We now know a few things about CEOs. Their job is to make their organizations look good, however troubled and ineffective they might be. They do not feel obligated to divulge troubling information that might affect public confidence, cause valuable employees to leave, or make it difficult to recruit in the future.
Education CEOs are no exception. I have learned, in the course of research on the leadership problems of big-city school districts, that superintendents also need to downplay problems. They put a bright face on negative circumstances out of fear that creating a crisis may lower public confidence or discourage potential successors.
Superintendents are always ready to tell about "neat things" their districts are doing to turn around troubled schools, develop the skills of deficient teachers, and reduce the achievement gap between poor and middle-class children.
But when pressed they tell a different story. When asked whether the "neat things" are likely to make a big difference, many say no. Professional development cannot turn schools around when virtually the entire teaching staff leaves at the end of the year. Schools serving the poorest children need longer school days and school years than other schools. Primary schools serving the poorest neighborhoods need simpler, more literacy-focused curricula than other schools. Troubled schools cannot improve if schools in the "nicer" neighborhoods always get a disproportionate share of the respected and experienced teachers.
Superintendents also know that pressing for fundamental changes in public schools might cost them their jobs. One administrator stated that "you can start something that might make a difference but you would never survive long enough to see it work out." Another said that superintendents "are constantly choosing between initiatives that might work but would get you fired and initiatives that are too weak to do much but might survive long enough to make a little bit of difference."
Doing what is needed would require reallocating money and personnel and looking outside the system for new ideas and people. Money is a huge issue: in the words of one superintendent, "You need to be able to change how every dollar is spent." But that might require funds from existing programs and schools in upper-income neighborhoods. Influential neighborhoods have the programs and teachers parents want, and they won't give them up readily.
Many superintendents also feel whipsawed between teachers and their unions. According to one administrator, "We can get union agreement for one thing, or cooperation from individual teachers for another, but we can rarely get both the union and the teachers to agree at the same time."
Superintendents have ideas about how to solve the persistent problems of public education. But like business CEOs they are programmed to pretend that all is well and that all problems will shortly be conquered. Donors to public education assume that the superintendent will tell them what is needed, which is not a safe assumption. Like investors in the stock market, policymakers and philanthropists need to ask hard and impolite questions.