Guest Column

Staying Ahead of the Game

by Deborah Wadsworth

 Headlines frequently focus on the new breed of nontraditional school superintendents—former lawyers and business and military leaders who are attempting to change the face of school administration, the coverage points out, by focusing on one thing: results. Whether they will succeed where their predecessors have failed remains unclear.

What is abundantly clear from a recent Public Agenda study of school leadership is that the representative group of experienced administrators we interviewed nationwide say they, too, wish to produce results. However, they are distracted from morning to night by politics and bureaucratic hurdles that make it extremely difficult to stay focused.

“Trying to Stay Ahead of the Game,” a report recently issued by Public Agenda, captures the concerns and priorities of superintendents and principals, most of whom have been at the helm for five years or more. Like their counterparts in other professions, they believe it is important for them to be held accountable for results. But they also insist that the challenge is daunting, given all that’s been heaped on their plates.

Moreover, most complain they feel handicapped by their lack of autonomy to reward outstanding teachers and staff or to remove those who are ineffective from the classroom. Free us, they say, to make these decisions, and we can get the job done. And virtually all the 853 superintendents and 909 principals interviewed for our study believe it is important that experienced educators be hired, rather than those whose training and background lie outside the field.

Eighty-one percent of superintendents say that politics and bureaucracy are the real culprits driving good people out of the profession, far more than the pressure of meeting higher standards or coping with low pay or lack of prestige. Bedeviled by hurdles at every turn, they say their days are consumed by the need to respond to threats of litigation, complaints from individual parents, challenges from unions and an increasing load of local, state and federal mandates.

One school administrator put it this way: “Litigation concerns give extreme parents and special interest groups far too much contact and make management, safety, and instructional issues far more complex than necessary.”

Staying focused on the interests of children is becoming extremely difficult, according to the school leaders, and large numbers describe their daily life as an endless attempt to do an end run around the system to get the most basic things done. The diversions are so constant, they say, that their ability to pay attention to the business of learning—to provide vision and leadership—is seriously stymied.

An Urgent Plea

The most-admired CEOs in America today have understood this dilemma all too well. A hallmark of their corporate leadership has been the elimination of unnecessary layers of decision-making and removal of unreasonable rules and regulations that get in the way of the essential need for cooperation and coordination.

School administrators’ most urgent plea is to be heard and helped in reforming the systems in which they operate. They agree that increasing opportunities for professional development would be a good thing, but they say much of what is being offered today is impractical and focused on the wrong things. As one administrator put it, “Practical versus theory is still a problem in training.” Existing programs need to do a better job of balancing the theoretical and the practical.

In many ways, these administrators, like most professionals, crave collegiality and the opportunity to discuss successes and concerns with their peers. Among the many side effects of the relentless pace that characterizes their days is the sense of isolation superintendents say they increasingly feel. Virtually all of the superintendents interviewed said they would welcome a support system where they can let their guard down and talk freely about ideas and challenges with their colleagues in districts across the nation.

In addition, most school leaders agree that the typical leadership programs in graduate schools of education are out of touch with the realities of what it takes to run today’s schools. They say they need programs to prepare leaders, not academic researchers.

Disappointing Grades

While there is near unanimity among these administrators about many issues in this study—particularly those that relate to diagnosing what hampers their effectiveness—it is also important to note that superintendents and principals appear to diverge when asked to evaluate each other as a group in the districts in which they work. While most of the principals we interviewed give their district superintendents good grades for effective leadership, similar numbers of superintendents are notably less enthusiastic about the principals they supervise. They view principals as playing a unique role in education and worry that many do not live up to expectations.

When asked to rate their current corps on more than a dozen specific leadership qualities, only about one superintendent in three says they are “happy” with their district’s principals when it comes to recruiting talent, making tough decisions, delegating responsibility and authority or using money effectively. To hear superintendents tell it, finding qualified candidates is a difficult task often exacerbated by factors beyond their control.

When asked about impending shortages of candidates or the problem of turnover in their districts, many superintendents, particularly in large urban communities, acknowledge they are more likely to experience a shortage of well-qualified applicants than a dearth of candidates overall, and they say they frequently have difficulty competing with wealthier districts for real talent.

“Trying to Stay Ahead of the Game” gives voice to both the trials and the tribulations of school administrators. Their concerns and frustrations come across loud and clear. But at the end of the day so too does their sense of optimism and confidence. Far from exhibiting a naiveté about the challenges that lie ahead, they remain fiercely self-confident in the face of all they confront—convinced they have what it takes to make a difference, even in the tougher districts. The most troubled schools, they say, can be turned around with the right leadership.

Deborah Wadsworth is president of Public Agenda, a nonprofit, public opinion research and education organization, at 6 East 39th St., New York, NY 10016. E-mail: