Chief Academic Officers

The emergence of a focused No. 2 post brings a new dynamic to the central office by Jay Mathews

Elizabeth "Betty" Morgan, a veteran Maryland educator working in Frederick County, three years ago saw the advertisement for a new position in the Baltimore city schools. The school system was looking for a chief academic officer, someone to serve as the No. 2 person in the district, reporting to a new chief executive officer, Robert Booker, whose background as an accountant required the support of an educational professional.

Morgan liked the idea of a responsible position in a big city school system. But she didn't like the title, at least not at first. School leaders with her experience, she says, "usually want to have 'superintendent' in their title for their resume and future job opportunities." Also, she says, "I didn't really understand at that time what a CAO is and should be."

She was not alone. When the Maryland state senate passed Senate Bill 795, its decision to establish a chief academic officer in Baltimore was unusual and often misunderstood. The state was deeply involving itself in the reorganization and revival of the low-performing Baltimore schools. This was, in effect, a reaction to an even more radical change in educational governance, the decision by many struggling urban districts to hire superintendents from business, law or the military who never had taught a public school class, much less run a school system.

The nation's three largest school systems, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, now all have nontraditional superintendents or chief executive officers. Many experts expect their numbers to grow, both because school boards are prone to follow administrative fashion and because the growing demand for improved school performance seems to require more political and administrative skills than many long-time educators possess.

That in turn means more CAOs, or at least more veteran educators in No. 2 administrative jobs with more responsibility and higher salaries than are usually attached to deputy superintendent positions.

An Interpreter's Role

A new dynamic is coming to school district headquarters. In the past, superintendents and their chief deputies usually had much in common. They all looked back on early days as teachers and principals. They generally agreed on the right approach to dealing with parents, students and school board members.

The introduction of nontraditional superintendents means school chiefs are more likely to think of themselves as men from Mars, full of new and potentially powerful ideas but handicapped by an inability to speak the local language. Their CAO then becomes not only chief deputy but also interpreter, someone on whom they must rely to communicate with the rest of the staff. This gives the position unusual power, experts say, and requires even more diplomatic and administrative talent than is usually found in deputy superintendents.

"These new, nontraditional superintendents often recognize that if they are to exercise leadership with their teachers, they must compensate for the fact that they do not know curriculum and instruction," says Susan Moore Johnson, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. "In appointing CAOs ... they convey to staff and the public their instructional priorities."

When this trend began, Morgan recalls, "there was a perception that public education was in decline. Test scores were falling nationally and the local business communities everywhere were being very critical of public education."

Not only did the former corporate executives and generals who were becoming superintendents need veteran educators working closely with them, but the results-conscious school boards that had appointed them wanted new educational titles to reflect the corporate structure they hoped to impose on the failed education bureaucracy.

"These titles came about to make education look more business-like." Morgan says. The CEO title approved by the Maryland legislature, she adds, was to "signal it's a new day in Baltimore City."

The resulting realignments of responsibilities in school districts took many forms, but usually fed on the feeling that no-nonsense business executives or military officers could succeed where administrators with education degrees could not. David E. Johnson, until recently the CAO for the 10,000-student East Allen County, Ind., schools, says his superintendent, Jeff H. Abbott, was a lawyer-educator (he had experience in both law and school offices) who exemplified the nontraditional superintendent's interest in reforming the way school districts are structured.

Abbott says he thought changing titles would help the business community better understand the school district's administrative structure, but the primary reason for the change was "to focus our organization on academics."

A Model Assistant

No educator holding a CAO-type position has received more favorable publicity or been more often cited as a model for the new breed of administrator than Anthony J. Alvarado, the chancellor of instruction for the San Diego Public Schools. Alvarado was appointed by one of the most unusual of the new nontraditional superintendents, Alan D. Bersin. When named to the job in 1998, Bersin was neither a businessman nor a general but the U.S. attorney for San Diego, a professional crime fighter.

Bersin soon made headlines by luring Alvarado, one of the nation's best-known advocates for change in schools, from the New York City school system, where he had once been chancellor and had, for the last 12 years, been head of Community School District 2. Alvarado put a new emphasis on literacy and mathematics education, set up special focus programs in low-performing schools and saw quick results. Sixty-eight percent of the 142 San Diego schools measured by the state last year showed strong academic improvement, making them eligible for cash performance awards.

Alvarado's example appears to have persuaded other school boards to follow the same path, find a non-educator to deal with the school board, handle public relations and set an overall tone, while putting a very aggressive and imaginative CAO in charge of the business of making the schools improve.

The CAO title already is used frequently in universities, giving it an additional cache. Harvard's Susan Moore Johnson says calling someone a chief academic officer does seem to elevate its holder "above the traditional deputy or associate superintendent for instruction. … It seems to have moved somewhat closer to the top of the pyramid."

In many districts, she says, the associate superintendent for instruction is at the same level as the director of human resources or associate superintendent for personnel. But, Johnson says, "it seems that the new CAOs are now superior in authority, influence and pay to all positions but the superintendent."

