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Bucking Tradition

At first glance, schools in New York City, Los Angeles, Miami and New Orleans may not have a lot in common. But upon closer examination, they are more alike than you think — starting at the top.

Each of these school districts has as their chief executive an individual who does not have prior experience in education management. And many more of these “novice” education administrators are filling leadership positions in systems that are looking to make dramatic — and often drastic — changes.

A new breed of education administrator — professionals with expertise outside the field of education — is being tapped to lead many of the nation's largest and most challenging school systems. These individuals have prior experience in such areas as business, military, politics, and other private and public endeavors, and districts are hoping to capitalize on proven leadership abilities that will translate into better-performing schools.

This is a vast departure from the traditional road to the superintendency. Typically, school superintendents are career educators: former teachers, principals, support staff and the like who after many years of service take on the top job of running a district. But this is slowly changing, especially in larger urban districts, as boards look to entice proven leaders from outside the education realm to apply their unique skills to managing a school system. And school districts are not the only ones turning to professionals from outside academia to lead their institutions — colleges and universities are too.

In this month's cover story, AS&U's Mike Kennedy talks with a number of these “new breed” administrators, providing an insightful look into some of the challenges that attracted them to the job and the strategies they are employing.

The qualities and skills that make a great leader in the private sector, such as management expertise, vision and strategic thinking, are no different than those that make an outstanding school superintendent or college president. But while running an education institution does have its unique challenges, one thing is for certain — the performance of these administrators will be closely scrutinized, and their success or failure will greatly influence if this will be a growing trend or a failed experiment.



Average number of years superintendents in America's 50 largest cities served their districts (1985 through 2000).
Source: National School Boards Association superintendent survey.


Average number of years' tenure of urban superintendents, with the majority being in office between one and five years.
Source: The Council of the Great City Schools survey.


Average number of years superintendents currently in office in America's 50 largest cities have served.

Source: National School Boards Association superintendent survey.


Number of school districts in the 50 largest cities that had more than five superintendents during the past 15 years (1985-2000).

Source: National School Boards Association superintendent survey.


Of the 10 largest school districts, the average tenure of the immediate past superintendent (years 1985-2000) ranged from 10.9 years (Philadelphia school district) to 1.1 years (Detroit school district) — resulting in a difference of 9.8 years.

Source: National School Boards Association superintendent survey.

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