On-the-Job Learning of Nontraditional Superintendents

Crash courses, late-night reading and trusted advisers bring this new breed of school system leader up to speed by JAY MATHEWS

Frank Till, San Diego's deputy superintendent of schools, was pleased last spring when his school board made an uncommon choice for a new superintendent: Alan D. Bersin, the local U.S. attorney whose only educational duty up until then had been to teach drug dealers that crime does not pay.

Till was not bothered by Bersin’s lack of educational experience. He thought it was more important that the new superintendent already understood San Diego and had a history of reaching out to many different community groups.

No one questioned Bersin's brains and energy. He was a Rhodes Scholar from Harvard who had become a much-sought-after Los Angeles lawyer and later the chief federal prosecutor in the nation's sixth largest city. He spoke fluent Spanish and knew the Clintons. He understood the demands of leadership. What he did not know about education he could learn, Till thought. Indeed, Till and other veteran administrators would become important to Bersin's learning process.

Expanded Searches
It used to be that finding a school superintendent followed a pattern: Announce a national or statewide search, appoint a search committee, buy ads in the education journals, conduct interviews and more interviews, then hold a press conference to reveal the choice. Sometimes a superintendent or assistant superintendent from an outside district was appointed. Sometimes an insider got the call.

But all those involved in the process assumed the winner would be a veteran educator, someone who had once taught children in a classroom and who had, as a junior administrator, survived mind-numbing school board meetings and learned how American school superintendents did things.

Lately school boards have been fiddling with that model, especially in large urban school districts. The growing impatience with low student achievement and high school costs has led some school boards to look outside the education arena for their top hired hand. The military, the business world and even, in Bersin's case, the legal profession have become targets of superintendent searches. Major urban school systems like Chicago, Washington, D.C., San Diego, Seattle and Jacksonville, as well as smaller systems like Boulder Valley, Colo., and Eatonville, Wash., have hired men who could not explain the difference between a Carnegie unit and a cantaloupe, and yet they have brought to their new jobs a talent for making decisions and clearing away administrative debris.

How do they learn enough, fast enough, to avoid making fools of themselves in the jargon-filled corridors of the typical school headquarters? Interviews with several nontraditional superintendents and their advisers indicate they have all learned in different ways, some from books, some from conversation, some even from the Internet. In most cases, the leadership qualities that won them their jobs were important in their efforts to narrow their personal information gaps.

Rapid Preparation
In some ways, a new superintendent with a noneducation background is like a star high school quarterback with just a week to prepare for a history midterm. He can stay up late and catch up on his reading, but it is probably best that he also charm the class' best note-takers into telling him what are the most important concepts he has missed. This is not an unusual process in American politics. Astronauts, business people, athletes and generals who decide to run for public office often call in a political consultant to bring them up to speed.

In the case of San Diego's new superintendent, Alan Bersin, some of the first lessons had to do with the meaning of words, particularly dangerous Latinate nouns like "evaluation."

"That term has become a very loaded word in education circles," says Till, who is now the senior deputy superintendent and was part of last year's transition team.

Teacher unions and school boards had fought for years over how instructors might be evaluated. In some minds, evaluation had come to mean a superintendent's stooge peeking in a teacher's window or a department head trying to please the principal by adding black marks to the file of a faculty malcontent. "There was a lot of paranoia behind that word," Till says. He advised Bersin to use it with care.

Consulting Expertise
In Chicago, where the city budget director, Paul Vallas, became the chief executive officer of the public school system in 1995, Barbara A. Sizemore, dean of DePaul University's education school, was asked to help. "If anybody had an idea that would elevate and accelerate achievement, he would let them go do it," says Sizemore. She explained to him her research on the beneficial effects of standardized testing and high standards even for children from poor families. He assigned Sizemore a few schools in which to introduce her ideas.

In Seattle and Washington, D.C., nontraditional superintendents showed a similar yearning for results. Two former Army generals, John H. Stanford, 60, in Seattle and Julius W. Becton, 71, in Washington, looked for people who knew the education bureaucracy well and were willing to retool it into an achievement-producing machine. Both men gave new powers to a soft-voiced, hard-headed administrator named Arlene Ackerman, who served Stanford as deputy superintendent and then moved to Washington where Becton made her his successor.

