Serviceable Myths about the Dilemma-Laden Superintendency
by Larry Cuban — 1998
The author describes his own mixed feelings regarding The American School Superintendent: Leading in an Age of Pressure.
Reading The American School Superintendent: Leading in an Age of Pressure left me with mixed feelings. Gene Carter and William Cunningham captured well the unrelenting and inexorable conflicts that I, a former superintendent who served one district for seven years in the 1970s, faced then and what contemporaries—by their own accounts in this book—face now. Working closely with fifty superintendents who participated for five years in the Danforth School Administration Fellowship, Carter, a former urban superintendent, and Cunningham, a professor of educational administration, describe what urban, suburban, and small town superintendents encounter in the 1990s.
In words from scores of district school chiefs, the authors detail their hopes and failures; their planned reforms and. shattered designs, and, most of all, the intractable contradictions they face in trying to make a difference in the lives of children. The dilemmas the authors describe are age-old and, ultimately, humbling: how to enact deep institutional changes while maintaining organizational stability; how to exert limited authority to make major changes that affect classrooms when you are utterly dependent on others (a school board and subordinates) to adopt what you seek and then implement faithfully what you wish to happen; how to manage unpredictable, turbulent events that occur outside and within your district over which you have modest to no influence. Few working superintendents would disbelieve the authors’ description of the job. In delineating these dilemmas so well they also undermine a central message of their book: that superintendents can solve all problems. I will return to this point later.
The overall story that Carter and Cunningham tell is divided into five parts and fourteen chapters. In Part I, “The Superintendency in Question,” two chapters describe the history and changing role of the superintendent. Six chapters in Part II, “Challenges and Dilemmas,” take the reader through the politics, finances, board conflict and daily woes, and the personal and professional price superintendents pay in dealing with these perennial conflicts. Parts III, “Responses and Remedies,” and IV “New Directions and Responsibilities,” are largely upbeat sections that profile successful superintendents who stitch together strategies for building community coalitions, developing staff capabilities, designing innovative schools, and using technology.
The first two parts lay out the terrain superintendents negotiate. The authors, quoting past and current administrators, as well as numerous research studies, clearly commit themselves to the view that the superintendency is both political and conflict-ridden. Superintendents, they argue, are caught betwixt-and-between community factions, contentious school board members, contending levels of government, and vociferous single-minded interest groups. Frequently-used metaphors capture their belief in unremitting conflict as the central motif to heading a district: The job is a “lightning rod” (p. 5), “pressure cooker,” “hot seat,” and “highwire act;” the superintendent is like the “Captain of the Titanic” (p. 8). The constant political handling of unending conflicts, such as sexual harassment complaints, student expulsions, school closings, and incompetent staff, exact a high toll among superintendents in illness, death, and, inevitably, frequent turnover in the post.
The last two sections of the book, however, shift tone considerably. Carter and Cunningham stud the final chapters with instances of superintendents’ successfully overcoming conflicts and other obstacles. The authors unabashedly urge the nation’s school chiefs, board members, and general readers to take their advice. Passage after passage is dotted with “must, ” “should,” “needed,” and “required.”
In this book, then, Carter and Cunningham render well what other researchers have noted in the personal and professional tensions arising from conflicts inherent in the dilemma-laden lives that superintendents lead (Arnez 1981; Blumberg 1985; Boyd, 1976; Feilders, 1981; Kowalski, 1995; McCarty & Ramsey, 1971; Tyack & Hansot, 1982; Zeigler, Kehoe, & Reisman, 1985).
Yet, as much as I find their portrait of the political nature of superintendency credible, reflecting my experiences in the 1970s and those of current school chiefs, the authors’ arguments and evidence leave me unsettled. Why the ambivalence? There are two reasons.
First, Carter and Cunningham write from within a familiar genre of professional education literature. I call articles and books within this genre How-Impossible-the-Job-Is-but-Strong-Smart-Superintendents-Can-Still-Make-a-Difference. I know this genre well since I have contributed to it over the years.
The genre derives from committed practitioners and researchers’ trying to get other professionals and noneducators to understand the complexities of work in districts better while simultaneously offering advice on how to handle conflicts and improve what happens in classrooms. These articles, books, and videos have been institutionalized and are published regularly by national organizations of professionals (superintendents, principals, teachers) because such writing serves their interests. When Carter and Cunningham state: “America’s future is inextricably linked to the quality of its public schools, its K-12 educators, and the leadership of its superintendents” (p.236), the American Association of School Administrators (AASA) says, Amen.
It is no accident that the current AASA Executive Director wrote the foreword to the book. Nor is it chance that Gene Carter leads the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) and was the AASA’s first National Superintendent of the Year (1988). Portions of the book contain the AASA and National SchooI Boards Association (NSBA) joint statements on “Roles and Responsibilities” (pp. 16-17), the AASA Commission Report on Standards for the Superintendency (pp. 17-19) and ample quotations from the organization’s publications. Two of the three appendices are official AASA documents.
