Of Generals and School Superintendents

The superintendent of the school system in which I teach in Prince George's County, Maryland, according to the 2009 annual report, had a budget of $1.7 billion, serving more than 127,000 students, with roughly 18,300 employees, of whom about 9,000 were teachers.

In the U.S. Army a Major General, with two stars, might well command a division with 10,000 - 15,000 employees. It may consist of two to five Brigades, each of which might be led by a one-star Brigadier General.

Does the span of control of our superintendent and the budget and number of employees for which he is responsible qualify him to lead an Army Brigade, even though it contains far fewer employees currently under his leadership? Of course not -- he lacks the requisite experience for the core purpose of that Brigade, and no one in a right mind would think otherwise.

Why then do some persist in believing that experience as a General officer qualifies one to run a school system?

I ask this because the Wake County public school system in North Carolina has just hired retired Army Brigadier General Anthony J. Tata as its newest superintendent.

The first General to be hired to run a major public school system was the late retired Major General John Stanford in Seattle. He actually worked out. Thinking hiring a general as head of a school system was the solution, D.C. Public Schools hired retired Lieutenant General Julius Becton. I will be kind in describing his tenure only as unsuccessful.

Some will argue that Gen. Tata has experience in a school system -- he served as Chief Operating Officer of the public schools D.C. under former chancellor Michelle Rhee. In that capacity he had responsibility for purchasing, food service, technology and other support areas. Those are a major part of successfully running a school system, but they are not its core purpose.

We have seen too many case of hiring people without prior educational experience to run school systems. This is often a function of mayoral control of schools, as it has been in Chicago and in New York, in the latter case for a second consecutive leader with the hiring of Cathie Black by Mayor Bloomberg. In many cases such appointments require waivers from state authorities, because the law often requires requisite training (perhaps a doctorate in education) and experience, which the appointees lack.

Yes, there is a strong move to bring people from outside education in to run public schools. General Tata is himself a product of the training program set up for that purpose by philanthropist Eli Broad. We will soon see similar efforts at the school level with the announcement by the George W. Bush Institute of a program to train 50,000 as principals, many of whom would be people from outside education.

This is an example of the kind of thinking that some describe as an MBA mentality, that the skills of management are generic enough that one can seamlessly transfer from one type of organization to another. Yet the approach has not always worked in the business world, where arguable the skills needed for running one for profit organization are very similar to those of one in a complete different field. After all, all of John Sculley's success as a soft drink executive did not truly prepare him to run Apple. His tenure was a mixed bag, expanding sales, to be sure, using his marketing expertise, but also overseeing a decline in profit margins and stock values.

Perhaps it takes a businessman to truly understand that schools are not like a business. Jamie Vollmer was an executive at the Great Midwestern Ice Cream Company when he had the experience he recounts in his famous "Blueberry Story":

"I have learned that a school is not a business. Schools are unable to control the quality of their raw material, they are dependent upon the vagaries of politics for a reliable revenue stream, and they are constantly mauled by a howling horde of disparate, competing customer groups that would send the best CEO screaming into the night."

Perhaps Gen. Tata will have the sense to hire someone competent to serve as his chief academic officer. That would help.

But that still does not answer this question: Would you hire the head of my school system to run an Army brigade? If not, why would you assume someone who runs an army brigade is prepared to run a school system?