News and culture through the lens of Southern California.
Hosted by A Martínez
Airs Weekdays 2 to 3 p.m.

Has an outsider in charge ever been a good thing in education?

We encountered a problem, and this photo is currently unavailable.
We encountered a problem, and this photo is currently unavailable.

Listen to story

Download this story 5.0MB

On Tuesday, the Los Angeles Unified School District appointed Austin Beutner as the district's new superintendent. Beutner, a former investment banker, has no history working as an educator.

It's not unusual for school systems to tap outsiders —non-educators—to run things. We've seen it in New York City and in Denver in recent years. But has it worked?

The answer is not so black and white.

It's nothing new

It started around 20 years ago when anxiety over the poor performance of students and districts began to grow. As a result, outsiders were brought in. They're called non-traditional superintendents. Sometimes they come from the military, the government and even the business sector. 

What finally led to tapping these outsiders? Desperation. That's according to Larry Cuban, professor emeritus at Stanford's Graduate School of Education.

Usually, the measures used to judge a school system: student test scores, dropout rates, graduation rates, have either held steady or continued to go down...

So, they would look outside the district thinking that the outsider, whether from the business sector, from the government or the military, would shake up the school system sufficiently to perform better.

Some other examples of outsiders being brought in?

But is it effective?

It's not a new trend that outsiders have been brought in to "fix" things, but some observers say it's a "failed experiment" to bring non-educators into a school system. 

"I've looked at the comparisons between insiders and outsiders... and the record doesn't show that either outsiders or insiders correct all the deficits they were brought in to solve," Cuban said.

A favorite type of outsider to tap is the kind with the business background. It's what Beutner is bringing to his new post at LAUSD, as well. What do those with business backgrounds have to offer?

Usually it's the managerial side. And so the school board that picks a business person, male or female, usually says that the problem is managerial, and if we can improve that management, then the student measures and teaching and learning will all improve.

Like with anything, it's a roll of the dice. But there is a tried and true outsider formula that usually does lead to success. Cuban explains it's when "the outsider knew that the core of the mission is to help teachers do their job in classrooms and to be supportive of teachers. That's where it has worked."


Are you an LAUSD parent with questions or concerns? We want to hear from you. Weigh into our Facebook discussion below:

You can also tweet us your thoughts @taketwo.