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The Superintendent as Scapegoat

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For today's school superintendents, job security is increasingly hard to find. As the politics of education have changed and the range of politically feasible scapegoats has shrunk, superintendents are easy targets when things don't go right in school districts.

In this Education Week Commentary, former school board member J.H. Snider argues that "lightning rod" superintendents—leaders who stabilize the system and get quick results but still find themselves in hot water when it comes to the blame game—are unfairly victimized. Do you agree?

11 Comments

Here are two addendums from the author:

ADDENDUM #1
Seeking a classic soundbite photo opportunity, President Bush, the First Lady, and Margaret Spellings on Monday of this week visited an elementary school in Anne Arundel County to hail a successful implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act. What they were actually celebrating was former Superintendent Eric Smith's implementation of the Act. But in newspaper articles I saw on this event in the New York Times, Washington Post, and various local newspapers, no one mentioned this fact or that many of the school board members in attendance had only a few months previously forced Eric Smith to resign. There is thus an interesting story behind this reported story.

As a general rule, smart politicians seek to get credit for the positive side of making hard decisions and then find a scapegoat for the negative side. So can we conclude from this episode that the politicians involved in the Anne Arundel County photo opportunity were very smart?

ADDENDUM #2
On December 2, 2005, the Wall Street Journal ran an article, "How Charlotte Tops Big Cities In School Tests," hailing the results of Eric Smith's previous school district in Charlotte, North Carolina. The article traced the success of the district to reforms implemented in the late 1990s but didn't mention the name of the superintendent brought in to implement those reforms. However, once again the Secretary of Education was around to take credit. The article read, in part:

“The scores on those tests were released yesterday and on the whole, results for big cities were mixed and achievement gaps between white and minority students persisted... Among the participating urban districts, Charlotte, with 124,000 students, had the highest scores in all categories except eighth-grade math, where it tied with Austin, Texas....U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said the report ‘dispels the myth that city schools can't make the grade,’ and she added that some of the best results came from states with the longest histories of creating accountability with standardized test scores.”

I do not believe the superintendent should become the scape goat of a poor school district. I live in St. Louis, Missouri and the St. Louis Public Schools has become an ongoing experiment for others to examine particularly for school board conduct and superintendent recruitment. Cleveland Hammonds, a former superintendent of the St. Louis Public Schools who was good for the children and for the schools, retired because of nonsupport by the teachers' union, other employees, the school board, and the business community. He was essenbtially forced out, and the board hired a consulting firm that closed elementary schools "to balance the budget." Another superintendnet was recently hired who has closed schools as a remedy to trim operating expenses. I believe it is time to get rid of the school board members, the teachers and others who have been involved in these types of decisions which have resulted only hurting the educational rights our children have not received. When people blame the failure of the district on the superintendent someone needs to take a look at what the adults in the schools are doing, because I believe they are as accountable as the superintendent. Students who are required to wear uniforms attend classes where the female teachers wear skirts with splits up to their thighs or blouses that reveal cleavage. Men who are over age 30 wear clothes that resemble rappers with hat bibs worn in the back of the head or two-piece jogging suits with expensive sneakers. When young people see adults in this way on a regular basis they also tend to mirror that behavior. Finally, a superintendent is paid very well to improve school operations. That cannot be done if the old and obsolete methods of doing things remains as an obstacle to change. I do not believe it is fair and there should be a program to rotate administrators and educators out when they are no longer effective, particularly since they have the responsibility to educate students and the academics are proving that is not what's happening. Superintendents should not be the only ones singled out as failures to the school system. The adult administrators and teachers who are not teaching core subjects to level the productivity of all students should be viewed as part of the problem of the district's failure, not just the superintendent.

I do not believe the superintendent should become the scapegoat of a poor school district. I live in St. Louis, Missouri and the St. Louis Public Schools has become an ongoing experiment for others to examine particularly for school board conduct and superintendent recruitment. Cleveland Hammonds, a former superintendent of the St. Louis Public Schools who was good for the children and for the schools, retired because of nonsupport by the teachers' union, other employees, the school board, and the business community. He was essentially forced out, and the board hired a consulting firm that closed elementary schools "to balance the budget." Another superintendnet was recently hired who has continued to close schools as a remedy to trim operating expenses. I believe it is time to get rid of the school board members, the teachers and others who have been involved in these types of decisions which have resulted only hurting the educational rights our children have not received. When people blame the failure of the district on the superintendent someone needs to take a look at what the adults in the schools are doing, because I believe they are as accountable as the superintendent. Students who are required to wear uniforms attend classes where the female teachers wear skirts with splits up to their thighs or blouses that reveal cleavage. Men who are over age 30 wear clothes that resemble rappers with hat bibs worn in the back of the head or two-piece jogging suits with expensive sneakers. When young people see adults in this way on a regular basis they also tend to mirror that behavior. Finally, a superintendent is paid very well to improve school operations. That cannot be done if the old and obsolete mentalities of doing things remains as an obstacle to change. I do not believe it is fair and there should be a program to rotate administrators and educators out when they are no longer effective, particularly since they have the responsibility to educate students and the academics are proving that is not what's happening. Superintendents should not be the only ones singled out as failures to the school system. The adult administrators and teachers who are not teaching core subjects to level the productivity of all students should be viewed as part of the problem of the district's failure, not just the superintendent.