In Baltimore, Morgan's CAO duties put her in charge of all teaching and learning activities in the city's 180 schools. Area superintendents report to her directly. She oversees professional development, whole school reform and the school improvement office. She has coordinating responsibility for special education and the office of research and accountability.

"I believe that while I'm the No. 2, my position is the key to the school system's academic success and, if you've noticed the dramatic improvement Baltimore has been experiencing over the last two years, the CAO position, I believe, has been crucial to that success."

Most education experts agree that the new position is a natural outgrowth of the rise of the nontraditional superintendent.

"The proponents of the model have realized that many nontraditionalists do not have the leadership skills for the position," says Art Johnson, the former CAO at Palm Beach County, Fla., where he now is superintendent.

Johnson's background is typical for chief academic officers- a Ph.D. in education administration and 35 years of experience in all phases of teaching and administration, including school principal.

When Seattle's superintendent, Joseph Olchefske, announced the appointment of a new CAO in 1999, he extolled his selection, June Collins Rimmer, for being "an educator's educator." Olchefske had come from a career in public finance and had no education degree. Faced with running a 47,000-student district, he made it clear how much he needed the support of someone like Rimmer with a 29-year career as a teacher, principal and assistant superintendent in the 42,000-student Indianapolis school district.

Natural Succession

In many cases the new superintendent or CEO has opted for an experienced educator who knows the local area well. When Marine Col. A.G. Davis ended a 27-year military career to become CEO of the New Orleans public schools in 1999, he found a veteran Louisiana administrator, Ollie Tyler, to become chief academic officer. She helped complete the five-year strategic plan created by the business-backed Greater New Orleans Education Foundation.

Tyler had served 31 years in the Caddo Parish school system, where she was second-in-command when Davis called her.

Often unmentioned in commentaries about the new powers of the CAO is the job's potential benefits as an insurance policy for a school board that finds its nontraditional superintendent unsatisfactory or, as happened in the District of Columbia schools, suddenly gone.

The D.C. financial control board, which had taken over the school system under a congressional initiative in 1996, appointed former U.S. Army Gen. Julius W. Becton Jr. to be the first-ever CEO of its 71,000-student system. A year later it endorsed Becton's decision to name Arlene Ackerman, who had been CAO to one of the first major nontraditional superintendents, John Stanford in Seattle, as his new chief academic officer.

Becton had indicated he would not stay in the job forever, but the control board members were stunned when less than a year after Ackerman's arrival, the general resigned without warning. The April 14, 1998, resignation letter said he was unhappy about a control board member criticizing him in The Washington Post and about the board's failure to provide enough money for a teacher pay raise. "I have had it!" the letter concluded. "30 April will be my last official day of duty as CEO."

With Ackerman on board, the D.C. authorities had a proven leader who stepped quickly into the gap and soon was named superintendent herself. However, there was no equally strong second-in-command in place two years later when more boardroom strife led Ackerman to resign and become superintendent in San Francisco.

Some routes to the CAO job have been unique and often influenced by local politics. Art Johnson, for instance, newly named superintendent in Palm Beach County, Fla., had a long career as an administrator in the district. But he was forced to resign as an area superintendent over a controversy involving a teacher who kept a "slackers box" for misbehaving students at a school where Johnson had been principal.

Johnson proceeded to win election to a seat on the school board and then voted to fire the superintendent who had ousted him. The interim superintendent appointed him CAO, at which time he vowed to revamp the district's reading program.

Whose Agenda?

The more CAO positions that are created, the more varied each job's duties are likely to be. Some are nearly independent operators, given free rein to make policy. Some are mere mouthpieces for the superintendent's directives. But some experts wonder if No. 2 positions in school districts ever can stray far from the traditional need to execute the day-to-day details of the top executive's agenda. How different do the new CAOs think their lives are from those of deputy superintendents for instruction?

Betty Morgan in Baltimore has worked for four superintendents or CEOs in the last five years, first as an associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction and then as chief academic officer. She said in one respect the jobs are the same because whatever her bosses' titles, they have not always had the time to become deeply involved in issues of learning and teaching.

"Many boards of education still suffer from the delusion that the superintendent should be the instructional leader of the system," she says. "I think that's a fallacy. Do we expect the chief hospital administrator to teach the medical interns or operate on a patient? Now, certainly it helps if that person is a doctor, but I wouldn't want him/her to be operating on my brain! It is good enough, in my opinion, if the superintendent/CEO is an excellent fiscal and human manager and provides good leadership so specialists, like myself, can perform their jobs at optimum level. The CEO is really too busy in a large school system and should be too busy to also be the chief education leader and we've got to realize this and bless the separation of duties."

David Johnson, the former CAO in East Allen County, Ind., says Abbott, his superintendent, often indicated he was "generally consumed with political matters. On matters of operations and academics, while he might know his preferred outcome, he generally deferred to others." Abbott says his focus was on board and community relations and managing the central-office staff and that it would be more accurate to say he delegated authority, rather than deferred to staff.