Although my comments may sound accusatory, that is not my intent. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with practitioners and scholars or even professional organizations’ producing a literature that paints a job as impossible while implicitly arguing that there are heroes among superintendents who have stepped forward and done, with skill and elan, the impossible.
My point, and this is the second reason for my ambivalence, is that such a literature inevitably sustains myths that run counter to the intended purposes of writers like Carter and Cunningham, who seek “a broad understanding of the challenges, issues, and dilemmas, as well as of the necessary remedies” (p. 3). By “myths” I mean popular but unexamined statements, even including those with authoritative statistics, that a professional organization and the larger public holds as true and those who serve as superintendents, or would like to serve, also believe to be true, Whether the statement is true, that is, factually accurate, is less important than whether it is shared widely (Meyer & Rowan, 1977).
Such unquestioned statements are retained nonetheless because they take what is often too complex to capture in factual statements and provide the illusion that what is mysterious, uncertain, even unintelligible can be rendered understandable. Thus, such widely believed statements are “true” yet are beyond factual support. A few examples may help make the point.
The Revolving-door Superintendency
To make the case that the superintendency is an impossible job, Carter and Cunningham, like so many others who write about superintendents, cite the many reports that big-city chiefs serve between two to three years before being ousted or resigning (pp. 5-8). Virtually all writers about the superintendency confuse turnover rates among a cadre of big-city superintendents with how long individual superintendents served in a post (or completed tenure). When Gary Yee and I looked back at a century of “completed tenures” in the twenty-five largest urban school districts, we found that tenure in these districts had indeed shrunk from an average high of fourteen years in 1900 to just under six years in 1990 (Yee & Cuban 1996). In both popular and professional articles and books, the figure of just over two years for the tenure of urban superintendents (more of a reflection of turnover among a group of urban superintendents) when they really serve in their districts, on the average, almost three times longer is, in a word, inaccurate. Yet the two-plus years of tenure in big cities does symbolically reinforce the image of an incredibly hard job with a high casualty rate.
A Superintendent Must be Superman or Wonder Woman
The belief reinforced time and again in this genre is that for such a high-visibility, important job in a community with a brief life-span, only just-in-time heroes or heroines need apply. What needs to be done is for superintendents to leap major hurdles, solve problems, and tackle irreconcilable dilemmas while fundamentally changing a profoundly conservative social institution. That is one tall order for anyone. Carter and Cunningham, like so many other writers, use the language of heroics in their final six chapters. They urge superintendents to engage in “transforming schools” (p. 192) and to become “Superintendent Reformer[s]” (p. 215) who creates “visionary” schools where there is “hands-on interdisciplinary learning” and where “technology can be the central agent for meaningful education reform” (pp. 219,223).
Such resonant language, exhorting superintendents to think grandly and act heroically, however, must compete with the authors’ contrary admonition that the school district “must be in step with community expectations” (p. 198). Yes, being a superintendent, like being a mayor or a police chief, is a high-profile, highly paid public position, often caught between conflicting forces and insoluble dilemmas which require astute political radar, negotiating skills, and a clear idea of where the school chief wants the district to move. These ideas and skills are mundane, even prosaic, yet significant. They are seldom the raw material from which heroics are fashioned.
There is nothing inherently wrong with spreading these myths. They are serviceable (Sayre, 1958). They help organizations stay alive; they provide writers with useful work by dispensing advice; they help practitioners dream of a better future while binding their psychic wounds. But such myths do not in any way increase understanding—the oft-stated aim of those who write within this genre. If anything, such widely shared myths slide past obvious contradictions and obscure deeper, more complex questions that need answers, not bumper sticker slogans.
Two persistent and unanswered questions, for example, have confounded the literature on the superintendency that includes both this genre typified by the American School Superintendent and less accessible research studies. These questions go to the very core of the job. To secure reliable and valid answers to these questions and then to convey them in clear, concise prose would serve the admirable goal Carter and Cunningham set for themselves well: to acquire “a broad understanding of the challenges, issues, and dilemmas” (p. 3) f acing both superintendents and researchers.
The questions are:
1. What drives superintendents’ behavior? Carter and Cunningham argue convincingly that the context, or what researchers would call environmental and organizational variables, strongly shapes what superintendents do, yet an assertive, far-seeing, and highly skilled individual can overcome the powerful effects of the organization and its community. It is a story that many of us yearn to believe. In light of their many case studies of highly successful superintendents’ resigning under pressure, however, what the linkage is between the individual and the setting remains mysterious. Without specifying how victories can be fashioned, how success can happen across different settings, and what weight can be assigned to individual factors and contextual factors, the story we yearn to believe remains unexplained and leaves readers with a shrug of the shoulders.
