The Short Shelf Life Of Urban School Superintendents

Oct 21, 2014
Originally published on October 21, 2014 6:20 am

If you're a 12th-grader right now in the Los Angeles schools, that means you probably started kindergarten back in 2001. It also means that, as of this week, you've seen four superintendents come and go.

As we discussed today on Morning Edition, the ouster of John Deasy last week as the head of the nation's second-largest district has renewed a long-running debate about leadership of big-city schools, and particularly the challenges of raising achievement in such a politically charged environment.

Deasy told Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep last week that there's a clock ticking on "reform"-minded superintendents, such as himself, who want to shake things up quickly. "I think there is," he said, calling it a "worrisome trend in America."

But he said that, regardless of that external pressure, he felt personally that there was no time to waste in his efforts to make a difference for students.

"I think there's always the delicate balance of how slow you're willing to go," Deasy told Morning Edition. "And then you have to square that with looking youth in the eye and say, 'Well, it's not your turn this year,' and that's difficult to do."

So, is there a time limit?

Actually, superintendents tend to get hired, and fired, pretty quickly regardless of whether they consider themselves reformers.

Deasy's tenure, at 3 1/2 years, is about average for an urban superintendent. That's a bit longer than it used to be, but still means that superintendents of any stripe struggle to stick around long enough to make a difference.

What's been called the "revolving door" of urban superintendents has created a lot of policy angst over whether they can be effective in that short a time period.

And it raises this question: How much time would it take to turn around a struggling urban district?

I've often thought of a comparison from the world of baseball: In 1979, when Sparky Anderson took over as manager of the Detroit Tigers, he famously said he needed five years to rebuild the team and win a pennant. And in 1984, right on schedule, Anderson delivered.

Writing about this issue some years ago, I related that story to David Hornbeck, who lasted six years as the superintendent of the Philadelphia schools in the 1990s. And I asked him the question: How long does an urban superintendent need?

He told me the minimum length of time to reasonably gauge a superintendent's tenure was four years.

The first year, Hornbeck said, is hiring and getting a team in place. The second year provides baseline test scores and time spent developing a plan. The third year is for putting that plan in place, and the fourth year provides scores that should be expected to show improvement.

The problem with all this, of course, is that the superintendent by that time has often moved on to his or her next job, or the one after that.

And so while some people see, in highly publicized departures like Deasy's, or that of Michelle Rhee from the Washington, D.C., schools in 2010, a sign of a backlash against "reform," the bigger picture is much more complicated.

Whatever the superintendent's agenda, there are powerful political forces at work in an urban system: mayors, school boards, and teachers and their unions, to name a few. And it's often the case that pleasing one of those factions can alienate or anger the others.

As Michael Casserly, head of the Council of the Great City Schools, told the Huffington Post, "The demands of the job are among the toughest in the nation, with cultural, racial and language challenges; increasingly high academic standards and scarcer resources; demanding unions and communities; and brutal local politics."

Which may be partly why a recent study showed that when it comes to the real test of a school district's performance — student achievement — the person sitting in the superintendent's office doesn't make that much of a difference.

Perhaps what a superintendent can do is create an environment (stable leadership, adequate resources, freedom from labor strife) that will allow the people who actually make a difference — teachers and principals — to do their jobs. That is, if they're given enough time.

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Now let's ask if school reform is being stalled in the United States. John Deasy suggests that reformist leaders are being steadily replaced. To hear him tell it, Deasy is one of them. He was superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District until last week, when he had to resign under pressure after three and a half years. Afterward, at an NPR interview, Deasy told us there is a time limit for school reformers.


JOHN DEASY: I think there is. I think there's always the delicate balance of how slow you're willing to go, and then you have to square that with looking youth in the eye and say, well, it's not your turn this year.

INSKEEP: So what's really happening in Los Angeles and across the country? We're putting that question to Steve Drummond. He leads NPR's Ed team, and he's in our studios. Welcome back, Mr. Drummond.


