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The Problem With General Officers as Superintendents

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When Dwight Eisenhower was about to succeed him, (President Harry S.) Truman snappishly remarked that "poor Ike" would think of the White House as the Army: He would sit at his desk saying, "Do this" and "Do that," and nothing would happen.

Retold by Richard Brookhiser

Today's Los Angeles Daily News carries a story by Naush Boghossian about retired Admiral, now LAUSD Superintendent, David Brewer III's failure to get his special district of 44 low-performing middle schools off the ground. The teachers union has already killed off 10, and has a great deal of trouble with the rest.

"This plan of his - which was created in a vacuum by noneducators in a think-tank environment - is bad for students, it's bad for education, and we are going to oppose this with all of our will," said A.J. Duffy, president of United Teachers Los Angeles. "If he tries to bring this plan about, we will organize actively against it."

A superintendent who announces a plan to create a special district without having obtained union buy-in, when it's clear the union can stop its implementation, was either blind-sided, or didn't ask. Either way, it's a classic example of one of my favorite management rules: "People who don't know what they're doing, do what they know."

General officers who take the helm of school districts have a particular blind spot.

It's hard to overstate the power of general officers who command any kind of defense activity. I spent a good deal of my career working for them directly as a project manager at RAND. In an "up or out" promotion system, they end the careers of subordinates simply by giving them a less than absolutely stellar performance review. Most never hear their subordinates tell them when they are flat out wrong. Even if they are inclined to hear contrary views, most junior officers know the system doesn't reward dissent. And more so than in any other area of life, commanders' orders are carried out without much passive, or any active, resistance. And in no case are decisions negotiated with the troops.

Like school districts, military commands are large organization. And they look like structures for top-down management. But political scientists call public education a "loosely coupled system" for a reason - any individual's performance (value-added to student performance) is hard to measure, dependent on professional discretion, and impossible to compel. "Orders" are routinely ignored because superintendents don't last. The troops - teachers - have legally binding rights.

Like it or not, school districts are not armies or fleets. Superintendents can't sit at their desks and say "do this, do that" and expect anything to happen. They are not "in command," they share power. They should not be announcing policies that others can stop dead, unless they know those others will support them.

Let's hope the Admiral learns from this defeat.


2 Comments

It is a rare individual that is able to come from outside the education realm and be able to take leadership of a school district (of any size) successfully. Education is a very fickle business. It is not private industry and it is not government (in the traditional sense) nor is it the military. Education is a very specific entity that requires a person with expertise from within the industry to provide successful leadership.

Re: Bruce Wolper's comment.

In other industries, how often has an "outsider" been able to turn around a struggling enterprise? My guess is 1) rarely; and 2) the further away the new boss' experience is from the new enterprise the less likely. I'll bet it's research the B-schools have done for private enterprise.

My own take on this line of argument is that a generalization about outsider turnarounds will resonate more with the non-educator reader than the "we're special" argument.

In this respect I'll bet "we're all special."

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