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Topic: Noneducators as Superintendents
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Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 16,576
Registered: 12/3/04
Noneducators as Superintendents
Posted: Sep 6, 1998 1:58 PM
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From USA TODAY, Friday, July 10, 1998, p. 12A.

Schools turning to outsiders for fresh ideas

by John Ritter
Side bar:

Districts desperate to boost achievement are hiring noneducators as

Newcomer's touch: San Diego schools Superintendent Alan Bersin says he
brings a fresh perspective to improving student achievement. Until July 1
he was U.S. attorney for the Southern District of California

SAN DIEGO -- One of Alan Bersin's first acts as superintendent of public
schools in this sunwashed melting pot was to trim what he calls "the flow
of babble."

Bersin saw a river of memos and paperwork diluting the focus on teaching
and learning in the nation's eighth-largest urban school system. He ordered
strict limits on the amount of communication from the central office to
teachers and principals in the district's 170 schools.

To the new superintendent with no previous experience in education, the
move just made sense. "It's the kind of perspective change that comes from
being a newcomer and an outsider," says Bersin, who until July 1 was U.S.
attorney for the Southern District of California. "If you've lived inside
this culture, the data overload becomes routine."

A fresh outlook -- thinking outside the box -- is a key attribute
noneducators like Bersin bring to the top job in a school district, experts
say. And as school boards across the country search for ways to boost
student achievement, they are increasingly likely to include nontraditional
candidates in searches for new superintendents.

"A good deal more districts, particularly large ones, are looking at
outsiders than they were 10 years ago," says Jerry Floyd, associate
executive director of the National School Boards Association in Alexandria,
Va. Floyd says up to 2,000 of the nation's 15,000 school boards have
superintendent vacancies at any one time, and at least several dozen of
them now interview noneducators for the job.

So far, only a few districts have hired noneducators -- Seattle,
Minneapolis, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Boulder, Colo., and now San Diego
-- but that could change if dissatisfaction over school performance grows
and the pool of superintendent applicants from the educator ranks keeps

Susan Moore Johnson, assistant dean of the Harvard Graduate School of
Education and author of Leading to Change: The Challenge of the New
Superintendency, says an obvious but elusive key to success is a
superintendent's ability to motivate principals and teachers to change
their practices.

"Noneducators certainly can assume leadership roles in districts," Moore
Johnson says. "They just have to think very carefully about where their
perceived expertise on teaching and learning is going to come from." But
Moore Johnson says any "generic search for the all-purpose superintendent
to come in and fix everything is a recipe for disaster."

The records of outsider superintendents are mixed so far. Two former Army
generals have had starkly opposite tenures: John Stanford is credited with
turning around Seattle's schools and is revered citywide, while Julius
Becton left after two mostly ineffective years in Washington D.C., citing

In Chicago, the nation's third-largest system, both the academic demands of
students and test scores have risen under superintendent Paul Vallas, the
former city budget chief appointed by Mayor Richard Daley after the state
Legislature gave him authority over schools in 1995.

A former Navy commander running Boulder schools, Tom Seigel, saw the
back-to-basics school board majority that hired him in 1997 voted out of
office a few months later. He appears to have won tepid support of the new
majority midway through his contract.

Peter Hutchinson, head of an education consulting firm that took over
Minneapolis schools in 1994, was out three years later. He solved the
district's financial crisis and instituted academic standards and a new
testing system but couldn't overcome opposition from minority groups. Test
scores rose only marginally.

What makes San Diego's experiment unusual is that Bersin was not hired to
be a savior. Except for Boulder, the other districts that brought in
noneducators did so virtually out of desperation: Their schools were in a
shambles and needed a radical fix.

San Diego has its problems: Black and Litino test scores lag far behind
those of whites. The district's 136,000 students are 28% white, 17% black,
36% Latino, 7% Indochinese, 8% Filipino, 3% Asian and 1% Pacific Islander,
creating challenges under the statewide referendum passed last month
limiting the amount of bilingual education schools can offer. Many school
buildings have deteriorated to the point that one of Bersin's first
priorities is to sell voters on a $1.5 billion bond issue in November.

