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In US education, the buck stops here

If State of the Union and State of the State addresses are any guide to the future, one job just got harder - school superintendent.

From President Clinton to big state governors like George W. Bush (R) of Texas or Gray Davis (D) of California, the message is that education has to work for all children and someone will be held responsible if it doesn't.

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In American education, the buck stops at the superintendent's desk. That's who faces the elected school boards. That's who has to come up with the answers when poor district test scores are reported. And that's who's on the receiving end of the lawsuits.

Expectations for the job are soaring, but there are fewer and fewer people who want it.

"We are losing too many of our outstanding superintendents in this country. Some districts that used to get 100 applications for the job, now get 30, and many that used to get 30 now get none," says Gary Marx, a spokesman for American Association of School Administrators based in Arlington, Va.

Reasons for the drop-off in applications include "the total pressure of the job" and the increase in single-issue board members "who get elected only to get a teacher fired or to press a narrow agenda," he says. "If they are in a community where they get very little support from press or community, they'll go elsewhere."

Moreover, proven ability to raise student achievement is no guarantee of job security. Two of the most acclaimed superintendents in the country were recently pushed out of their jobs in Texas, following rifts with their school boards.

El Paso superintendent Anthony Trujillo turned his low-performing Ysleta School district from the lowest- to the highest-achieving inner-city school district in Texas. The school board gave him broad powers to hire and fire, and he used them - 32 of 51 principals were replaced and two-thirds of teachers were fired or chose to leave. He was fired in October, following very public disputes with a school board that tried to rein in his power.

San Antonio superintendent Diana Lam also had a national reputation when she was brought in to turn around the city's schools. She introduced new programs in rapid fire and drove test scores back into the black before accepting the largest buyout for a school superintendent ever reported - more than $780,000. School board members cited "philosophical differences" as the cause of the rift (see interview, Page 19). Four of the eight largest urban school districts in Texas are now vacant.

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On average, urban superintendents now last less than three years in their jobs. When problems arise, critics blame the management style of the superintendent: The crusader with a plan is lambasted for not working closely enough with "the stakeholders"; the one who slowly builds consensus is viewed as weak and indecisive.

Rethinking the job

But the problem of the ever-shortening shelf life of the urban superintendent runs deeper than personal style. Experts say that the nation needs to rethink how it is defining the job of superintendent.

"We're making it harder to judge whether superintendents are doing a good job, because we're constantly expanding expectations," says Frederick Hess, author of "Spinning Wheels," a new book on urban school reform published last month.

The book examines school reform in 57 urban districts, and finds that urban schools are at the receiving end of prodigious amounts of new policy. Rather than improving the situation, this "policy churn" often breeds cynicism and mistrust and stifles real reform, he says.

The solution is not to find another white knight with an even better idea, but to get rid of obstacles that are making the job of superintendent impossible, he argues. These might include extending the length of superintendents' contracts or making it harder for school boards to terminate an ongoing contract; giving all superintendents the ability to hire and fire; increasing their discretion on salaries and contracts; shrinking the size of school districts; and reducing the layers of bureaucracy.

"Now, we say we need superheros, but that's not a model for improving 15,000 school districts or even 100 large urban districts," says Mr. Hess, who is assistant professor of education and government at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "We need to figure out how to make the job one that people who are not superheros can do in a way that we are satisfied with the results."

"The more we expect schools to turn around urban life the more we'll chew up and discard good, competent leaders because they haven't solved urban violence or dropout rates," he says.

Top superintendents speak up

Even the superheros are feeling the pinch. Four finalists for the National Superintendent of the Year program meeting in Washington this month all spoke of the challenge of meeting the public's higher expectations.

"Expectations have changed dramatically. It isn't enough to be the captain of the ship. You've got to know instruction, culture, systems, and systems change because expectations are so much higher. You can't do what you did 10 years ago and survive," says William Korach, superintendent of the 7,200-student Lake Oswego (Ore.) School District. The National Superintendent of the Year program is sponsored by the American Association of School Administrators, which will announce a winner on Feb. 19.

While Lake Oswego is one of the most prosperous school districts in Oregon, Mr. Korach has had to grapple with sharp budget cutbacks as a result of court-mandated efforts to equalize funding for education in the state.

Urban superintendents are under even greater pressures to produce dramatic results fast.

"At no other time has there been as much interest in public education. Every social, political, and economic issue finds its way to the schoolhouse door in Boston," adds Thomas Payzant, superintendent of the 64,000-student Boston Public Schools. "I spend more time with attorneys than educators. As society becomes more litigious, it's not surprising that schools do."

Boston has had a turbulent school history, including intense protests over court-mandated busing in the 1970s, and superintendents often bore the brunt of it. When Mr. Payzant accepted the job, he was asked to agree to serve until 2003.

"The school board wanted to send a message that we were in for the long haul, so people couldn't say, 'He'll only be around for two years,' " he says. "One of the reasons teachers lost hope is that the agenda kept changing."

Memphis superintendent Naomi Geraldine House says that the reason urban school leaders turn over so fast is that it's hard to maintain the levels of accountability now expected of them. "It's a difficult job, especially if you don't have good relations with the school board. We need to make changes that will give us some continuity," she says.

In Memphis, she swept out all low-level math courses, retrained teachers, and found ways to extend learning time for students that needed extra help. Student achievement improved, but the gains didn't silence critics. "Urban superintendents are probably the most sued individuals in the nation. I probably get a suit a day," she adds.

Finalist Michael Kremer faces similar challenges in the 8,200-student Hopkins School District, a suburban district in Minnesota with a changing population. "We are doing everything we can to keep issues out of litigation. Every dollar we spend on a court case is money we're not using for education," he says.

That's why the job description for superintendents today has to include teamwork and collaboration, he adds. "Superintendents who walk in and lay their plans on people are not likely to survive."

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