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Can Non-Educators Lead Our Schools?

Roy Romer, a former Colorado governor, was selected last week to lead the schools of the Los Angeles Unified School District. Romer is the latest non-educator to lead a large urban school district. What drives school districts to look outside education for leadership? Is this a trend or another experiment bound to fail?

Last week, Roy Romer, a former Colorado governor, was selected to take up the reins of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). At age 71, Romer is enthusiastic about his new responsibilities for the district's 700,000 schoolchildren. "It was a matter of conscience," Romer told reporters at a press conference soon after his appointment was announced. A vocal supporter of school reform, Romer decided "It was time to walk my talk."

Romer is the ideal person to lead the school district's massive reform agenda, according to Julie Korenstein, a member of the LAUSD Board of Education. Effective July 1, LAUSD will be divided into 11 semi-autonomous sub districts, Korenstein told Education World. "Each district will have its own superintendent, who will be the educational leader, credentialed and certificated," explained Korenstein. "Roy Romer will oversee the entire Los Angeles Unified School District. He will work with the community, with business and, most important, with our state legislators and governor."

Leading the state of Colorado and leading LAUSD are not so very different, added Korenstein. "[Romer] organized and ran the state of Colorado for 12 years," she told Education World. "The only thing comparable to LAUSD in size is an entire state."


Romer's appointment to lead a large city school system is not without precedent. Alan D. Bersin, a former U.S. attorney, currently leads the San Diego Unified School District. John C. Fryer Jr., superintendent of Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, Florida, is a former U.S. Air Force major general. Paul G. Vallas served the city of Chicago for five years as budget director before taking over the helm of the city's schools.

"We are seeing a number of superintendents from non-traditional backgrounds, particularly in the larger urban districts," Judy Seltz, director of planning and communications for the American Association of School Administrators (AASA), told Education World.

"We're not prepared to call this a trend," added Seltz. "The uniqueness of the superintendent's job, particularly in a dozen or so of the largest urban districts, makes it possible to bring in a superintendent from a non-traditional background."

The move toward hiring leaders who have not come up through the education ranks is "recognition that [running a school district] requires a real team of people with very different skills, including management skills of a scope and scale that might be found in individuals from outside education," Seltz commented.

The rise in the number of non-traditional superintendents can be tied, in part, to the rise of standardized tests as a measure of what is happening in the classroom, according to the AASA's Jay Matthews. "The tests are quantifiable. They are identifiable. They fit the results-oriented culture of the training ground and corporate offices that have spawned the new superintendents," wrote Matthews in On-the-Job Learning of Nontraditional Superintendents, published in the February 1999 issue of School Administrator, AASA's online magazine.

"By contrast, traditional educators often are uncomfortable with this achievement-oriented culture because they do not believe the tests can measure all that is worthwhile in a student's day," Matthews added. "Bad test results can have painful consequences for them and their students. Military officers and business executives know this, but they are more accustomed to taking hard blows."

Leaders from outside education are also accustomed to bringing diverse people together. "When you understand you don't come to the table with all the truth," Romer recently told reporters, "you listen very hard to people who have other pieces of the truth."

Board members are expecting Romer's experience and skills to translate into success for LAUSD schools. "I think the thing that stood out most about Roy Romer is his passion," board member Caprice Young told Education World. "Let's not forget that he was governor of Colorado, someone who was widely seen as a reformer and a national advocate for kids."


  • Why He Wants "One of the Toughest Jobs in America" This June 12 article is from the online edition of the Christian Science Monitor. Correspondent Sara Terry examines Roy Romer's skills and background in light of his recent appointment to lead the schools of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

  • Detroit Not Alone in Search for New School Leadership This article from the online edition of the Detroit Free Press notes the large number of U.S. school districts that are going outside the education establishment to hire new leadership.

  • Roster of Nontraditional Superintendents Published by the American Association of School Administrators, this February 1999 survey lists school system leaders who have roots in business, government, or the military rather than in education. (Note: The list was published 15 months ago; although is might be slightly out of date, it offers examples of school systems that have elected to go outside education circles in their search for school leadership.)

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