Guest Column

Whatever Happened to My Job Description?

by John A. Whritner

I’ve celebrated 50-plus years in education, 26 of them as a superintendent. I figured I knew the business pretty well, but now I’m wondering.

At some point recently when I wasn’t looking, the job description for my profession underwent a dramatic rewrite.

No longer is the superintendent functioning as the chief educational officer for a school district. The position I see today is best described as the CPO, or chief political officer.

As such, the educational matters of the district now must be handled by an assistant superintendent for instruction or a director of curriculum — or they just don’t get done. Someone needs to be looking after teaching and learning, and the odds are pretty high in today’s highly charged and fast-paced environment that it isn’t the superintendent. He or she is too heavily consumed by the politics of working with the board of education, individual board members, local governments, state and federal authorities, and others outside the school system.

Pursuing Dollars
What has happened to superintendents and their shifting role is not entirely unlike what has occurred to college and university presidents. For most of the past century, higher education leaders were viewed as the institution’s learning leader, someone able to wear tweeds (Harris preferred) and sit with colleague faculty to emote on Chaucer or advanced physics. Today, they need a closet of “sincere suits” as they spend their significant time tapping alumni, foundations and corporations for the funds to build up their endowments, finance academic chairs, or build new student unions and modern athletic complexes. College presidents are today’s chief endowment officers, relying on the provost to carry forward the education mission.

Like the college president who is endlessly pursuing donors, superintendents need to convince a doubting public that it needs to cough up added tax dollars to support the programs, facilities and teachers to benefit schoolchildren. While the target audiences for the college presidents and superintendents may differ, the chief goals are the same — the pursuit of dollars to improve their enterprise.

The job description for the superintendent of today requires a mastery of political skills to secure taxpayer support to get teachers and principals the resources they need to do their jobs. This is a very different job description for the top job compared to what was required in past generations. Then, the superintendent was clearly seen as the educational leader, the person in charge of managing the curriculum and the learning environment. Today’s leadership muscle must be exercised in totally different ways.

A changing job description demands changes in the training and the know-how to perform the work. The emphasis in training needs to focus on politics (small p), the art of negotiating and seeking compromise, sales ability, the dynamics of human relations and the use of psychology.

For those moving into assistant superintendencies, the essential skills will become curriculum development, staff evaluation and teacher training, as these individuals assume leadership for the tasks traditionally overseen by those at the top of the school system.

The shift in direction for superintendents also means that holding the job of assistant superintendent isn’t necessarily providing the best on-the-job training required to become an effective CEO. Proficiency at developing curricula and preparing teachers to implement new initiatives is not the same as convincing a school board to spend money on new staff or programs and then grinding through the next mile to convince reluctant community members that a proposed increase in their taxes is worthwhile.

Protective Cover
One of the leading contributors to the shortage of superintendent candidates may be the dawning reality that educators who went into this field to focus on teaching and learning do not want to get their hands messy in politics. Being second in command can mean staying under the public radar and shielded from the complaints aimed at the chief political officer. The professional life as an assistant can be fully satisfying if it enables someone to stay focused on the reason he or she went into education in the first place. The modest pay differential between the top post and No. 2 also contributes to the staying power of the assistant level.

For some in the noble business of the superintendency, the thought of being the chief politician will come across as demeaning. Many politicians do give politics a bad name. But if we define politics the old-fashioned way as “working with people to get things done,” it may seem less onerous. Putting the emphasis on politics alters our thinking about target audiences and how we work with them. It shapes the means we use in capturing adequate financial support for the schools.

The end result has not changed in the new job description. We’re still focused on improving the lives of children. The new world order will never write that out of the equation for the superintendent of schools.

John Whritner served as a superintendent in Connecticut and Michigan for over 26 years. Now retired, he lives in Niantic, Conn. E-mail: