It’s hard to travel any distance in the U.S. education landscape without running headlong into debates over who is or should be leading the public schools, and how policies governing those schools are or should be set. This section of Story Starters assembles materials about the lines of authority over public schools at the local, state and national levels, as well as the principals, superintendents and other leaders entrusted with running those schools.
Issues of leadership and governance are rarely far from the center of conversations about how to improve education, whether through incremental change or sweeping reform. Arguably, the contemporary impetus for addressing those issues can be traced to 1983, when the National Commission on Excellence in Education warned in its landmark report “A Nation at Risk” of a “rising ride of mediocrity” in American schools. Ever since the report’s release, there has been a steady uptick in the emphasis placed on educational leadership.
School Boards and Superintendents
This emphasis resonates most directly at the local level, where nearly 14,000 school districts guide the education of the nation’s 52 million K-12 students. In most of these districts, a local school board comprised of citizen legislators governs the decisions that affect the schools.
The most significant decision for virtually every school board is the hiring of the superintendent to carry out the board’s policies and operate the district. And the challenges have never been greater for those executives. Schools are facing unprecedented levels of scrutiny by the public and policymakers, as well as new demands for accountability in student achievement and outcomes. Many districts are implementing new models for teacher evaluations; districts are also scrambling to make the most of opportunities for federal incentive grants. All of these obligations flow through the central office, and the superintendent is ultimately held responsible for successes – or failures.
The Council of the Great City Schools, representing the nation’s 100 largest districts, reported in 2010 that the average tenure of urban school superintendents was 3.6 years. Of the immediate past superintendents surveyed by CGCS, their average time in the position was 5 years. The high turnover rate is not due solely to the pressure of the job: It’s not uncommon for superintendents to leapfrog from a smaller district to one with a larger enrollment, and a bigger paycheck.
Smaller districts, particularly in rural areas, may struggle to find qualified candidates for their top executive positions. In some cases, school boards have opted to hire part-time superintendents, a phenomenon fueled by the budget problems of recent years. Small and rural school systems are coming up with various part-time configurations, often sharing superintendents or consolidating roles by making one school leader act as both superintendent and principal.
Most of the nation’s school districts are run by career educators. In recent decades, however, reformers have undertaken efforts to attract and train school leaders with backgrounds in fields other than education, including business, government, the military, finance and law. Among the best known is the Broad Superintendents Academy, a corporate-style training program that started in 2002 whose graduates now run many of the nation’s largest urban school districts, including Los Angeles Unified and the Chicago Public Schools.
Another option some school districts use to manage costs is contracting with private-sector companies. How much of an impact these groups will have on the responsibilities of school leaders and the education of students is a question that will be closely followed as such partnerships evolve.
Governance by independently elected school boards emerged as the norm more than a century ago, as a means of distancing education from politics. Roughly 20 years ago, however, a push for mayoral control of big-city school systems emerged in response to perceptions of widespread dysfunction that stemmed in part from poor relations between superintendents and school boards.
The recent trend began in the early 1990s with Boston Public Schools. Since then, several midsize and large school systems have adopted some form of mayoral control. They include Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, the District of Columbia, and New York City. Students in some of these districts have achieved above-average scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a congressionally mandated testing program, while others have not. Whether a district stays under mayoral control also varies, in accordance both with the performance of the schools and the politics of the city.
Proponents, including U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, say that by resting accountability for schools squarely with a city’s top elected official, mayoral control is conducive to carrying out reforms needed to improve student performance. Opponents, including many teachers’ unions and school board members, say the model has a sketchy track record and leaves parents, teachers and community groups out of the debate.
Role of Principals
While research shows that teachers have more influence on students’ academic performance than any other in-school factor, principals are increasingly viewed as a critical variable in the education equation. “In fact, the growing consensus in the research community is that the quality of school leadership is the second most important factor impacting student learning—after quality teaching,” says a report by the Washington, D.C.-based the National Institute for School Leadership, a program within the National Center on Education and the Economy that provides professional development for education leaders. The same message is emphasized in recent reports, articles and research papers issued by the Wallace Foundation, New Leaders for New Schools, and other groups heavily engaged in preparing principals to run 21st-century schools.
Based on that impact, advocates say, principals must be more than building administrators who focus on making sure their schools operate smoothly. Instead, the thinking goes, principals also must be closely involved in the quality of instruction and the academic progress of students. Such a shift is needed, advocates argue, because the success or failure of so many ongoing school reform efforts hinges on strong leadership at the school level.
The principal pipeline traditionally starts with classroom teachers who work their way into administrative positions by getting master’s degrees in educational leadership. Reformers are beginning to challenge this system, though, stating that these academic programs are too focused on policy and theory and too removed from the schools themselves. Instead, advocates say, programs should focus on providing would-be principals with on-the-ground training and the skills to implement instructional practices that cater to the needs of different groups of students.
