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Superintendent of Large-City School Systems

History of the Urban Superintendent, The Profession, School Boards, Characteristics of the Large-City Superintendent

The twenty-first century finds one-third of America's public school children attending one of ten large urban (large-city) school districts. By 2020 approximately one-half of public school enrollment will be clustered in twenty districts. The educational stewardship of a majority of the nations youth rests uncomfortably on the shoulders of a very few large-city school superintendents. Their success and the success of their districts may very well determine the future of American democracy.

Urban districts are typically considered to be those located in the inner core of metropolitan areas having enrollments of more than 25,000 students. The research and literature about large-city school districts portray conditions of poverty, chronic academic underachievement, dropouts, crime, unstable school boards, reform policy churn, and high superintendent turnover.

The typical tenure of a superintendent in the largest large-city districts is two to three years. This brief tenure makes it unlikely a superintendent can develop and implement reform programs that can result in higher academic achievement–let alone re-build crumbling schools buildings, secure private sector assistance, and build a working relationship with the city's political structure.

The large-city superintendency is a position defined by high expectations, intense stress, inadequate resources, and often a highly unstable politicized board of education.

History of the Urban Superintendent

The first large-city superintendency was established in 1837 in Buffalo, New York. The number of appointed superintendencies grew in parallel with the growth of American cities. These early large-city superintendents were hired to relieve boards of education of managerial tasks and business affairs. The first superintendents generally acted as coordinators ensuring similar practices among schools for purchasing materials, insuring building maintenance, and keeping districts' financial records.

As city school systems grew many quickly became "lighthouse" districts featuring innovative high-quality education programs and services. These district provided a uniform curriculum based upon standards and an extensive array of elective courses taught by specially trained teachers. This was generally an era of social, economic, and political reform and birthplace of the modern large-city superintendency.

The large-city superintendents who shouldered responsibility for educational programs quickly became the most visible and respected educators in the country. Nearly all were men, Protestants, and former schoolmasters of country schools. With assistance from industrial leaders they built the large urban school bureaucracies still in place in the early twenty-first century. An important component of these school bureaucracies was and still is the industrial management practice called scientific management, which emphasizes time management, employee specialization, and a top-down type of organization structure. The goal of scientific management was efficiency–a desirable objective for large city superintendents besieged by rapid enrollment growth, construction of new schools, and the management of public tax dollars.

A strong driving force for early large-city superintendents was the Americanization of large numbers of immigrants. This was achieved through a uniform curriculum, compulsory attendance, teacher certification, testing, vocational education, and citizenship. These were the keystones to a "common" education for all children. Many large-city superintendents perceived themselves to be reformers as well as builders of the American dream. Their reforms were built upon practicality and meeting the educational needs of society and the workplace. The vision of schooling held by most of the superintendents was rooted in their experiences of growing up in rural and small-town America.

Despite the stress and strain of leading huge school organizations, the large-city superintendents generally enjoyed lengthy tenure. Their appointments were made by boards of education, themselves appointed by mayors and city councils. Board members were generally prominent doctors, lawyers, and businessmen. Only after the World War II did most large-city districts switch to elected boards.

The pyramid-shaped urban district structure provided the large-city superintendents with an immense amount of personal control. Through hard work they were generally successful in standardizing curriculum and testing procedures that were necessary to select and prepare students for the workforce, high school, and college.

The large-city superintendents not only pioneered the current public school program and organization, but also laid the foundation for a profession. Many superintendents were imposing personalities, adroit politicians, community development activists, and shrewd business executives.

The Profession

Large-city superintendents after World War I were instrumental in creating training programs to identify and prepare their successors. The first of these higher education academic programs was at Teachers College (Columbia University) in New York. Many of the early professors of educational administration were former large-city superintendents.

Elwood Cubberly of Stanford University can perhaps be called the "dean" of the educational administration professorship. Perhaps his most important contribution was conducting large-city studies where he and colleagues studied in detail every operating aspect of a selected large-city school district. Out of these studies came compendiums of best practices on how to build and administer quality school districts. Importantly, Cubberly based his list of best practices and necessary personal attributes on the work of large-city superintendents.

These lists of skills, content knowledge, practices, and leadership traits developed by former large-city superintendents in professorial roles continue to be utilized in the early twenty-first century. Certification standards in many states still reflect the content of the large-city studies. Textbooks about the superintendency were nearly all written by former city superintendents. The establishment of the American Association of School Administrators in 1937 was also due to the efforts of the large-city superintendents.

School Boards

Nearly all large-city superintendents are appointed by elected boards of education. A typical contract length for a large-city superintendent is three or four years. About half of superintendents in the largest twenty-five districts are able complete a four-year contract. Boards of Education in large-city districts usually are comprised of more than nine members elected for four years. The same is true for a growing number of appointed boards found in cities such as Chicago, Cleveland, and Boston.

Large-city district-elected board positions are often contentious, with candidates spending substantial amounts to be elected to a virtually unpaid office. In some districts a modest stipend is paid to board members. Many large-city boards are very politicized, "churning over" both board members and superintendents on a regular basis. Continuity in leadership is a serious problem for many districts.

Most authorities cite the most important decision a board makes to be the selection of a superintendent. In the case of large-city districts it is often very difficult for a majority of board members to agree upon an appointment. Difficulty in choosing a superintendent is usually a harbinger of future intraboard conflict, indecision, and instability. An example is the Kansas City, Missouri, district, which hired nineteen superintendents in a thirty-year period.