"I have worked for two nontraditional superintendents and they are both as different as night and day," says Ackerman, completing her first year as D.C. superintendent. "But they both allowed me as an educator to apply my schooling and expertise. I think in their minds it was all about leadership."

In many cases nontraditional superintendents have selected their chief educational officers from among the staff found in their districts. This has helped them be sensitive to old feuds and made them less likely to offend people unnecessarily. But in some cases they have also added outside talent. The most notable example is Anthony Alvarado, one of the most innovative school administrators in the country, whom Bersin lured away from New York City to become San Diego's chancellor of instruction.

Evening Coursework
Some nontraditional superintendents found book study helped fortify them against the odd terminology and endless meetings that characterized school headquarters culture. Raymond F. Arment III, a retired U.S. Army colonel who took over the mountainous Eatonville School District in Washington state last summer, found "What They Don't Tell You in Schools of Education About School Administration," by John A. Black and Fenwick W. English (Technomic Publishing Co.), full of useful insights.

"I have my secretary screen out a lot of stuff that people say I should be reading," Arment says. "I get tons of mail from people who just want to relieve you of money. But that book did help explain the real world."

Other nontraditional superintendents took courses. Thomas G. Seigel, 49, a former Navy commander who took over the Boulder Valley, Colo., school system in 1997, somehow found time for 27 semester hours of night and weekend classes at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs so that he could qualify for the license required of superintendents in that state.

The evenings in class reminded him, he says, of the range of experiences encountered by other administrators seeking a license. "The quality of instruction varied depending on the instructor," Seigel says. "One was truly outstanding, others were excellent and some, as far as I was concerned, needed to be refocused. … When I go to school I am ready to absorb information. I don't want it to be just seat time. I want to learn something."

Some of the new superintendents from outside the education world had to handle issues of such complexity that they hired outside consultants steeped in the relevant research. In San Diego, Bersin encountered the statewide controversy over bilingual education that culminated with Proposition 227, outlawing bilingual classes for any student beyond the first year unless the parents signed a waiver. "He spent a considerable amount of time learning about bilingual education, talking to national educators about it," Till says. "It was going to have a major impact on the way the schools teach students."

Reading Readiness
One of the nontraditional superintendents who threw himself enthusiastically into the self-educating process was John C. Fryer Jr. The former Air Force major general, 56, had served as commandant of the National War College and then after retirement as president and general manager of a defense contractor in Washington state. He was inspired by what he read of Stanford's success as a school superintendent in Seattle. When he noticed an item in a Florida newspaper that said Duval County had an interim superintendent, he applied for the job.

He had six months to get ready. He read about 50 books on education, nearly anything he could find that would lead him to the key issues of big city schools. Standards for Our Schools: How to Set Them, Measure Them and Reach Them by Marc S. Tucker and Judy B. Codding (Jossey-Bass Publishers) became his bible. He had several conversations with Codding, a vice-president at the National Center on Education and the Economy, on how to rethink old American habits of passing kids from one grade to another.

Fryer immersed himself in the paperwork of the Duval district. He shook his head at illogical goals, such as a plan for 85 percent of students to reach the 50th percentile on one test by the year 2000. "If they did that they'd have to renorm the test," he says. He had become computer literate long before most of his fellow generals, so he was able to comb the Internet for everything that might be useful in his new job.

Most importantly, he studied files and asked questions about the personnel at Duval County school headquarters. He wanted as his chief of staff "someone who knew the K-12 system and could make the staff work and also give me solid advice." When he offered the job to veteran administrator Nancy Snyder a week after he took office, she objected. "You don't know me yet," she said. He replied, "Yes, I do."

In many cases, nontraditional superintendents seek out mentors among fellow superintendents. Arment at Eatonville consulted Richard Sovde, the superintendent in Puyallup, Wash., and Chuck Hall, who ran the Yelm, Wash., school district and was like Arment a former Army officer. Hall recommended some of the same team-building exercises Arment had seen work in the military.

"One good idea was just sending everyone a birthday card and using that as an opportunity to tell each one how much you appreciate what they do each day," Arment says.

Fryer sought advice from Stanford. The former general in Seattle, who died in late November after a long battle with leukemia, was the most admired of the nontraditional superintendents for his success in raising achievement. Fryer also made friends with Dennis Smith, the superintendent in Orlando, Fla. "He is a marvelous fellow, who really helped me learn a lot," Fryer says.

