Early in the administration of Paul Vallas, the Chicago schools chief and former New York City Schools Chancellor Anthony Alvarado had a two-hour meeting that “did not go very well,” according to John Ayers of Leadership for Quality Education, who set up the meeting.

A fast talker best known as the architect of the nationally lauded District 2 in New York City, Alvarado didn’t seem to impress Vallas’ education team with his ideas about school improvement and professional development, according to Ayers. Vallas himself appeared uninterested, taking a number of cell phone calls during the meeting.

Some in the room fervently hoped the two would hit it off and forge a new kind of urban school leadership, pairing a savvy political leader with a savvy, proven educational leader. It was not to be. Vallas stuck with the more traditional approach of looking outside for ideas but promoting from within.

Given the likelihood that Chicago will continue to have a non-traditional superintendent, some leaders in the reform community would like to try again on pairing that individual with a nationally prominent educator. “It’s going to take a very skilled educational strategist to figure out what’s next,” says Ayers.

This educator, advocates argue, would share the back-breaking responsibilities of running a massive school system and ensuring that the next wave of initiatives is educationally sound.

That is what is happening in San Diego, where Alvarado ended up taking the newly created job of chancellor of instruction. So far, the pairing has drawn mixed reviews, and experts caution against rushing into such a model. Even so, San Diego’s experience illustrates how this innovative leadership strategy can work, as well as what its weaknesses may be.

Located just across the border from Tijuana, Mexico, San Diego is a fast-growing, diverse school district where, since roughly 1996, the business community has played a prominent role in electing school board members and picking superintendents.

In 1998, it picked a strong-willed former U.S. attorney named Alan Bersin to take over the schools. Like Vallas three years before, Bersin came into the top job with a reputation for being a results-oriented, no-nonsense type, with strong political backing—for his work on immigration and border issues—and with adoring coverage from the mainstream press.

Almost immediately, Bersin reorganized the central office of the 143,000-student district to create an institute for learning; he then hired Alvarado to lead it. “It’s very critical that this person be not even No. 2, but clearly No. 1 when it comes to instruction,” Bersin says of the chancellor’s role.

As chancellor for instruction, Alvarado designs educational programs and policies and has control over a vast swath of the district’s manpower and resources. His handicraft so far includes programs to provide full-day kindergarten and extended school days and years for low-performing students, and he has tried to bring order out of a hodge podge of reading programs. To meet the state’s stringent promotion and graduation requirements, he overhauled programs to improve low-performing schools and to help students pass exit exams. He took over principal retention issues and fired 13 at the end of his first year. And he instituted his trademark emphasis on systemic professional development. For example, he let go 600 paraprofessionals, whom he judged were not adding much value, and used the savings for professional development for teachers.

Alvarado’s strength, according to his admirers, is his clear vision of what needs to be done to improve student learning and his deep knowledge about how big districts work. “Most school systems are characterized by a truckload of programs and fractionalized approaches” when it comes to helping low-performing schools and training teachers, says Alvarado. “The systems are massively incoherent, unfocused, and resources are used to accomplish a myriad number of instructional objectives. As a result, none of them is accomplished.”

For his part, Bersin does the community outreach, meeting with teachers, administrators and community organizations, appearing on television during school visits, and participating in school board meetings. He has taken the lead in selling the public on the need for massive changes, in pushing through a bond issue and in managing political relationships. In the educational arena, he generally limits himself to quizzing Alvarado about his proposals in what Alvarado describes as a “rigorous” process of internal debate.

Who does what?

Even critics of the new arrangement say the two have gotten the district moving. “We’ve gone from the doldrums to the rapids,” says J.M. Tarvin, president of the administrators association.

According to Bersin, the arrangement between him and Alvarado has turned out to be less complicated than some had imagined it would be. “No one has any doubt about who’s in charge of what,” he says.

While Bersin and Alvarado may be clear about who does what, others aren’t. It’s evident that Alvarado designs the reforms and Bersin markets them. But who does what to make them work? That’s what critics ask. For example, is it Alvarado or Bersin who is responsible for finding money to pay for the new programs and justifying the reallocation? And if Bersin doesn’t handle education issues that come up at meetings he attends but Alvarado doesn’t, who conveys the concerns to Alvarado, Tarvin asks.

The district’s organizational chart doesn’t provide an answer. The 2000-2001 version identifies the offices that are under Alvarado and those that are under Bersin, but gives no indication of how the two kingdoms interact. There isn’t an arrow or dotted line to be found, leaving many to turn to Bersin’s chief of staff for help getting things done or figuring out the system.