One reason why our superintendent is taking heat.


I was selected to serve on a superintendent search committee and found the climate changed. A superintendent no longer needs to be an educator. School districts have several assistant superintendents firmly entrenched in each department. The assistants and staff run the district. The superintendent job today is more administrative. We found the qualifications of a retired CEO or a retired military officer fit the job better. Research found several that are successful and their students are receiving a good education. We failed to get our best candidate and settled for an educator. Since he has been in our district our debt has doubled and he plans to go to a billion in three years. This will be for 25 years. Education didn’t improve Florida’s graduation rate is 57% and we rank 33 nationally.
Bob

Unfairly victimized? Give us a break! Where but in the increasingly strange world of public ed would one find a discussion trying to get serious about whether or not CEOs should feel "unfairly victimized"! Whine whine. Are superintendents forced to apply? Of course not. And how many superintendents are actually complaining about unfair blame? Probably not many.

Message to those who wring hands about unfair blame for CEOs: Resolve to use your shoulders to help lift and improve public ed and NOT to serve as crying towels. The "supers" can handle being bosses, and the fact that bosses are sometimes not loved.

The Superintendent as Scapegoat resonates in New York State as well as (presumably) other states. When dealing with the complexities of the educational climate today, this is not surprising. Parents are fed information by the press which is inaccurate not because they intend to misinform, but are simply reporting information that has been politically massaged to the point that it is meaningless.

The New York State "School Report Card" started off with good intentions and has degenerated to the point of being a "One Size Fits All" compromise of the original data. The rating scales are now confusing to everyone including the press, the parents and, most disturbingly, the schools they represent.

Political leaders follow whatever pressures and trends they think will get them or keep them elected. School boards also have the same type of dynamic shaping their behaviors as well. In short, and probably because we have made it the norm culturally, we must find someone to blame.

Instead what we must each do is look to ourselves and those around us to ask what each of us can do to better what we feel to be the problem facing education locally and regionally. Lastly, we must talk to one another about our concerns and our hopes. It is truly a team effort that will bring change in the end, not going after the messenger or the leadership.

To tell you the truth, I don't really care if the Superintendent is becoming a scapegoat or not. What I do care about is that we have tons of principals and teachers who have totally forgotten why their position was created and the clients for whom they work. Even though I am retired, I continue to read about public education. Each time I read an article, there is never anything written about the KIDS!!! I do however see words such as assessment, benchmark, exit exam, proper data management and boo-hoo... the horrible treatment that all of the fat men in suits at the ISD offices receive.
WAKE UP...I predict the public education will not even be here in 20 years...or even 10 years. The schools need teachers, principals and counselors that are BETTER SALESPEOPLE...selling their subject, selling the idea of success and loving, truly loving the kids they serve.
I have a blog "Careers Education and Life" at blogspot.com if anyone would like to read and write a little each day. Change in public education is needed--now...

It is human nature to go "..after the messenger or the leadership." Such attacks will be with us forever. It could be that administrative salaries have been boosted out of sight, in part, to salve the wounded psyches of individuals lacking the strength of character to disregard such ankle-biting and get on with the job of leading professional teachers. When I finished my doctorate, nearly 40 years ago, and proceded to do curriculum development/publication, and serve as a professor and director of a sci/math teacher ed program, I learned from my student teachers and cooperating teachers that the most effective administrators have always been those who preside over highly skilled teachers, and encourage their HR departments hold subject matter background and expertise as the most important recruitment targets. Some of these administrators were insecure and even "shy". BUT, if they never missed a chance to "showcase" a teacher or a department's unique attributes or programs at a parent meeting or when as reporter asrrived in the office, their interpersonal shortcomings were ignored. Deep down, the public doesn't care if Dr. X, the Principal or Superindent Y grins, wears a neat suit or speaks eloquently. What they want is for leaders to show them progress in making the school's mission more effective. A good leader will NEVER err by showcasing the "troops" and their special capabilities.

Forgot to mention that I had the opportunity to "verify" much of what I had learned from student and cooperating teachers in the posting, above because I was priviledged to spend the last 20 years of my career as a full time public middle school science teacher and department chairman. In support of what Ms. Morgan notes above, the Administrators who made special efforts to showcase their instructional programs rather than themselves were excellent salespeople and were the ed leaders most supported by parents and the rest of the community.

Leaders naturally are the ones who should take the blame when things don't work out. And in many cases that means the superintendent.

However, there are cases when the superintendent is hired and then has their hands tied and are not backed up by the board that hired them. In corporate life the CEO takes the blame, but the CEO generally has the back up to take care of business.

Additionally, with a short term mentality not much is going to get accomplished. True change takes time and to judge success or failure after only a couple of years seems foolhardy.

We need more people thinking long term when it comes to true success in reforming our educational system to better serve our students.

u guys are retards. gosh put shortter posts so people can read them.
-no name

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  • loser: u guys are retards. gosh put shortter posts so people read more
  • Alisa Hunt - Grad Student: Leaders naturally are the ones who should take the blame read more
  • retired ppub schl Sci tchr: Forgot to mention that I had the opportunity to "verify" read more
  • retired pub schl Sci tchr: It is human nature to go "..after the messenger or read more
  • Elizabeth Carol Morgan-Retired Career Counselor: To tell you the truth, I don't really care if read more

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