INSKEEP: So first, when we talk about school reformers, who exactly are we talking about here?

DRUMMOND: Well, I think Deasy defines it as a group of leaders who've come in promoting some common ideas in education, technology, how to evaluate teachers. They use greater parental control in terms of choice like charter schools, but I think it's not quite that simple.

INSKEEP: OK, so there's a complexity to reform. But there is a group of people across the country, and we'll be talking about that. Are they facing a time limit? When a reformer comes in at a big city like Washington or Chicago or New York, is there a limit to how far they can go?

DRUMMOND: Well, you've mentioned that John Deasy lasted three and a half years; frankly, that's about average. Reform superintendent or not, the average tenure of an urban school superintendent is about three and half years, so he was kind of in the middle.

INSKEEP: Is that a good length of time?

DRUMMOND: There's a lot of discussion in education about the revolving door of urban superintendents. I once spoke with the head of the Philadelphia schools, a man named David Hornbeck, and I asked him this question - how long do you need? How long does an urban superintendent need? He said four years.

INSKEEP: To turn around a troubled school district.

DRUMMOND: Right. The first year, you're putting your team in place. He said the second year, you get baseline test scores that tell you how you're doing. The third year you're putting your curriculum and your reforms in place, and the fourth year, you would get second-year data to give you even an indication of how you're doing. But as we were just discussing, by that time the superintendent is usually off into his next job. There's a new person in charge, bringing in their reforms by that time.

INSKEEP: So there's a revolving door problem whether your superintendent describes himself or herself as a reformer or not.

DRUMMOND: Sure. Let's take Los Angeles - if you're a senior in the LA Unified District this year, you are on your fifth superintendent since you started kindergarten in 2001.

INSKEEP: And every single one of those people maybe came in saying, I need to change some things, maybe go in a new direction, try to get reforms in place. And, of course, there's some political turmoil each time there is a change. In fact, John Deasy in our interview pointed toward what he saw as a kind of reaction by teachers unions and others opposed to the changes he wanted to make, kind of turning back the clock. Let's listen to a little bit of what he had to say.


DEASY: We now have the three largest school systems, all of which now are being - have been exited by a, quote, "reformer" and being led by either former employees, but certainly people who left their jobs, went into retirement and came back at a significant age.

INSKEEP: A significant age, he says, maybe a reference to the fact that Deasy has been replaced by a former superintendent who's now in his 80s.

DRUMMOND: I don't think age has anything to do with it. There are superintendents who've succeeded at all different ages or failed. There are, however, powerful political forces at work, including teachers. There are 31,000 teachers in the Los Angeles school district. They're the people charged with carrying out whatever reforms are going to be in place. And their unions and the teachers themselves have a big voice, so, too, does the school boards, so, too, do mayors in urban districts. And those are often key factors in whether a superintendent thrives or gets shoved out.

INSKEEP: Maybe we're hearing the real answer why so many superintendents don't last very long.

DRUMMOND: Yeah. And another interesting point, Steve, is that research out this year raises really good questions whether superintendents really have all that much effect when it comes right down to the classroom.

INSKEEP: What do you mean?

DRUMMOND: Well, a study out from the Brookings Institution looked at superintendents and their effect on the actual student achievement, and it found a very minimal effect as to whether who's in the superintendent's chair really has an effect on what happens in the classroom.

INSKEEP: You know, we begin with that word, reformer. Is there any consensus about what really does work, what really can improve the performance of American schools?

DRUMMOND: Well, from the superintendent's point of view, I think the key thing is what these leaders can do is create the conditions for reform. They can create a stable environment with the teachers unions so there isn't a teacher's strike all the time. They can get the budget under control. In Los Angeles, it's $6.78 billion. There are things that can be done that create the conditions for the real important people, the teachers and the principals, to do their jobs.

INSKEEP: If the superintendent has time.

DRUMMOND: Exactly.

INSKEEP: Steven, thanks very much.

DRUMMOND: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Steve Drummond of the Ed team. It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.