Large-city board members often run on single-issue platforms: a typical example, to fire bad teachers and administrators whose incompetence is the reason for low test scores. Also, some board members feel a strong need to report to constituents about the progress they are making in "fixing" the district. These types of attitudes and actions often lead to superintendent and board conflict. Valuable energy and time of boards and superintendents is often spent in endless arguments, intrigue, and political posturing for the media.

In large-city districts superintendent-board conflict seems inevitable due to political interests, attempts by boards to micromanage, and pressures by groups such as unions to pressure board members to discipline superintendents and administrators who do not make decisions to the special interest group's liking.

Characteristics of the Large-City Superintendent

The media often portray the large-city superintendency as an impossible job. At the very least, it is a job of great pain and modest financial gain. The applicant pool for large-city superintendencies has always been reported to be meager in high-quality candidates. Most large-city superintendencies are filled by candidates who reflect the ethnicity of students and community. Racial preferences have kept applicant pools thin because of lack of substantial numbers of qualified African Americans and Hispanics. Women are often found in the position of large-city superintendent.

When a large-city superintendent conflicts with a board the media often takes advantage of the situation. The well-publicized firings of large-city superintendents after tumultuous conflict with boards do not serve as a positive advertisement for large-city superintendencies.

Usually search firms are retained by large-city boards to find a group of qualified candidates. Often a majority of the qualified candidates found by search firms are superintendents in other urban districts. This scenario results in one large-city district making an offer to another districts' superintendent. This creates a public image of the large-city superintendency being recycled.

Another source of large-city superintendents is the inside central office administrator. In large districts there are large number of deputy and assistant superintendents qualified to step up to the higher position. Board members sometimes shy away from inside candidates when those candidates wish to see reform initiatives implemented in the district. However, many of these inside candidates have a vast knowledge of the district, its history, problems, and resources. From experience they know how to get things done within the system. For board members, hiring an inside candidate removes the possibility of possible incompatibility with the new superintendent.

The nontraditional (noneducator) applicant coming from a military or private sector background is infrequently hired by large-city boards permitted to do by state statute. Some large-city boards have hired noneducators to be chief executive officers who in turn hire an educator to lead the educational program. In appearances employing a chief executive officer implies a movement of district management to a corporate model.

A major problem facing the large-city superintendency is attracting a well-qualified applicant pool comprised of women and minorities. Unfortunately, many large-city superintendents are not as well qualified as potential applicants sitting on the sidelines. Many successful superintendents in smaller districts do not wish to take on the "impossibility" of the large-city superintendency.

The Impossibility and Implausibility of the Position

The operational responsibilities of large-city superintendents can be extraordinary. Billion-dollar budgets, a half-million students and 50,000 employees require a chief executive officer capable a leading a large management team. The position is unique in that it also requires the chief executive to be the district's leading educator possessing expert knowledge about teaching, curriculum, testing, special education, and school reform. In addition, due the nature of education financing, the superintendent must be a shrewd politician ensuring that the district receives its share of the public tax dollar.

The superintendent must also be a master communicator working with a political board, forming working relationships with public and private groups, and especially serving as the connecting link between community. In a nutshell this describes the near impossible and implausible role of the large-city superintendent.

The multiple responsibilities and expectations leave large-city superintendents with little choice than to choose a "key set of challenges" to focus their attention upon. The federal government's 1983 report, A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform, sparked a national school reform movement and, in reaction, large-city superintendents began to shift from being expert managers to instructional reformers.

Superintendents, especially, in the large urban districts, are pressured for academic accountability. Many at the urging of boards yearly mount multiple reform initiatives promising better test scores. Boards often view reform initiatives as a public demonstration the district is responding to chronic underachievement by poor and minority children.

In response to national school reform efforts, large-city boards search for superintendents who espouse the belief that all children are capable of learning state-imposed standards and that test scores can be raised through improved instructional models. The public persona of many large-city superintendents has been more of a instructional leader rather than chief executive officer. Unfortunately, district-wide success stories of large-city superintendents leading their districts to substantive and lasting re-form have been few.

There have been and are successful large-city superintendents. Some of these individuals have failed in one district and succeeded in another possessing more favorable conditions. The deciding factor between success and failure seems to be in mayoral support and board stability. Cities with records of some reform success are those where the mayor perceives the health of the school district to be integral to the city. In several cities, mayoral involvement in school reform has reached the point of mayor's taking control the school board and district.

Perhaps the greatest failing of large-city superintendents is their inability to be political leaders. Large-city schools many times consume more than half of the tax dollars in the city, are a major employer, and provide a critical public service. Competitors for the public tax dollars, such as the city council and agencies, have elected officials with political constituencies with forceful lobbies. School districts boards are comprised of volunteer elected officials without a political power base. Infrequently, a large-city district can mount a strong political offensive that wrests away fiscal resources competitor groups.

The large-city superintendent has to be a keen political observer and be able to form alliances, and work quietly and effectively with the city political power structure. An examination of past and present successful large-city superintendents proves this to be the case. Behind-the-scenes political maneuvering can be more beneficial in obtaining badly needed resources than being a high-profile school reformer making frequent appearances at meetings, conferences and media events.


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