The new-superintendent dance

New faces alone won’t fix Nevada’s K-12 problem

By Steven Miller
  • Monday, November 22, 2010

Both of Nevada's major metropolitan school districts have now hired new superintendents.

And some members of the local business communities, after meeting with the new hires — Dwight Jones in Clark County and Heath Morrison in Washoe County — are signaling renewed optimism.

They clearly believe that prospects for fundamental improvement in Nevada public-school performance are now much improved.

Unfortunately, the modern history of public K-12 education suggests such optimism is misplaced. Merely bringing in new superintendents, the record indicates, will by itself produce no significant improvement.

Rather, this "new-superintendent optimism syndrome" itself can easily further delay and obstruct needed reforms.

That's because it distracts attention from the real obstacles to reform.

Consider, for a moment, the cycle regularly seen in public school systems:

  1. A district school board — having set in motion a search for a new superintendent — selects numerous candidates and begins interviewing them.
  2. One or two of the candidates appear more articulate about the issues that concern board members and appear to offer superior leadership qualities. The board makes its final selection.
  3. The new superintendent arrives, talks to business leaders and is interviewed in the local news media. Being a fresh face and talking a good game about something dear to everyone's hearts — kids and quality schooling — he wins much support and optimism spreads.
  4. Many business people, thinking in terms of CEOs and corporations, assume that because this individual is now the district's top administrator, significant progress has been achieved.
  5. This is a mistake, however. In crucial ways, modern school districts are quite unlike private corporations. While CEOs in the private sector can cut waste and produce superior performance by firing non-productive and recalcitrant employees, superintendents cannot.
  6. Instead, because public education is a government institution, funded by public moneys, it is always fundamentally a political institution — one where a multitude of conflicting and competing groups can all throw major roadblocks into the path of any significant change. All they need believe is that it threatens their interests.
  7. It is at the center of the large web of these conflicting and competing "stakeholder" groups — trustees, parents, teachers, unions, administrators, business people, politicians, taxpayers — that a district superintendent sits. Or, to change the metaphor, dances with everyone. All of these groups, superintendents know, are key constituencies to which they must constantly minister in order to avoid significant resistance. Should any of these groups see a superintendent's agenda as a direct threat to its own interests, it not merely can make him or her look bad and endanger the exceptionally lucrative paycheck that "star" superintendents usually receive. If it is a union, it can launch a big enough war to make him un-hirable anywhere.
  8. For these reasons, the skill set that tends to define successful candidates for public school superintendent, in today's America, closely approximates that of politicians. These candidates tend to be smooth, intelligent and charming people who make very good first impressions, telling school boards and business people basically what they want to hear — while also reassuring administrators and union officials. Moreover, once hired, such skilled superintendents are, for a while, usually able to keep most of their different constituencies in the school district not seriously unhappy.
  9. Unfortunately, however, the underlying reality — the fundamental conflict in interest that necessarily exists between the superintendent's different constituencies — remains as solid as ever. Unions still want kids forced into government schools, since that means jobs for union employees and political power for union bosses. Informed business people and parents, on the other hand, still recognize that the unions are an important cause of the district's failure. Similarly, while idealistic teachers and principals may clearly understand the need for school-level control of school budgets, the district bureaucracy, knowing such true empowerment would put its own positions at risk, will be inclined toward foot-dragging and sabotage. And so on.
  10. In these zero-sum-game conflicts, the charm, good intentions and intelligence of a superintendent can only go so far. These basic conflicts and enmities are built into the very foundations of the modern public-school-district system, because resources follow the slope of political power, rather than the best judgment of parents focused on the welfare of their individual children. Thus even in the best government school systems, at least some significant proportion of families is always being quietly but seriously abused. It may be minority kids, gifted kids, handicapped kids or just average kids. Usually, all of them are being short-changed, whether their families realize it or not. Subpar service and high costs are simply the nature of monopolies — and doubly so with government monopolies, and triply so when yet another monopoly, that of the teacher union, sits atop the government monopoly.
  11. On average, it appears to take from three to five years in a district for a typical superintendent's personal charisma and professional bag of tricks to, as it were, wear out. Increasingly, the optimism that initially accompanied his arrival erodes — to be replaced more and more by dissatisfaction and pessimism. In this latter part of the cycle, key elements in a community begin realizing that nothing fundamental has really changed and become restive. And then, recoiling from the actual fight they need to launch, they begin looking for the easy "fix" — a new superintendent.

For this cycle to be broken, communities must fully face the unpleasant reality of contemporary public education: that it is a system captured by powerful special interests that fight incessantly to keep all education dollars flowing only to them — and never to those who care most about Nevada's children and know their individual needs best: their parents.

Communities that take on this fight can win. But it is certain that those that don't ... won't.

Steven Miller is vice president for policy at the Nevada Policy Research Institute. For more visit

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