This superb article in the Texas Observer by Patrick Michels is one of the most astute and hopeful I have read in months.

It chronicles the idea of the school superintendent as super-hero: the man or woman who can reshape the schools and achieve astonishing goals solely by force of will and personality.

The story is about Mike Miles, the superintendent of Dallas, but it is really about the national scene, about the rise and fall of the myth of the Super-Superintendent, the super star who makes bold promises, sets lofty targets, disrupts the district, then moves on–either to more money or obscurity.

The working premise of the Hero Superintendent is that the system is broken and needs to be turned upside down, with  lots of firings and threats.

Michels writes:

The business world’s interest in remaking public education is nothing new—calling school leaders “superintendents” became popular a century ago, when factory efficiency experts took a first pass at redesigning public schools.

America is enjoying another such moment today. Popular business literature is suffused with the idea that strong leadership has the power to improve even the most massive bureaucracy, and the education world has fallen in line. The George W. Bush Institute, the think tank tied to the presidential library at Southern Methodist University, is home to an “Alliance to Reform Education Leadership.” The Broad Superintendents Academy in Los Angeles is one of the most polarizing institutions of the current school-reform movement, grooming “exceptional leaders and managers to help transform America’s education systems, raise student achievement and create a brighter future,” according to its website.

“I think there’s been something of an infatuation with business management in education,” says Young, the University of Virginia scholar. “Schools are not businesses. We don’t necessarily have the same moral obligations to the community and to kids that you have to stakeholders that are investing their money.”

“The reason it works in business is you do have a bottom line,” Brewer says. “In order to do that in education, they had to find one indicator of success. That’s not necessarily compatible with the complexity of education.”

New superintendents who focused on “quick wins” in the “first 90 days”—that’s all straight out of popular business literature. So is the focus on transformational change, the faith that we’re capable of rapid improvement in society if only we’ll shake off the old ways and dismantle the status quo. No business concept has been more contentious in schools than the tech-inspired enthusiasm for “disruption.”

As it happens, after a year of disruptions, firings, and departures, Miles was in deep trouble with his board. He barely survived, on a 5-3 vote.

The article ends with the prediction that the age of the Hero Superintendent is drawing to a close.

Michels writes:

You can’t improve a school district if you only last a couple of years. School chiefs who ride into town with a hero complex, alienate everybody and get dragged out like martyrs don’t get to build a legacy.

Joe Smith of believes the hero trend is falling out of favor. “We’ve gotten to the peak of that movement, and I think we’ll see the pendulum come back,” Smith says. “If you’re looking at redefining your schools in your community, I would think that someone who knows the community would have a jump on anybody else.”