04/19/2011 02:54 pm ET Updated Jun 19, 2011

Choosing the Right Superintendent

When New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg brought on Cathleen Black as schools chancellor last fall, he seemed to do so as casually as you'd line up a partner for a last-minute doubles tennis match. Whatever reason he might have had for choosing the publishing executive, Bloomberg didn't share it with the public, except to say that she was an experienced and effective manager. With polls showing that she had almost no support, Bloomberg asked for her resignation on April 7. Soon after, even Black acknowledged that she was out of her element.

But it's important to understand why she wasn't the right person. The answer to that question could help the large school systems in Atlanta, Broward County in Florida, Chicago, Detroit, Jefferson County in Kentucky, Newark, Montgomery County in Maryland and Providence, Rhode Island -- all of which are searching for a new chief executive -- avoid making a similar mistake.

Ironically, it was not Black's inexperience as an educator that proved to be her downfall. She started in the middle of a school year and was on the job only three months, so any change in student outcomes this year cannot be fairly linked to her performance.

But she did fail spectacularly in the two other big elements of a school district leader's job description: politics and management, the latter the area that was supposedly her strength.

As Andrew Rotherham noted in his TIME column last week, school districts are complicated organizations with lots of dimensions -- transportation, food service, purchasing, student support, maintenance, real estate, construction, legal -- that are both generic and essential. The much more difficult management challenge that faced Black and now her successor, former Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott, is how to refine and sustain the massive changes that have occurred under Bloomberg.

Soon after he was elected in 2001, Bloomberg centralized power and responsibility by winning state legislation that allowed him to get rid of the elected school board and dismantle the sub-districts that operated almost as independent fiefdoms. He named former Justice Department lawyer and publishing executive Joel Klein to head up the schools and the two used their powers to close failing schools, authorize the creation of new ones, encourage the expansion of charter schools, empower principals and hold them accountable, institute a form of performance pay for teachers, move more instruction online and focus intensively on reducing the dropout rate. Those reforms won't disappear for at least the next three years, while Bloomberg is still mayor. But now it's time to address some of the problems that have arisen from these moves and strengthen support for them among both teachers and the public.

Black wasn't equipped to do that. Senior staff began fleeing as soon as she was hired and that exodus continued under her leadership. According to the New York Times, critical decisions took too long and had to go through several layers of management to get up to Black. Bloomberg kept Black largely out of the public eye. But when she did venture out, she showed no rapport with parents or children. She made several offensive remarks, showed a lack of empathy for parents desperate to get their kids into crowded neighborhood schools and just seemed uncomfortable and out of place.

Walcott, on the other hand, is relaxed and seems to enjoy his time with students as well as with public audiences. The first day on the job, he walked his grandson to school. He spent a morning at a school making waffles for breakfast. Over the weekend, he gave a speech at Columbia University's Teachers College, in which he talked about his strong relationship with the teachers union and said "we have a collective responsibility to continue the reforms we've started over the past nine years."

That doesn't mean he intends to back off. "I believe in tough decisions," he said, according to The Hechinger Report. "I don't plan for a second to take my foot off the gas."

But he's probably also going to be quieter and, given his long experience in New York City politics, better able to build community support for Bloomberg's agenda. Also, as the mayor's education adviser for the past nine years, he has the credibility with Bloomberg to modify that agenda to better serve students and get greater support among teachers.

The lesson here for other large school districts as they seek new leaders is that they should first do a thorough analysis of their needs before hiring anyone.

Some critics of Bloomberg have argued that the Black fiasco showed that non-traditional superintendents, such as Black and Klein, cannot lead school districts. Others have said it shows that mayoral control of schools is a bad idea. But what it really says is that the characteristics and experience of new leaders need to match the challenges they will face. Montgomery County, where retiring superintendent Jerry Weast built up a strong record for closing achievement gaps while raising overall performance, needs a very different leader from Detroit, which is in a deep crisis caused by falling enrollment and terrible budget problems. The needs of Atlanta, where long-serving superintendent Beverly Hall resigned due to a cheating scandal, are different from those of Newark, where the entrance to the superintendent's job has been a revolving door.

This may seem obvious. But it often doesn't happen. School boards tend to hire as superintendents those they like or those who have impressive resumes without defining what it is that the district needs or what the new leader will be expected to do. That leads to mismatches and rapid, destabilizing leadership changes. Of course, it's not only school boards who make that mistake. We now know that mayors who run school districts can do the same thing.