a small rural school district in Kentucky, a former vice president at AT&T and a former publisher of the Los Angeles Times. Arnold "Woody" Carter, the retired colonel (who served as a battalion commander during the Gulf War) speaks for all of them when he insists: "Leadership is leadership.... The skills translate very quickly."

That argument has found an increasingly receptive audience in recent years among big-city leaders searching for new answers to old educational problems. Over the last decade, a steady stream of big cities has turned to outsiders as superintendents.

Roy Romer, the superintendent in Los Angeles, is a former governor of Colorado. Paul Vallas, who led a turnaround of Chicago's schools in the late 1990s, was the city's budget director; his successor, Arne Duncan, mostly ran a small nonprofit organization. Seattle drafted a retired Army major general, John Stanford. In New York, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who recently won operating control over the schools from the state Legislature, says he's looking for a CEO-type with "good management skills" to replace another nontraditional educator, former corporate attorney Harold Levy, as the city's schools chancellor. In a widely admired model, former U.S. Atty. Alan Bersin, as superintendent, and veteran educator Anthony Alvarado, as his chancellor for instruction, have teamed to advance an aggressive reform agenda in San Diego.

Not all of the outsider superintendents have been successful; the chaotic Washington, D.C., schools utterly frustrated another retired Army general (Julius Becton) recruited to whip them into shape. But on balance, the outsiders have done well: Some of them, such as Vallas, might qualify among the most successful superintendents in recent years. Although the outsiders lack the classroom experience of the traditional superintendent--who might have slowly climbed from teacher to principal to administrator--they are also less tied into the dense web of understandings and accommodations that make it so difficult to change any large organization. They are stronger often because they don't know why things can't be done.

Yet that inexperience can also make them vulnerable to mistakes. The Broad Foundation program tries to deepen their knowledge without dulling their ardor. Over six weekend sessions through the year, it exposes the recruits to leading educational consultants and big-city superintendents and offers practical advice on subjects from managing relations with a school board and the press to handling a job interview. On-site visits and at-home reading complete the curriculum. While relentlessly practical, the program also has an evangelical zeal: the participants carry an invigorating sense of mission. "This entire group is composed of individuals who understand, and increasingly understand, how hard it is, but really want to do it," says Kathryn Downing, the former Times publisher. "It's a very committed group."

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