New York Times

January 7, 2001, Sunday, Late Edition - Final

Section 4A; Page 46; Column 1; Education Life Supplement

Who Will Lead The Public Schools?

By James W. Guthrie and Theodore Sanders

James W. Guthrie is chairman of the Department of Leadership and Organizations, Peabody College, Vanderbilt University, Nashville.

Theodore Sanders is chief executive of the Education Commission of the States.

American education has entered a new era in which academic achievement has moved to the center of what is publicly expected of schools. What is far from clear, however, is who is going to lead America's public schools in this new learning era. Big cities seem to be enamored of unconventional leaders in education -- business moguls, lawyers, politicians and retired military officers.

The question is: Will this strategy lead to higher levels of learning, and, if not, what can be done instead?

Meeting the leadership challenge may necessitate more complex solutions than finding executives in new places. Unless fundamental issues regarding needed knowledge of management, more favorable working conditions for leaders and greater economic rewards for the undertaking are solved, the nation's unconventional new superintendents may well prove as ineffective as their conventional predecessors.

At a time when the nation's school districts are examining every issue in a search for better schools, there seems to be a major hurdle that no one can surmount. Public schools in major cities cannot easily find leaders. The problem is significant in that these districts educate more than 25 percent of America's students -- many of whom are disadvantaged .

In their quest for leaders, they have looked far beyond academia. For example: Seattle was renewing its schools under the leadership of a retired Army general, until he died. Now it is relying on a former business executive. Los Angeles has turned to a former Colorado governor to be its superintendent. Milwaukee employed a highly visible social service director as superintendent. San Diego is relying on a former prosecuting attorney. Philadelphia schools were led until recently by a former ordained minister. Chicago has installed the mayor's business-oriented disciple as chief executive for public schools. Houston's school board appointed one of its own publicly elected members to be superintendent. New York City has yanked the leadership reins from respected and experienced educators and handed them to a securities industry lawyer.

What is going on? Has conventional education leadership faltered so badly that it must now be replaced by unconventional appointments from outside education? Is this like selecting John Gotti to become a bishop or picking N.F.L. coaches from the ranks of dot-com nerds? Political exasperation may be the short-run explanation.

Big city mayors and state governors feel the pressure for change, and they are responding as creatively as they can under the arcane arrangements by which America governs schools. Big city school boards, perhaps sensing that their problems are as much political and financial as they are educational, veer from convention and seek out-of-sector leaders.

However, the "cure" for troubled big city school districts is likely to be more complicated than engaging high-profile leaders from other spheres. Unconventional leaders may find themselves, in time, wrestling with such conventional education issues as how to elevate academic excellence while brokering budgets and dampening discord. Then a question arises as to whether generals, corporate executives and governors will have any more success than the conventional superintendents they replaced.

Beyond political despair operates a deeper dynamic. Although there has been a big upswing in the nation's educational expectations, precious little is known about how to ensure high academic performance, especially for low-income students. Simply put, our national educational aspirations may be outstripping our management technology. Also, despite America's current national love affair with education as an instrument for societal and personal salvation, big-city education leaders must frequently perform their tasks in highly politicized environments characterized by such deep distrust and widespread despair that their day-to-day work lives are virtually dysfunctional.

To make matters worse, most of America's elite universities have fled the field. There are few analogues to great business schools or to military academies for providing intellectual nourishment in education management. Finally, good management training is expensive and demanding. West Point and Wharton cost a lot to operate, and their students see the personal investment and sacrifice as having an economic or emotional payoff. Few in education perceive anything close to a similar lifetime return on training in education leadership.

A school's success is now measured first by the performance of its pupils. However, there is not a professional preparation program in America that can easily convey to a prospective big-city superintendent, conventional or unconventional, a proven management technology capable of uniformly elevating learning for disadvantaged students.

Numerous advocates hawk panaceas as radical as unregulated vouchers and as logical as "systemic reform." Still, none of them have anything like the sophisticated management strategies used by American business, medicine or the military for addressing complicated challenges. There are certainly exciting reform beginnings in such places as Houston, San Diego and Seattle. In these instances, leaders appear to be pursuing practical paths to higher performance. But, at base, there is little theory at present to link learning and leadership.

What's more, the work environment in which education leaders operate is often dysfunctional. How would Jack Welsh of General Electric, Larry Ellison of Oracle or Robert Johnson of Black Entertainment Television react if (like most city superintendents) they did not have a personal vote on their own board; if their directors had a constituency of corporate employees who were not stockholders; if directors were considered popular if they micromanaged; if labor contracts restricted conditions by which workers could be reassigned to tasks; or if they had little or no control over employee performance incentives?

Such conditions in schools virtually dictate failure for big-city superintendents, who are seldom in charge of their own domains. At almost every turn they must compromise deeply. They quickly exhaust whatever political capital they had at the outset of their tenure. In big cities, superintendent contract buyouts are becoming the norm.

And there are few well-prepared leaders available to replace them. Over the past quarter century, university preparation of educational administrators has fallen into a downward spiral dominated by low-prestige institutions, diploma mills, outmoded instruction and low expectations. Many of these sub-par training programs have virtually no entrance requirements, save an applicant's ability to pay tuition. The doctor of education (Ed.D) degrees they confer have lost their salience.

In former times big-league education leaders tended to be graduates of institutions like Harvard, Yale, Duke or the University of Chicago. This is no longer true. To begin with, Chicago, Duke and Yale have closed their education schools. A few elite institutions retain boutique programs. However, powerhouse universities are no longer major training grounds for any significant number of education executives.

Today's conventionally prepared superintendent is more likely to have come from East Appalachia State, San Francisco State or literally hundreds of other public institutions that began as normal schools and politically bootstrapped themselves to graduate degree status.

If education could once count on recruiting people with a "calling," similar to that felt by religious leaders, such days are now past. Today education is big business with big problems, and it must compete with other fields for big talent. Regrettably, the activity seldom offers the big bucks paid by those with which it must compete.

Annual tuition at America's top universities is $25,000. Moving and living costs are extra. Graduate programs usually take a minimum of two years and often three. So the direct investment in a prestigious program is at least $75,000 to $100,000.

An even bigger issue for a mid-career professional is foregone income. Even if a teacher earns only $50,000 a year, three years of full time study means giving up $150,000 in wages. A principal earning $75,000 to $100,000 annuallyforfeits more. Such costs are justified if you are a youthful business school graduate heading for a consulting career. However, the reward gradient is less attractive if you are to become a superintendent earning, at the very best, $150,000 to $200,000.

Aspiring education leaders can obtain a "union card" for a lot less. They can go to a nearby state college that offers an Ed.D. program with classes at night and on weekends. Not only is tuition much lower, but there are no foregone wages or relocation costs.

What can be done? Former governors, generals and chief executives may be attractive initially. But their accomplishments and ranks will wear thin unless something is done about underlying issues that the leadership must face.

Several components need to be addressed concomitantly with new management technology centered upon instruction, learning, performance evaluation and professional development. The curriculum for preparing education leaders needs to be altered, and its design could profit from cooperation among business schools, the military, social scientists and educators.

A highly selective program must be constructed to create a pool of unusually qualified candidates for the nation's critical leadership roles. This includes individuals carefully selected and intensely prepared to fill the nation's 100 most influential education positions -- chief state school officers, big-city superintendents and mayoral and gubernatorial aides. Of course, the most critical need is for appropriate groups to exercise leadership.