Do Superintendents Need Education Backgrounds? The Fiery Debate

Published November 18, 2010 |
Do Superintendents Need Education Backgrounds? The Fiery Debate
Today’s superintendents come from a variety of industries, ranging from business to politics. However, should superintendents have education backgrounds? Learn more about the controversial debate.
Most individuals appointed as superintendents of school districts have a background in public education. However, some districts have found that sound managerial experience in the business sector can be just as advantageous – and sometimes more so – than those with a strict background in teaching.

On the other hand, superintendents that come straight from the business world may lack the educational knowledge necessary to properly lead a district in the best interests of the students.
 
Which philosophy is correct? According to two major school districts currently involved in this very debate, the answer isn't terribly clear.
 
Management Experience vs. Education Training
 
According to a report in Bloomberg Business Week, New York is one city that appears to put sound managerial experience over an education background when it comes to choosing a superintendent for the nation's largest school district.
 
Mayor Michael Bloomberg came into the political arena with no experience in government and is now serving his third term as mayor. His appointments of New York schools chancellors also seem to reflect his commitment to finding individuals with business and managerial experience to lead the district.
 
Bloomberg's recent chancellor appointment, Cathie Black, "seems to be a continuation of Mayor Bloomberg's predisposition toward choosing people that he views as good managers regardless of their expertise in education," Aaron Pallas, a professor at Columbia University's Teachers College told Bloomberg Business Week. Black, chairwoman of Hearst Magazines, brings a robust resume filled with plenty of experience in the private sector, but no applicable education training or experience. 
 
Black will take over for outgoing chancellor Joel Klein, another candidate who brought little education experience to the table, but has been credited for improving New York schools overall. During his eight years as chancellor, Klein closed 91 underperforming schools, opened 474 new schools and put a stop to the social promotion of students with failing grades.
 
Black has also found significant support thus far for her appointment, both from the school system and the public at large.
 
However, not everyone is jazzed about the selection. According to a report in the Rochester City Newspaper, some New Yorkers have protested the selection, and one member of the city council has actually asked the state's education commission to block a waiver required to allow Black the job, since she has no formal education training.
 
Chicago Wants Less Business, More Teaching
 
While New York seems to be embracing the business approach to managing their school district, Chicago wants to head in the opposite direction. After working with business-minded, data-focused Superintendent Ron Huberman for nearly two years, educators and parents are ready for a more education-oriented individual to lead the district out of its current slump. To ensure they pick the right candidate, members of the community are urging Chicago Mayor Richard Daley to give them a say in the selection process.
 
"Get this right," Chicago Teacher's Union president Karen Lewis was reported saying in the Chicago Journal. "What we're asking for is the ear. Let's take the politics off the table and away from our kids."
 
Teachers, parents and even community groups have criticized Huberman's approach to managing the school district. Many complain that his business-oriented approach has been ineffective, and some have even accused him of putting politics before the interests of the students he serves.
 
Julie Woestehoff, executive director for Parents United for Responsible Education, told the Journal, "Children are not data sets, cogs in a machine, or props for political photo ops. They're complicated, sensitive human beings that need expert handling. We need a superintendent whose loyalties are to the schools, not the mayor."
 
While Lewis is fairly certain that Mayor Daley's choice in an interim superintendent is already made, she and others are hopeful that the new Chicago mayor that takes the seat in May will be more willing to listen before making a permanent superintendent appointment. Lewis said, "What we would assume and would hope is that the next mayor wants to cooperate with the community, which actually has the opportunity to elect the next mayor."
 
While both of these school districts remain embroiled in their fiery debates, a firm solution to the problem seems elusive at best.  Although some superintendents from the business sector have shown great strides in improving school districts through innovation and a "tough love" approach, others have proven ineffective in their business dealings within their districts. It appears there is much more to effective management of a school district than simply what your background and training has been.

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