The result of this confusion is that plans sometimes are poorly designed, according to critics. “Tony comes up with ideas without consideration of the cost, human or financially,” says teachers union president Marc Knapp, who originally liked Alvarado and encouraged him to come to San Diego. “These plans are simply unrealistic in regards to space, schedules and logistics.”

The main problem—and a lightning rod for just about anyone with a complaint—is that Alvarado has been a hidden partner. The chancellor rarely attends school board meetings. For the first year, he didn’t even live in San Diego but rather commuted from New York three days a week.

When Alvarado proposed taking 80 percent of local schools’ Title I funds to pay for a new remediation program, he sent one of his deputies and Bersin to explain the changes to the district Title I advisory committee, according to Theresa Creber, chair of the 140-member group of parents and teachers. The committee is now suing the district in an effort to halt the plan.

When Alvarado designed special literacy classes to help low-performing high school students meet state accountability requirements, he did it without speaking to the heads of the teachers and administrators organizations.

Administrator Tarvin says that he has “never” spoken to Alvarado. Knapp of the teachers union says, “It’s easier to find Sasquatch than Alvarado.” Some around town have taken to calling Alvarado the “stealth” chancellor.

Despite the rough start and raw feelings, San Diego’s duo finally may be settling in. Test scores are on the rise. A ferocious $750,000 campaign to remove an anti-Bersin school board member was defeated, forcing the business community to deal with the reality of its narrow margin. And, as part of extending Alvarado’s contract for four years, the board required that he attend board meetings more often. “You can’t be hermetically sealed and be effective,” Alvarado acknowledges.

San Diego is not the only district to think big about the educator partner for its non-educator CEO. In Seattle, Supt. Joseph Olchefske, a former investment banker and the district’s second non-traditional CEO, recently conducted a national search to fill the chief academic officer position, which previously was held by the current San Francisco superintendent, Arlene Ackerman.

Philadelphia, whose new superintendent, Philip Goldsmith, is a prominent banker, revamped its governance structure to give more responsibility to the top education officer position. And New York City Chancellor Harold Levy, a former business executive, recently tried to woo Alvarado back from sunny California.

As envisioned by Ayers and others who favor this approach, bringing in a strong educator to handle instructional matters is a good way to get the most out of a non-traditional superintendent’s managerial and political skills. The model, sometimes called CEO/CAO (for chief academic officer), is especially favored by business-oriented groups, largely because of its resemblance to corporate leadership structures.

Even some traditional education groups have acknowledged the benefits, noting that it preserves a strong role for educational leadership. The American Association of School Administrators, which represents superintendents from medium and small-sized districts, has explored the advantages of splitting the superintendent’s job in two. The organization finds that dividing the job may be more realistic, given the daunting workload, and also that giving a non-traditional CEO a strong educational partner can add heft and legitimacy to large-scale reforms.

However, even as the CEO/CAO approach is spreading, some districts, including Minneapolis and Milwaukee, have returned to the traditional, educator superintendent. Though a non-educator continues to head the Seattle district, the board there recently decided against creating a “co-superintendency” for fear that it would dilute accountability. The District of Columbia, whose effort to pair a retired U.S. Army general with a strong educational leader didn’t pan out, is now run by a traditional educator, too.

Success of the CEO/CAO arrangement depends as much on the skills and personalities of the people involved as it does on the organization chart, all parties agree.

“In the San Diego case you’ve got a relentless, very smart, very determined superintendent teamed with an instructional leader of unusual skill,” says Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of Great City Schools. “The lesson there is not to do a CEO and CAO structure. The lesson there is to get yourself good people.”

Several others note that Bersin and Alvarado have personalities that allow them to form strong professional and personal relationships with each other. It takes a CEO with a lot of self-confidence to bring in a partner with as much, if not more, credibility on educational issues and to invest that person with sufficient power. Imposing such an arrangement on reluctant partners could prove disastrous.

Richard Elmore, a professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, cautions that while a top-notch team can do wonders, working out the kinks of this new arrangement can be a distraction from what is most important: developing a high-quality, systemic plan to improve student achievement and gathering the political will to make difficult changes.

“It matters a whole lot less which leadership model you use than it does whether you have a systemic improvement strategy,” says Elmore. “The nightmare possibility is that we wake up six months from now and a dozen large districts have adopted the CEO/CAO model but none is prepared to do the other things that are necessary to make it work.”

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