Leadership by Any Means

Larry Cuban wrote a two part series on non-traditional superintendents.  He concludes: “The dream of corporate-inspired reformers for nearly two decades that governance changes and non-educators as managers in urban districts will turnaround failing schools and erase the test score achievement gap has yet to materialize.”
As the first (or one of the first) corporate executive-turned-superintendent, I’d have to agree that going outside for leadership is no silver bullet. However, I think the results have been positive particularly when combined with mayoral control.
Big complex organizations have similar leadership challenges, and big districts benefit from a breadth of experience.  But context matters.  The only differences between the corporate world and school districts are the people, the politics, and the economics.  School staffs have responded to a different calling than their corporate counterparts and they respond differently to stimuli.  School politics are intense and layered.  School economics are convoluted and missing incentives for performance and efficiency.
John Stanford came to Seattle in 1995, a year after I started in Federal Way.  Surprisingly, John was master of created-for-media symbolism and quickly rallied the city’s support for its schools.  His “love ’em and lead ’em” style paid less attention to formal performance appraisals.  John and I tried to push an accountability-autonomy agenda, but both of us underestimated how difficult it is to create a coherent instructional model (and that school leaders know what to do and how to do it).
Cuban didn’t mention John Fryer, a general who, with his data-room strategy, developed one of the best early examples of a results-based system.  John was a prototype Broad Academy and one of the data points that encouraged the Dell Foundation to focus on performance management.
Former Colorado governor Roy Romer took on the LA challenge and managed some gains with a managed instruction agenda but largely shunned the external portfolio of charter schools.
Joel Klein proved to be the best portfolio manager–closing bad schools, opening good schools, granting autonomy where it could be productively used, and fostering innovation.
Two finance guys, Brian Benzel and John Welch, went on to be great superintendents here in Washington State.
Superintendents can do more to shape the future of a community than any other role.  It is important and complicated work. Casting the recruiting net wide enough to consider non-traditional candidates has proven successful enough for all large districts to consider.
See Checker Finn’s NYPost article blasting leadership certification

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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