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Do Superintendents Need Classroom Experience?

In recent years, state legislators and school boards nationwide have been paving the way for people with little or no education experience to lead districts.

What do former New York City Superintendent Cathie Black and Aurora, Colo., Superintendent John Barry have in common? They both lack the licenses that most states require of superintendents. They also represent a growing trend of school districts being run by people without any previous classroom experience.

It’s a trend with high-profile hits as well as misses. Barry, a retired U.S. Air Force general, was named superintendent of the year by the Colorado Association of School Executives for turning around an underperforming school district. New York’s Black, a former publishing executive, resigned in April after a brief three-month tenure marked by complaints from parents, teachers and officials that she was unqualified and unable to understand fundamental education issues.

Almost all states except Colorado, North Carolina and Utah technically require superintendents to have not only licenses but also degrees and experience in education. But that’s changing. At least 10 states, including Arizona, Louisiana and Michigan, have enacted legislation in the past decade making it easier for people with little or no education experience to become principals or superintendents. Additionally, more than a dozen states, including New York, offer alternative pathways to certification or waivers for superintendent requirements.

In Oregon, a bill passed this year by the state House would remove the license requirement for superintendents -- allowing them to instead complete a training program once in office. According to the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Julie Parrish, the majority of a superintendent’s job doesn’t tap into one’s knowledge of education but instead focuses on things like labor negotiations, public relations and finance. “Some of our school districts have bigger budgets than most of our corporations have,” she says. “Why would I have a shop teacher do that job?”

But Becca Uherbelau of the Oregon Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, notes that districts are increasingly looking to superintendents for guidance on instruction and curriculum: “It just makes good sense that the leader of the school district would have a background in effective instructional practices.”

Nevertheless, there’s been an uptick in the popularity of organizations that provide training for school leaders who lack a background in the classroom. The Broad Superintendents Academy, which trained Colorado’s Barry, has seen a marked increase in applications since it opened in 2002, says Broad Center Executive Director Becca Bracy Knight. Removing the license requirement for superintendents “doesn’t mean that anyone of any background can run a school district,” Knight says. What it means, she believes, is that “you should cast a wide net in order to find the very best people who can.”

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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