While delivery of educational services happens at the local level, states carry the primary responsibility for ensuring that their citizens receive an education. Governors, state legislatures, state boards of education and chief state school officers—such as commissioners or secretaries of education—all exert significant power and influence, a trend that began with passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, which provided federal funds aimed at ensuring all children had access to a quality education. Those funds, both then and now, flow through state agencies before reaching local school districts.
State-level entities also determine statewide funding formulas for schools as well as performance and grade-level content standards, and they have a say in myriad other aspects of public education, including the rules and regulations affecting charter schools, vouchers, class size, and teacher qualifications.
In addition, the state can step in and wrest control of struggling schools systems from local authorities. Since 1989, 29 states have adopted policies that allow them to take over local school districts. Such has been the case in Philadelphia, Detroit, Oakland, California, and at least seven school districts in Mississippi. Much like experiments with mayoral control, takeover results have been mixed. Some have made great strides, while others still grapple with problems related to central office administration, fiscal management and student achievement.
The Federal Role
In tandem with the growing influence of state-level entities, the federal role in education has also been on the rise. Beginning with ESEA in 1965, a series of laws have extended federal reach. They include mandates for the education of children with disabilities and those who are Limited English Proficient, but none has been as bold as the No Child Left Behind Act enacted in 2002. It tied federal funds to student academic progress.
This trend continued under President Barack Obama, albeit with a different focus. Analysts say the U.S. Department of Education continues to wield a great deal of influence by using economic recovery funds and grant award competitions, such as the Race to the Top initiative, to drive school reform efforts such as those focused on teacher effectiveness, college-ready standards, and charter schools, among other policy areas.
Some, however, say the federal influence is starting to recede and greater authority is shifting back to the states. One of those is Peter Cunningham, chief spokesman for Secretary Duncan. “Governors have the biggest piece of the money, and they have stepped up their game” over the past three years, he said at a recent forum in Washington. “Governors are going to be in the driver’s seat, and that’s the way it should be.”
State and local entities control the majority of funds that go into public elementary and secondary education, but experts generally agree that federal officials get a bigger policy bang for their buck. Whether that will change depends largely on reauthorization of the ESEA. — Lucy Hood, June 2012
Highlighted journalism and reports for this topic
In this Mississippi River town marked by pockets of entrenched poverty, some of the worst schools in the state are in the midst of a radical experiment in reinventing public education. (The New York Times)Read More »
Education issues—which haven't gotten a lot of attention from Congress over the past four years—may have picked up an unlikely but powerful advocate: U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor. (Education Week)Read More »
Outside groups and labor unions poured $5 million into local school-board races here, but voters appeared to stick with the status quo, re-electing two incumbents and leaving both sides claiming victory on Wednesday. (The Wall Street Journal)Read More »
"Effective teaching can be measured," the authors wrote in the latest installment. They're sure of it because they used a randomized experiment to figure it out. Reliable teacher evaluations, the paper claims, include "balanced" proportions of teacher observation, students' standardized test scores and student surveys. And for the first time, the randomized trial shows that teachers who perform well with one group of students, on average, perform at the same levels with different groups of kids. (The Huffington Post)Read More »
Rachelle attends an unusual charter school in an office building across the street from Newark City Hall. The school, Merit Prep, opened up at the beginning of the 2012-13 academic year with the noble mission of raising the academic performance of low-income minority students. But it is also embroiled in a controversy over how much children should be taught by computers. New Jersey’s biggest teachers union is suing to shut the school down and is hoping a state appellate court will do so in early 2013. (The Hechinger Report)Read More »
The failed Orange County charter school that gave its principal a payout of $519,000 in taxpayer dollars after closing in June also paid her husband more than $460,000 during a five-year period, audits show. (Orlando Sentinel)Read More »
Officials hope this will bring the district to its right size, claiming it now has only 400,000 students for 600,000 seats.