Bothersome Tendencies
In nearly every instance the new superintendents found irritating differences between the educator's way of doing things and their lives in business, finance, the military and the law. Vallas told Sizemore in Chicago how puzzled he was that so many teachers and administrators were not bothered by their failure to increase student achievement.

"I would tell him, these people have never had to be accountable for teaching kids who are black or Latino or poor," Sizemore says. "Most of the time they have been able to tell the media they are doing the best they can."

Vallas came from a world of finance "where they try to solve problems and don't sit around and talk things to death as people do in education," Sizemore says. Seigel found the same tendency in Colorado's education circles: "There is a need to discuss things to a great deal of detail, which is not bad, but on occasion you have to make a decision and go forward."

In San Diego, Bersin was struck by the distracting flow of memos, some on the most trivial subjects, from school headquarters to the district's principals and teachers. He ordered that they be severely cut back.

Eye-Opening Assets
What surprised many of the nontraditional superintendents even more than the deliberative tendencies of educators was the depth of talent and energy they found in the school districts. Like most Americans who read newspapers, they had been aware of the frequent complaints about school district overstaffing, waste and incompetence. But the news media rarely mentioned the strengths of those running the nation's schools. For some of the new superintendents this was a revelation.

"The quality of the people was a lot better than I expected," Fryer says. "I had heard all the horror stories, rampant incompetence, but I went out and got to know them and I was finding lots and lots of very competent and dedicated teachers."

Bersin entertained the standard assumption that school districts spent too much money on downtown administrators and not enough in the classroom. But when he began to work his way through San Diego's budget, he found vast sums were in categorical budgets that, under federal and state regulations, could not be touched. The complicated funding situation distressed him, Bersin says, "because educators end up sounding like lawyers rather than educators."

Other nontraditional superintendents have run into similar barriers. School administrations are encrusted with rules imposed by forgotten school boards wrestling with forgotten issues. Anyone who has not lived those moments is likely to be impatient with the residue, and that is particularly true of superintendents coming from outside education.

"The systemic things are enormously difficult to tackle," Fryer says. "You have all these mandates that have grown up over the years, and as a result a lot of good people have never been able to see things globally because they have always been down in the weeds working with all the minutia."

Fryer says he asked that the staff break the budget down into categories, so that he could see more clearly what was being spent where and how more money could be funneled to those areas that would raise student achievement.

A Results Orientation
In part, the rise of nontraditional superintendents stems from the rise of the standardized test as a measure of what is happening in the classroom. The tests are quantifiable. They are identifiable. They fit the results-oriented culture of the training grounds and corporate offices that have spawned the new superintendents.

By contrast, traditional educators often are uncomfortable with this achievement-oriented culture because they do not believe the tests can measure all that is worthwhile in a student's day. Bad test results can have painful consequences for them and their students. Military officers and business executives know this, but they are more accustomed to taking hard blows. They know how to recover. Risks of failure are always part of their calculation, which means they are more likely to promise success because they know they can survive the alternative.

In Boulder Valley, Seigel pushed hard for two ballot measures this November that added $10.6 million to his operating fund and $72 million to his bonding authority. Local politicians and business executives expressed dismay when he guaranteed publicly that student achievement would improve if the voters approved the extra money.

"Some of the people said, 'You can't promise that sort of thing,'" Seigel recounts. "But I'm saying I don't think you can go wrong." The money would allow him to hire more teachers, provide for small-group instruction and buy equipment that would make lessons clearer and easier for many children.

More than 60 percent of voters said yes. "It was just a vote of confidence in what we are doing," Seigel says.

A Breed Apart
If the number of superintendents coming from outside the typical career path continues to increase, one can imagine a new breed of consultants specializing in crash courses in edu-speak and edu-accounting or perhaps a Princeton Review on school board protocol.

But the people who accept superintendent jobs without much experience in schools insist that going out and getting the information firsthand, through conversations with teachers and principals, is the best way.

"I talked to everybody and learned everything I could about this school district," Fryer says, "and it paid off."

Jay Mathews is an education writer with The Washington Post and the author of Class Struggle: What's Wrong (and Right) with America's Best Public High Schools. E-mail: mathewsj@washpost.com