Running a big-city school system has never been an easy job, and in recent years factors such as increased public scrutiny, cries for improved student performance and political pressure have made it all the more arduous. The average urban schools chief now stays on the job an average of three years, according to the Council of the Great City Schools, and a handful of systems, such as Chicago, San Diego, Cleveland and New York, have turned to non-educator CEOs as administrators to better whip matters into shape.

Some authorities in leadership weigh in on what it takes to perform well.

Michael Kirst, professor of education at Stanford University and author of “The Political Dy-namics of American Education”:

“The days of an educator in the chair, like Benjamin Willis in Chicago, are over. Now you have the era of the political superintendent. You’re supposed to be the outside person, dealing with all the politics, financing, the state and federal government and the local community politics, and you’re supposed to be the inside leader in terms of instruction, balancing the budget and running the buses. The job scope is absolutely gigantic, and way beyond what CEOs experience in major corporations.

“You have to inspire confidence, and in places like Chicago, establish a very strong presence with business and deal with the teachers union. You need to look energetic—personality is important.”

Michael Usdan, senior fellow and past president, Institute for Educational Leadership, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank:

“Be somebody who knows what you know—and, even more significantly, what you don’t know. You may not be charismatic, but play to your strengths and surround yourself with people who can complement them. You just can’t be everything—and anybody who tries ought to make secretary general of the U.N. or something.”

Joseph Murphy, education professor at Vanderbilt University and chair of the Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium, which developed standards for school leaders:

“Style is not critical. There are charismatic public figures among big-city leaders. There are people who look and act like Mr. Rogers, and there are introverts. If you’re heroic and can walk on water, it’s to some advantage. But superintendents can lead with very different types of styles. The real issue is whether a style is tied to something visionary and of importance.”

Michael Casserly, executive director, Council of the Great City Schools, which represents 60 big-city districts:

“Work 24 hours a day, depend on your sense of humor—sometimes through tears—and realize that whatever you do some people won’t be happy. You’ve got to develop a certain immunity.”

Thomas Payzant, school superintendent in Boston and former assistant U.S. secretary of education:

“The mission is to get every student in the system to higher standards than we’ve expected in previous generations. The mission is attached to teaching and learning, because that is what’s going to make a difference.

“You have to take the mission to every school. Go deep in a few areas rather than broadly in many. Set two or three goals, not 15. When we promise that we can do it all, we end up doing many things poorly.”Focus on the obvious. Literacy is fundamental—reading and comprehending and being able to think and talk about it. You’ve got to have a systemwide approach, at least in the early years, and support for teachers and training. At the high school level, the strategy should go beyond reading being the purview of the English teacher. That requires professional development.

“Take these massive high schools and break them up into small schools where a group of teachers can work over time with a manageable number of students. You also have to look at how you schedule time, and combine subjects into themes. All this can defeat some of the negatives in big high schools, where kids feel that there’s no adult whom they’re connected to.”

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