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Sea change in educational leadership buffets city, state

Expert: Expectations may be too high for one person to achieve


TRIBUNE FILE PHOTOS - Educational leaders are an endangered species. Portland Public Schools Superintendent Carole Smiths and Chief Operating Officer Tony Magliano heard calls for their removal after revelations of lead in the district's water.Portland State University President Wim Wiewel’s decision to leave in 2017 comes during a wave of leadership change in the education scenes of Portland and the state at large.

Portland Public Schools, Centennial, Multnomah Education Service District, David Douglas, and Beaverton school districts are all seeking or installing new superintendents.

Portland Community College and five out of the state’s six public universities also have changed the nameplates on those top offices since 2015.

A professor at Harvard Kennedy School of Government says the wave of change could say more about us than about our educational leaders.

Harvard Professor Tim O’Brien, who studies adult development and leadership, says leading a K-12 district or a public university is a superhuman job.

“We’re talking about a massive organization with thousands of employees, but when things don’t go our way, we get rid of the person at the top,” says O’Brien, who stresses that he is not familiar with the particular education scene in Portland. “How many organizational leaders have to deal with that many opinions about their work? We’ve all been to school, so we all have an opinion about what should be done.”

O’Brien says that in his lectures, he draws a stick figure to represent a principal and then the group brainstorms about how many different pressures that person is under: parents, teachers, administrators, school board, etc.

“We do that for about seven minutes and by the end we have 30 to 50 arrows coming at this person,” he says. “There’s so little evidence that a single human can do it all, but we keep looking for people who can do it all.”

In the most recent report from the Washington, D.C.-based Council of Great City Schools, the average superintendent of a large urban K-12 district stuck around for just 3.2 years. The American Council on Education’s 2012 report says university presidencies are down from an average of 8.5 years to 7 years.

By comparison, Wiewel and Portland Public Schools Superintendent Carole Smith were in it for the long haul with their approximately nine-year tenures.

O’Brien says it will take sustained effort to fix our education system and that no one district or institution can do it alone. Indeed, despite billions of dollars and several massive systemic overhauls, there has never been a golden age of American education, he argues.

“Since the change we want to see is so massive — no single district or campus leader can overcome it and they move on,” O’Brien says. “I think we put too much stock into the single individual at the helm of these changes. When they don’t fix it for us — we look for another. This helps us avoid tackling one of the most confounding public problems of our nation: how to educate, at a massive scale, a range of learners who learn and understand concepts (and) skills uniquely.”

The demands of leading a public educational system are great, but so is the compensation. Smith was roundly criticized for her recent pay raise to a $247,000 salary. Wiewel has an annual compensation package of more than $550,000, plus standard benefits like health insurance and the Public Employees Retirement System.

But the “outrageously” high salary figures boards agree to pay might be a setup, O’Brien says.

“Usually, we attack (education leaders) by saying: ‘Look how much you’re getting paid.’ But we’re also asking you to run three marathons in a single day,” he said. “We’re actually looking for someone who is worth $300,000 a year, and every three years we find out they don’t exist.”


Shasta Kearns Moore
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