Blackboard CEO

Some execs are transitioning their leadership skills toward improving America’s public schools.

January 21 2010 by Becca Bracy Knight


Eyes rolled in Michigan’s impoverished Benton Harbor school district when the new school superintendent former AT&T Sales Vice President Paula Dawning walked in the door. Naturally, the community was skeptical about the value a corporate leader could provide the public schools. But Dawning soon led the district to achieve unprecedented student results, including improving fourth grade reading test scores more than 100 percent in just two years. As a result, the State of Michigan named her school superintendent of the year.

Many are surprised to find out that large urban school districts have multimillion even billion-dollar budgets and tens of thousands of employees. But what may be even more surprising is the degree to which the skills and expertise of CEOs and C level executives are desperately needed in America’s troubled school districts.

To put it bluntly, America’s urban public schools are in crisis. More than a million American students drop out of high school every year. Most big city educational systems haven’t shown much improvement in decades. To see results, they need leaders who know how to successfully motivate and manage people and resources toward a common goal and who have a track record of instituting financial controls, using data to drive improvements, using technology to become more efficient and empowering staff.

 CEOs can provide a fresh perspective to old, nagging problems in public education. Take, for example, Joel Klein in New York City, former chairman and CEO of Bertelsmann, one of the world’s largest media companies. Klein assumed the leadership of the New York City Department of Education and took responsibility for its $20 billion budget, 130,000 employees and 1.1 million school children. He built a senior team of experts in teaching and learning. But it was his business background that enabled him to successfully restructure this enormous school system into an effective organization, introducing smart budgeting processes, empowering staff and holding them accountable. His results speak for themselves: Under Klein’s leadership, New York City students particularly poor and minority kids have made some of the greatest academic gains in the nation.

Tom Boasberg, former Level 3 Communications’ group vice president for corporate development, today serves as Denver’s school superintendent. In his first year, Boasberg made strides toward significantly increasing pay for high-achieving teachers and principals, allowing school leaders greater budget flexibility, improving central services to schools and putting more money into classrooms.

A decade ago, philanthropist Eli Broad, founder and CEO of two Fortune 500 companies, KB Home and SunAmerica, identified the lack of leadership experience and management skills in America’s large urban school districts. Knowing firsthand the impact strong leadership could have, Broad created The Broad Superintendents Academy, an executive training program that identifies, recruits, prepares, and places prominent executives  including CEOs and C-level execs with experience successfully leading large organizations and a passion for public service, into urban school districts to dramatically improve education for America’s students.

Today, seven years after the first class graduated, Broad Superintendents Academy graduates have filled 156 school district leadership positions nationwide (including 69 superintendents across 23 states), serving more than 4 million young  Americans. In 2009, two out of five superintendent openings in large urban school districts were filled by academy graduates. And data shows those superintendents who have been in place for three or more years are improving student achievement faster than their peers.

Academy participants keep their current jobs while attending extended weekend training sessions nationwide in teaching and learning, school system reform, cultural reform, finance, operations and politics. Picture this: in one room, business executives, military generals, public sector leaders and career educators all intensely debating how best to solve a problem like turning around a bankrupt school district or raising a rock-bottom graduation rate.

As school district CEOs, former corporate leaders have the opportunity to substantially alter the course of young people’s lives and benefit our society as a whole. There is very little else that will leave such a lasting and sustainable legacy than devoting leadership skills to improving urban education.


Becca Bracy Knight, is executive director, Broad Center for the Management of School Systems, which operates The Broad Superintendents Academy www.broadacademy.org.