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Can 'White Knights' Really Save America's Schools in Distress?

They are expected to be the white knights of urban education, riding in to save big-city schools from the depths of despair.

As the chief executive officers of school districts, superintendents - or chancellors as they are called in New York City - sit at the top of the educational hierarchy.

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"The superintendency is one of the most important CEO positions in any community, with, in many cases, a larger budget, more employees, and more physical facilities than almost any other business in the community," says Gary Marx, associate executive director of the American Association of School Administrators in Arlington, Va.

While these educational CEOs don't earn anything close to the salaries of their corporate counterparts, another important difference sets them apart. In business, CEOs are typically allied with board members who share their vision for the company. But in education, the turnover in taxpayer-elected school boards often means the boards are at odds with superintendents over everything from personal leadership style to curriculum guidelines.

Indeed, one of the biggest challenges for superintendents may be staying at the helm of school districts long enough to have an impact. When the difficulties of educating urban students - who are often among those most in need of services - lead to bitter political infighting and divided communities, school boards frequently search for a fresh school leader to save an overburdened education system.

"The demands of the position continue to grow," Mr. Marx says. "It's the hottest kitchen in America. People expect the superintendent to solve problems overnight that have developed over decades."

For years, a relatively small number of qualified candidates have revolved in and out of the superintendency suites in big-city school districts. Time and again, the scenario is repeated from coast to coast. A new superintendent is brought in amid expectations of progress. But before long, sky-high expectations crash into reality, and a disappointed school board rejects the latest recruit and begins the search for the next savior.

Working under short contracts of fewer than five years, many superintendents find themselves looking for a new job several times a decade. The average current tenure for an urban school district is about three years, according to the Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington-based association of the nation's 47 largest school districts.

"That's a concern because as we reshape our schools for the 21st century, we need constancy of leadership," Marx says.

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So what, really, can a superintendent hope to accomplish?

"A superintendent's influence comes mostly from powers of persuasion and by [an] ability to rally community support for a particular approach to the schools," says Michael Casserly, director of the Council of the Great City Schools. Experts note that everyone with a stake in the community's education system - teachers, parents, students, business and political leaders - looks to the superintendent to fulfill often-competing expectations.

In recent years, frustrated school boards have started looking for new and creative ways of managing complex urban school districts. Rather than relying on life-long educators with years of classroom and administrative experience, they are giving people with business or military backgrounds a shot at running school districts. But so far interest from educational outsiders has been limited, Mr. Casserly says.

In fact, more school administrators are making the leap from education to the corporate world than vice versa. Long hours, protracted political battles, and lower pay makes an urban superintendency less attractive than many corporate jobs, analysts say.

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