Urban Schools Search Amiss for the Next 'Savior' Superintendent

By Zimmerman, Jonathan | The Christian Science Monitor, September 14, 2011 | Go to article overview

Urban Schools Search Amiss for the Next 'Savior' Superintendent


Zimmerman, Jonathan, The Christian Science Monitor


Urban school districts look to 'savior' superintendents, only to fire them when they fail to fix everything. Leadership is important, but no single individual can redeem America's failing big-city schools. By pretending otherwise, we set our leaders - and our students - up for failure.

Who will lead America's ailing city schools out of the wilderness, and into the promised land?

Across the urban landscape, that's the question on everyone's lips. From Atlanta and Philadelphia to Kansas City and Seattle, over a dozen major cities are searching for a new school superintendent to solve their perennial woes: poor attendance, chronic violence, and low academic achievement.

But the quest for a savior is a fool's errand, born of desperation rather than hope. Although leadership is obviously important, no single individual can redeem our failed big-city schools. By pretending otherwise, we set our educational leaders up for failure as well. Then the cycle starts again, as we search for the next prophet whom we can anoint and - eventually - destroy.

That's why the average length of service for an urban superintendent in the United States is just 3.6 years. If you include all of the country's 15,000 school districts, the average superintendent serves about seven years. But the bigger the district, the shorter the term.

It wasn't always that way. In the first half of the 20th century, especially, urban schools had much more continuous leadership. In New York, for example, a single chancellor - William Maxwell - served from 1898 (when the city's five boroughs merged into one school district) until 1918. Five more men would occupy the position until 1958, averaging a term of eight years each.

In the ensuing 40 years, by contrast, 17 people would serve as chancellor in New York. But the city was a beacon of stability compared to Kansas City, which had 39 - that's right, 39 - school superintendents in the 49 years between 1959 and 2008. St. Louis went through seven different superintendents in just a five-year period, from 2003 through 2008.

So what happened? The answer might surprise you: civil rights. After World War II, millions of Americans demanded equality across race, class, and ethnicity. That created an entirely new task for school leaders, who had long shunted minorities into substandard schools or dead-end vocational programs.

Previously, the educators invoked the science of intelligence, which allegedly demonstrated that some groups - especially racial minorities - simply couldn't hack it academically. "All children are not born with the same endowments or possibilities; they cannot be made equal in gifts or development," the school superintendent in Newark, N.J. wrote in 1920, in a typical statement. "The ultimate barriers are set by a power inexorable."

In the end, of course, the educators themselves held the power - to classify, rank, and determine the futures of millions of American children. And they gave minorities the short end of the stick, especially in tough economic times. During the Great Depression, for example, three-quarters of black elementary school students in Chicago attended school in two or three shifts (some students attended morning sessions, while others attended afternoon sessions). …

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