It’s going to be a tough sell. Though districts turn to closing schools to deal with smaller enrollments, crumbling infrastructure or poor performance, they are often met with fierce opposition, especially in minority neighborhoods. (Atlantic Cities)Read More »
"They have the opportunity to come back and talk with us about making bold changes that would allow us to free that money up. But we have to have a much better understanding of and support for what they are doing" for the funding to be restored. (Denver Post)
But in the cheating scandal that has shaken the 64,000-student school district in this border city, administrators manipulated more than numbers. They are accused of keeping low-performing students out of classrooms altogether by improperly holding some back, accelerating others and preventing many from showing up for the tests or enrolling in school at all. (The New York Times)Read More »
Mr. Tata, a retired U.S. Army brigadier general, has led the 150,000-student district since January 2011. The 5-4 decision to fire him leaves the district without a permanent leader as it confronts instructional shifts, rapid population growth, and yet another anticipated shift in its closely watched integration efforts. But observers said the board's action also has implications for the national conversation about student-assignment and integration plans and the role of partisan politics in school boards. (Ed Week)Read More »
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney said Tuesday that he thinks teachers unions should be banned from making political contributions because union leaders often negotiate contracts with Democratic politicians they’ve helped elect, a situation he called “an extraordinary conflict of interest.” (Washington Post)Read More »
In communities around the state, during the past four years, booster club officials have been charged with embezzlement, theft or misuse of funds intended to benefit kids in their school district. Combined, booster clubs and PTOs around the state manage millions of dollars in assets, officials said. Assets include money that flows in and and out of the club coffers and equipment and property the groups own. (Dayton Daily news)Read More »
District officials estimate the agreement forged with the Chicago Teachers Union will cost $295 million over four years—cheaper than the two previous city teachers’ contracts, but nevertheless costly in a school district that estimates it will carry a $1 billion shortfall by fiscal 2014. (Education Week)Read More »
How do you grade a teacher? How much should student test scores figure in that grade? That's one of the questions that kept 350,000 kids out of school in Chicago.
That's why this information is surprising: the weight that standardized test scores will have in grading teachers is exactly the same as it was before months of negotiations, seven days of strike, and declarations of victory from the union. (WBEZ 91.5)Read More »
In Washington, evaluations based in part on standardized tests have been used since 2009 to rate teacher performance, putting the city at the forefront of major school systems that are working to reform their personnel practices. All told, nearly 400 teachers have lost their jobs since the new evaluations were put into place. (AP via Philly.com)Read More »
For years, nothing seemed capable of turning around New Dorp High School’s dismal performance—not firing bad teachers, not flashy education technology, not after-school programs. So, faced with closure, the school’s principal went all-in on a very specific curriculum reform, placing an overwhelming focus on teaching the basics of analytic writing, every day, in virtually every class. What followed was an extraordinary blossoming of student potential, across nearly every subject—one that has made New Dorp a model for educational reform. (The Atlantic)Read More »
The past decade has been a time of enormous ferment in education policy, with numerous new ideas and approaches being promoted by everyone from conservative think tanks to the well-heeled Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to Obama administration officials.
The administration's $4 billion Race to the Top grant program, part of the 2009 stimulus law, encouraged states to overhaul teacher evaluation systems, promote charter schools and make better use of standardized testing, which itself has been a federal priority over the past decade.
All of those ideas have become sticking points in various states and districts. Here's what some of the debate is about. (NPR)Read More »
But here as in other cities across the nation, the role of charters ignites passions on both sides. Teachers regard them as a way for districts to undermine union protections, and say that underperforming schools are often closed before they have a chance to improve, and then are replaced with charters. (The New York Times)Read More »
A compendium of updates, spaced out in 15- to 20-minute increments, on the labor unrest unfolding in Chicago between the school district and the Chicago Teachers Union. The reports are quick and scan what is happening on the street and inside the relevant party offices. (Chicago Tribune)Read More »
President Obama has used back-to-school season to make the case that his education funding and policy initiatives are saving teachers’ jobs, turning around failing public schools, and helping cash-strapped college students. Mitt Romney counters that Mr. Obama has spent too much, and he advocates more school choice and private-sector involvement.
Here is a look at how the two differ on the issue of education.Read More »
Evidence Shows State-Test Cheating in Philadelphia Schools Likely Far Worse Than Previously RevealedAugust 16, 2012
The scope of the Philadelphia School District's problem with suspicious erasures on state standardized tests is far more widespread than officials have publicly revealed. (Newsworks)Read More »
But as the once-in-a-decade redrawing of school board districts nears its end, some Los Angeles Unified School District officials and others close to the process see the mayor's guiding hand in the proposed lines. The map turned over to the City Council last week is seen as a move to bolster political strength on the school board for Villaraigosa and his allies. (Los Angeles Times)Read More »
Some districts—particularly those in small and rural communities—are finding that sharing administrators is an efficient way to make the most out of limited budgets. (Education Week)Read More »
This column by Wallace Foundation President Will Miller asks “If the leadership of a school is such an important factor in the quality of education, the critical question becomes what makes for good principals?” Miller then shares what research from the foundation demonstrates. (School Administrator)Read More »
EWA 2012 National Reporting Contest winner. Crumbling school buildings can impede academic achievement, but what happens when the public votes down bond measures to upgrade the infrastructure? This series of articles looks at the impasse between school boards and the voters, and cost-saving tricks to fine tune the walls of public instruction. (The Journal News)Read More »
