Thursday, Aug. 20, 2009 | Urban superintendents tend to be easy come, easy go. Yet even by that low standard, San Diego Unified seems to have a problem with keeping its chiefs.
Superintendent Terry Grier is now headed for Houston, less than a year and a half after coming to San Diego. The news was a surprise, even to those who knew his frustrations. Parents wrung their hands over the rapid turnover and the county Taxpayers Association, normally mum on educational issues, urged the school district to hang on to Grier and stop the churn. That seems improbable.
“We can’t afford to continue this trend,” said Lani Lutar, president of the Taxpayers Association.
National studies have found that the average superintendent has a shelf life of five and a half years. But urban superintendents stay only three and half years on average. There are a few outliers: Atlanta has had the same superintendent for a decade. Boston held on to one leader for even longer. But they are lucky exceptions — not the rule. More often, superintendents come, shuffle staff, unroll new plans, and then leave before those plans can bear fruit, ushering in another superintendent with another take.
Experts say it takes at least five years to turn around a school system. Lagging data sometimes makes it impossible to even gauge the results of reforms until years later. Grier has been credited for his push to cut the dropout rate, for instance, but the latest dropout data are for the year before he hatched some of his key reforms. He often waved off the idea that he had many initiatives in San Diego at all.
Grier’s wanderlust seems to have hit a nerve. It has parents, employees and outsiders worrying about whether the school board is too meddlesome, whether there is a clear sense of where San Diego Unified should be going, and whether other groups need to step up and share in the debate over school reform.