A decade ago, Norman Boyan (1988), in a synthesis of the research on administrators, asked how situational and personal variables interacted in superintendents and principals to explain why they act as they do. Based on what he reviewed then, he could offer only a partial answer. A decade later, the precise mix of individual and contextual factors explaining superintendent behavior still remains beyond the grasp of researchers. Susan Johnson (1996), Kenneth Leithwood (1995), and others have produced fine studies that plumb what superintendents say and do. Their work offers clues, even strong hints, but few reliable guidelines to explain why superintendents behave as they do either to researchers or practitioners—beyond the uncomforting conclusion that it depends on the match between person and context. That may well be the formula for an answer to this question, but it falls far short of answering a related one that also is central to superintendency.
2. Does what superintendents do matter to students’ academic performances? The literature on the post, regardless of genre and with few exceptions, assumes a “yes” answer to the question of superintendents’ effectiveness. Only a few researchers have raised the question directly (Bridges, 1982; Erickson, 1979). Whether or not the assumption is another widely shared myth among aspiring educators, I do know that I would not have applied for a superintendency had I believed, among other things, that I could not make a difference in students’ academic performance.
Carter and Cunningham also have no doubt that superintendents can be effective in this arena. Their book is anchored in that belief. When they recount the success of Robert Spillane—named AASA Superintendent of the Year in 1995—in Fairfax County (Virginia), they offer evidence of his effectiveness: increasing scores on standardized achievement tests and the Scholastic Achievement Test (SAT), declining dropout rates, high percentages of graduates entering college, and National Merit Scholarship finalists (p. 56). Yet in their book and in the work of most researchers who grapple with this question, there is no explicit model of effectiveness. How exactly does a superintendent—who is completely dependent on a school board, a cadre of principals in schools whom he or a deputy may see monthly, and teachers who shut their doors once class begins—raise test scores, reduce dropout rates, and so forth? Without some model by which a superintendent can be shown to have causal effects, test scores’ going up or down remains a mystery. It is a matter of chance that the results occurred on that superintendent’s tour of duty (Bossert, 1988; Crowson, 1987; Pitner, 1988; Wimpelberg, 1997).
Yet the political nature of the superintendency and the organizational hierarchy preclude a model that maps out direct cause-effect relationships between superintendents’ actions and students’ outcomes. A model of indirect influence by superintendents on principals, in shaping a district’s culture and in spending time on symbolic issues, suggests an approach that is, at the least, consistent with how superintendency is structured in American districts. Some researchers have explored this with principals, but few have with superintendents (Dwyer, 1985; Heck & Hallinger, 1995). Occasional researchers seeking to determine the effects of superintendents over time have examined districts historically and such a tack seems most promising (Smith, Dwyer, Prunty, & Kleine, 1988; Yee, 1996)
Nonetheless, the question of effectiveness has to be raised openly and explored critically, rather than ignored or dismissed because it contradicts widely shared beliefs or professionals’ organizational interests. The essential task is to figure out how that effectiveness happens (or doesn’t) in a complex organization undergoing constant external pressures to change and internal calls for maintaining stability.
These hard questions strike me as central to the work of superintendency. Although Carter and Cunningham do superintendents a decided service by emphasizing the political nature of the occupation and the unforgiving dilemmas that they face, the genre in which they work, at least for this reader, rings hollow. After all, there is so much evidence that superintendents are far more often crisis managers than heroic leaders (Cuban 1988; Feilders, 1982; Johnson, 1996). The American School Superintendent rightly concentrated in its opening chapters on the inescapable dilemmas that come with the terrain of being a superintendent, Managing dilemmas (rather than “solving” them) is what superintendents end up doing. Balancing competing interests and defusing tensions while constructing compromises, takes much of a superintendent's thought, action, and time (Jacobson, Hickcox, & Stevenson, 1996). While Carter and Cunningham spend less time elaborating what they call the “Challenges and Dilemmas” of being a superintendent, they hit the bull’s-eye before slipping into a genre that ultimately perpetuates myths and ignores critical questions that superintendents, scholars, and the larger public could use much help in answering.
Arnez, N. (1981). The besieged school superintendent: A case study of school superintendent school-board selections in Washington, D.C., 1973-1975. Washington, DC: University Press of America.
Blumberg, A. (1985). The school superintendent: Living with conflict. New York: Teachers College Press.
Bossert, S. (1988). School Effects. In N. Boyan (Ed.), Handbook of research on educational administration (pp. 341-354). New York: Macmillan.
Boyan, N. (1988). Describing and explaining administrative behavior. In N. Boyan (Ed.), Handbook of research on educational administration (pp. 77-98). New York: Macmillan.