For CAOs to operate effectively, they have to be confident in their administrative abilities and expertise in the financial and operational issues that affect learning. Cozette Buckney, the chief educational officer and No. 2 administrator for the Chicago Public Schools, was a former principal with extensive experience at school headquarters when she was picked by the nontraditional chief executive officer, Paul Vallas, to be the chief administrator for academics, Chicago's version of a CAO.

She said she liked the power the new title and new responsibilities convey to her. "The more authority that you have, the more responsibility you have to get things done, the better opportunity you have to accomplish that," she says.

As a key player in the transition to Chicago's new administrative setup, Buckney says she learned about "scan charts and backward planning" and several other business practices that have been useful to her in her new role.

Title Adjustments

Some CAOs don't see much difference between their duties under their new title and those of an assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. Art Johnson, the former CAO in Palm Beach County, Fla., says it's "very similar. … However, the separation from the business activities of the district is much more sharply distinguished. Our CAO is pure academic."

Sometimes the title is adjusted for political and personal reasons. In 1999 the Michigan state legislature approved a restructuring of the Detroit school district that included the creation of a position of CEO and a chief academic officer, the title used in the bill. But when the new CEO, Kenneth S. Burnley, named Kay Royster to the job, he gave her the title of deputy CEO, curriculum and instruction.

The title adjustment seemed to be in recognition of the role played by Juanita Clay Chambers, a veteran Detroit educator who had been in charge of curriculum and was given the title of associate superintendent for educational services. Whatever her title, Royster's responsibilities were just as broad as the state had said they had to be.

The CAO title also has begun to appear in some districts not as large as the urban centers. Brenda Tanner, a University of Virginia professor with much school district administrative experience, says she was drawn to an announcement of a new CAO position in Horry County, S.C., as she scanned the AASA Web site last year. "I thought it was so interesting," she says.

In August, after a detailed round of interviews with the administrative team at the 28,000-student district, Superintendent Gerrita Postlewait told Tanner the job was hers. "I absolutely love the position and the district," Tanner says.

She is part of a cabinet of chief officers. Others are responsible for finance, personnel and support services, and all report directly to the superintendent.

In East Allen County, Ind., the superintendent made his CAO, David Johnson, the No. 3 executive, with a title of associate superintendent and CAO. The second in command had the title of deputy superintendent and chief operations officer. Both Johnson and the No. 2 reported directly to Abbott.

"My duties as a CAO may not have differed much from the traditional superintendent for instruction," Johnson says, "although there were some things that we added that were perhaps new to the field."

One of the expanded duties was the instructional audit, a business practice refitted for classroom analysis. "We identified a measurement instrument, then hired observers to sit in a scientifically selected sample of classrooms to record the methods that teachers used to instruct their students," Johnson says. "All our staff development would be built upon the baseline resulting from those observations."

But Johnson's superintendent dispensed with the CAO title after one year. Johnson believes misunderstandings arose because operations and academics were managed by different people on roughly the same administrative level. "So much of what a CAO does to improve student academic achievement is related to operations," he says. "To have two like-level positions that overlap results in conflicts."

An executive director for academics position was created instead and instructed to report to the deputy superintendent. Johnson left the system last November and is now a senior program evaluator with Edgewood Independent School District in San Antonio, Texas.

Reshuffling Furniture

A few other districts have moved contrary to the national trend and reduced the power of, or completely eliminated, CAO positions. Last year Dee Morgan was promoted from CAO in Columbus, Ohio, to a new job with greater pay and responsibilities as deputy superintendent for academic achievement. Her new title and position are much closer to the traditional school administrative setup than the business-oriented model that inspired the rise of CAOs. Pittsburgh recently altered the title of Paula Butterfield, who was a highly accomplished superintendent in Montana, from chief academic officer to deputy superintendent, out of misunderstandings about her role.

And some critics have suggested that the move to a CEO/CAO system can in some instances make no more sense than redecorating a house without doing anything about the termites. In Philadelphia, for instance, Superintendent David W. Hornbeck resigned last year after saying he could not make the necessary changes in the system with the inadequate funding he was receiving from the state. The school board announced that it was turning his job into two positions, following the new fashion, and setting up a CEO and a CAO.

The state made no promises of more money for the Philadelphia district. Board members had hoped the restructuring would strengthen the schools' improvement all the same.

In Baltimore, Morgan's tenure as CAO has required her to make sudden adjustments. The first CEO she worked for left after two years and another, this time a traditional educator, Carmen V. Russo, took his place. But Morgan has been getting good reviews for significant academic gains, which the city's education-conscious newspaper, The Baltimore Sun, has attributed to her intense focus on improving reading and other programs in the early elementary grades.

In the meantime, she has grown to appreciate the title she once considered slightly confusing. "I actually like the CAO title now and wouldn't change it," Morgan says, "because it does signal that I am the chief education officer for the system and in the business of education, that's a key position."

What CEOs or superintendents do in large school systems, she says, is vital but not immediately connected to making schools work. What they do is "mostly concerned with money, politics and keeping five, seven, nine or 11 members of the board informed on any given day.

"I find," she adds, "that being able to be successful at improving the education of kids and getting real results to be very, very rewarding."

Jay Mathews is an education writer with The Washington Post. E-mail: mathewsj@washpost.com