Under Bersin's predecessors, the district had started creating academic
standards and toughening high school graduation requirements. But school
board president Ron Ottinger says neither the business community nor the
city's ethnic groups were satisfied with student achievement.

"There was a sense that we needed someone dynamic to deepen the reforms
that are on paper," Ottinger says.

Though not steeped in education theory, Bersin had impressive credentials.
A Harvard graduate and a Rhodes Scholar classmate of Bill Clinton's, he
earned a law degree at Yale, and as a civil litigator in Los Angeles he
kept in touch with the Clintons.

Clinton appointed Bersin U.S. attorney in 1993, and by most accounts he
built an impressive record prosecuting drug smugglers and professional
rings that were bringing illegal aliens across the border. Attorney General
Janet Reno designated Bersin, who is fluent in Spanish, her "border czar."
After Clinton's re-election, there was speculation that he aspired to
replace her if she left the Cabinet.

He says he applied for the superintendent's job partly because he thinks
circumstances -- a good economy, a lower crime rate and stability in
foreign affairs -- are putting public education atop the national agenda
and creating opportunities "to make a difference."

Bersin, 51, has a four-year contract, the maximum allowed under California
law, and a $165,000 annual salary with bonus incentives. His sole mandate
is to raise student achievement. He says tough academic standards must be
entrenched in the classroom, teachers must be trained and committed to
teaching them, and students must be held accountable to mastering them. It
is a goal attained by few school districts.

About his lack of experience in education, Bersin says, "I know what I
don't know." But he has garnered early praise for luring Anthony Alvarado
away from a New York City school district to be his chancellor of

Alvarado gained a reputation as an innovative reformer by dramatically
raising reading and math scores in a low-achieving district stretching from
working-class Chinatown to the Upper East Side. He pledged that test scores
would improve in San Diego within two years.

But most educators are wary of promises mounted on quick timetables.
Lasting public school reform is measured in decades, yet the tenure of the
average big-city superintendent is less than four years.

And high turnover breeds cynicism in the schools -- this too shall pass,
teachers and principals eventually conclude. At the same time, the politics
and fishbowl nature of a superintendent's life make the job less
attractive. The pressure to raise scores, graduation rates and college
matriculation is intense.

Big-city districts are more heterogeneous, more bureaucratic and harder to
manage than smaller rural and suburban districts. Low minority achievement
typically is a festering issue. Declining populations and tax bases shrink
school resources. School buildings are decaying in many cities. Higher
rates of urban crime and poverty inhibit learning. The buck always stops
with the superintendent.

"It's not a job people are wanting anymore, so it's getting harder to find
good strong candidates," says Kathy Christie, senior policy analyst with
the Education Commission of the States in Denver. "The assistant
superintendents who are making almost as much money are asking, "Is it
worth it?"."

Floyd, of the school boards association, says the caliber of noneducator
that a school board wants as superintendent often has no interest. "The pay
package is just not competitive with private industry, particularly at the
CEO level," he says.

Seattle's Stanford, on the other hand, turned down a $500,000 bonus pledged
from anonymous donors if he'd agreed to stay on through June 2002. He urged
the donors to spend the money on school programs.

The retired general, who has presided over steadily rising test scores, is
on leave battling leukemia but is expected to return in the fall. His
former deputy, Arlene Ackerman, replaced the beleaguered Gen. Becton as
superintendent in Washington.

The challenge facing Bersin is a far cry from the chaos of fiscal
mismanagement, academic dysfunction and federal oversight that Becton
walked into. Before he was hired, Bersin visited schools, unannounced and
without revealing his interest in the job, to see what he could be getting
into. He came away impressed with the teachers and principals and convinced
they could rise to the next level.

Perhaps because he's a lawyer by training, not an educator, he has no
illusions. "Our sole mission is to improve student achievement," he says.
"Anyone who thinks significant progress is going to happen in less than two
to three years seriously underestimates the complexity of the task."

But he can't help adding: "Come see us again in a year."

Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610 USA
Fax: (618)453-4244
Phone: (618)453-4241 (office)

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