This examination of whether the Broad Prize has spurred districts to implement the measures that that the prizewinners have used includes discussion of how administrators decide which reforms to adopt. (Education Week)Read More »
EWA 2010 National Reporting Contest winner. This investigative report found that a top-notch public school in Lower Manhattan has been charging students and their families $1,000 to attend. (New York 1 News)Read More »
EWA 2010 National Reporting Contest winner. This series details a 16-month investigation by the paper. The report “has turned up no-bid contracts, questionable property deals and supposedly self-supporting ventures that failed, lost money or drew formal complaints and lawsuits.” (Statesman Journal)Read More »
Using the city of Rochester as an example, this article examples the advantages and disadvantages of mayoral takeovers of school districts. The article offers a quick survey of the different types of takeovers that cities nationwide have tried in recent years. (Wall Street Journal)Read More »
This 2005 article examines the status of New York City’s public schools three years after Mayor Michael Bloomberg took control of the system. The district’s limited progress at that time demonstrate the challenges of transforming a large urban district. (The New York Times)Read More »
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Reports & Data
Notable research on this topic
In the first of what will be an annual report, Education Week’s Leaders To Learn From spotlights 16 district-level leaders from across the country who seized on creative but practical approaches to improving their school systems and put those ideas to work. (Education Week)Read More »
This research brief describes the “five pivotal practices that shape instructional leadership” based on an examination of 10 years of research and advocacy work from the Wallace Foundation, an influential philanthropy that works to improve the education for disadvantaged youth. (Wallace Foundation)Read More »
This report was the first national survey of school boards in almost a decade. It compiles responses of more than 1,000 school board members and superintendents. The key findings include the discovery that the membership of school boards tends to reflect their community better than their representation in Congress or their respective state legislatures does, three-quarters of school board members have a bachelor’s degree, and more than 88 percent of board members rely on their superintendent for key decisions. (National School Boards Association, Thomas B. Fordham Institute, Iowa School Boards Foundation)Read More »
This research brief examines the results of the Wallace Foundation’s efforts to build Cohesive Leadership Systems — i.e., better cooperation among school leaders at the school, district, and state levels. The researchers conducted more than 400 interviews in Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Missouri, Oregon, and Rhode Island; and surveyed more than 600 principals. The researchers find that interagency cooperation can be effective. (Rand Corporation)Read More »
This book by Brown University professor Kenneth Wong examines mayoral control of urban school districts, starting with Boston's in 1992 and examining more than 100 school districts in 40 states. Wong’s examination concludes that mayoral control of schools, while not appropriate for every district, can improve accountability and enable the school district to strengthen its educational infrastructure and improve student performance.Read More »
Five Questions to Ask
- What kind of principal preparation programs exist in the state, locality or schools that you cover?
- Has mayoral control been considered or adopted in your area, and, if so, how has it played out?
- If your superintendent is a non-educator, what are the pros and cons and how have they played out? If he or she is a career educator, what are the pros and cons and how have they played out?
- Many districts across the nation are experimenting with a variety of school reform strategies: charter schools, teacher evaluations, merit pay, etc. Which ones do local school leaders believe to be most effective? Have they tried to implement these reforms? If so, what has been the reception thus far?
- The federal push to turn around failing schools through the School Improvement Grant program gives schools four options. All four call for the replacement of the principal (unless the principal has been on the job for less than 2 years). What do local school leaders think about the emphasis this program places on the principal’s office? Which of the four options do they believe to be the most effective? Which one do they believe to be the most practical?
American Association of School Administrators counts more 13,000 educational leaders from across the United States and the world in its membership. These members include chief executive officers, superintendents and senior level school administrators along with cabinet members, some professors and others who manage schools and school systems. AASA was founded in 1865.
The Council of Chief State School Officers is "a nonpartisan, nationwide, nonprofit organization of public officials who head departments of elementary and secondary education in the states, the District of Columbia, the Department of Defense Education Activity, and five U.S. extra-state jurisdictions,” according to the group.
The National Association for Elementary School Principals has been the leading professional organization for elementary and middle school principals since 1921, advocating on behalf of these administrators beginning at the local level all the way up to federal government.
The National Association of Secondary School Principals, founded in 1916, is the leading professional organization for the nation’s middle school and high school principals.
The National Association of State Boards of Education "works to strengthen state leadership in educational policymaking, promote excellence in the education of all students, advocate equality of access to educational opportunity, and assure continued citizen support for public education,” according to the group.
The National School Boards Association serves the more than 90,000 local school board members—representing nearly 14,000 districts across the nation. The organization was founded in 1940.
The Thomas B. Fordham Institute advocates for education reforms through research, analysis, commentary, and some action. “Rethinking Governance,” particularly the structure of school boards and school districts, is one of the institute’s policy priorities.
The Wallace Foundation is a national philanthropy, based in New York City, that aims to improve the educational opportunities for disadvantaged students. The foundation has invested heavily in research and resources aimed at improving the positive effect principals can have on school and student performance.
Suggest a Change
If you'd like to suggest an addition or change to this section, send an email to EWA Project Director Kenneth Terrell.