Boyd, W. (1976). The public, the professionals, and educational policy making: Who governs? Teachers College Record, 77(4), 539-577.
Bridges, E. (1982). Research on the school administrator: The state of the art, 1967-1980. Educational Administration Quarterly 18‘(3), 12-33.
Crowson, R. (1987). The local district superintendency: A puzzling administrative role. Educational Administration Quarterly, 23(3), 49-69.
Cuban, L. (1988). The managerial imperative. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Dwyer, D. (1985). Five principals in action. San Francisco: Far West Laboratory for Educational Research and Development.
Erickson, D. (1979). Research on educational administration: The state of the art. Educational Researcher, 8, 9-14.
Feilders, J. (1982). Profile. Belmont, CA: Fearon Publications.
Heck, R. and Hallinger, P. (1995). Models for principal effectiveness. Unpublished paper.
Jacobson, S., Hickcox, E., & Stevenson, R. (1998). School administration: Persistent dilemmas in preparation and practice. Westport, CT: Praeger.
Johnson, S. (1996). Leading to change: The challenge of the new superintendency. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Kowalski, T. (1995). Keepers of the Flame: Contemporary urban superintendents. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Leithwood, K. (1995). Effective school district leadership. Albany: State University of New York Press.
McCarty, D., & Ramsey, C. (1971). The school managers: Power and conflict American public education. Westport, CT: Greenwood.
Meyer, J. & Rowan, B. (1977). Institutionalized organizations: Formal structure as myth and ceremony. American Journal of Sociology, 83(2), 340-363.
Pitner, N. (1988). The study of administrator effects and effectiveness. In N. Boyan (Ed.), Handbook of research on educational administration (pp. 99-122). New York: Macmillan.
Sayre, W. (1958). Additional observations on the study of administration. Teachers College Record, 60(3), 73-76.
Smith, L., Dwyer, D., Prunty, J., & Kleine, P. (1988). Innovation and change in schooling: History, politics, and agency. Book 3. New York: Falmer.
Tyack, D., & Hansot, E. (1982). Managers of virtue. New York: Basic Books.
Wimpelberg, R. (1997). Superintending: The undeniable politics and indefinite effects of school district leadership. American Journal of Education, 105, 319-343.
Yee, G. (1996). Executive succession and organizational change in an urban school district. Unpublished Doctoral Dissertation, Stanford University, Stanford, CA.
Yee, G. & Cuban, L. (1996). When is tenure long enough? A historical analysis of superintendent turnover and tenure in urban school districts. Educational Administration Quarter& 2, 615-641.
Zeigler, H., Kehoe, E., & Reisman, J. (1985). City managers and school superintendents. New York: Praeger.
A look at books assigned in courses in education
In the Fall doctoral course on Educational Inquiry at Michigan State University taught by Professors Anna Neumann and Aaron Pallas students are reading:
Duneier, M. (1992). Slim’s Table: Race, Responsibility, and Masculinity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
Lareau, A. (1989). Home Advantage: Social Class and Parental Intervention in Elementary Education. London: Falmer.
Lensmire, T. J. (1994). When Children Write: Critical Re-Visions of the Writing Workshop. New York: Teachers College Press.
Luttrell, W. (1991). Schoolsmart and Motherwise: Working-Class Women’s Identity and Schooling. New York: Routledge.
Neumann, A., & Peterson, P. L. (Eds.). (1997). Learning from Our Lives: Women, Research, and Autobiography in Education. New York: Teachers College Press.
U.S. Department of Education. (1998). Pursuing Excellence: A Study of U.S. Twelfth-Grade Mathematics and Science Achievement in International Context. NCES 98-049. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office.
Williams, F. (1992). Reasoning with Statistics: How to Read Quantitative Research. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
In the Fall Research Seminar on The Professional Development of Urban Teachers at Emory University taught by Professor Jacqueline Jordan Irvine students are reading:
Guskey, T. R., & Huberman, M. (eds.). Professor Development in Education: New Paradigms and Practices. New York: Teachers College Press.
Lipman, P. (1998). Race, Class, and Power in School Restructuring. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Murrell, P. C. (1998). Like Stone Soup: The role of the Professional Development School in the Renewal or Urban Schools. Washington, D.C.: AACTE.
Smith, G. P. (1998). Common Sense About Uncommon Knowledge; The Knowledge Bases for Diversity. Washington, D.C.: AACTE.
Weiner, L. (1993). Preparing Teachers for Urban Schools. New York: Teachers College Press.
Yeo, F. L. (1997). Inner-city Schools, Multiculturalism, and Teacher Education: A Professional Journey. New York: Garland.
|Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 100 Number 1, 1998, p. 181-190|