Published Online: February 26, 1997

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What's a Superintendent To Do?

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When a tough job gets tougher, get down to the essentials.

Being the superintendent of a major urban school district has never been an easy job. In the past, superintendents have been forced to deal with a familiar list of seemingly intractable problems: uncertain and declining government funding, intense media scrutiny, politically motivated school board members, antagonistic negotiations with unions, and inherited district bureaucracies.

But recently the job has become even tougher. Inspired by trends in the business world and in systems like Canada's Edmonton public schools, school districts around the country have been implementing ambitious reform efforts based on the concept of decentralization. Give more authority to parents and teachers, proponents say, and schools will improve.

But what's a superintendent to do? How can he or she improve student achievement when schools control everything from curriculum to maintenance? And what about systemwide reform? While thousands of inner-city schools have been turned around by talented educators, we haven't yet figured out how to improve the lot of all students. Decentralization has the potential to exacerbate this problem of scale: Some schools get better, while neighboring schools stagnate.

But there is hope for superintendents and central district organizations. Private-sector experiments with decentralization indicate that empowerment works on a large scale only when an organization is overwhelmingly focused on clearly defined and measurable objectives. The role of the central office in such a system is to establish clearly defined systemwide goals and to help school-site educators achieve them.

To improve student achievement across an entire district, then, a superintendent must focus the entire district organization on what goes on in the classroom: teaching and learning. That means more than giving speeches about student achievement. It means creating an organizational structure that will make it impossible for empowered employees to focus on anything but teaching and learning.

What will that organizational structure look like? Private-sector experience with decentralization suggests that it will probably need to include the following elements:

  • A credible test of student achievement. If educators are given the freedom to experiment, then they also need to be given tools to determine whether or not their experiments are working. For this reason, decentralized districts must regularly test student achievement and distribute this information widely.

In order to ensure that this student-achievement information is helpful to educators, districts must ensure: (1) that the tests are based on community-accepted standards of what students should know and be able to do; and (2) that the test itself holds water with the educators in the district.

While all districts test student achievement in some way, many tests are scorned by teachers and principals for being irrelevant and too mechanistic. In a decentralized district, it is critical that educators have access to information that they trust about the performance of their students.

  • An intervention process for the poorest-performing schools. Not everyone thrives in a decentralized system, and a small minority will be unable to adjust to their empowerment. For this reason, a decentralized system must have a process for intervening in the most dysfunctional schools.
How ironic that--in many districts--principal placement and selection continues to turn on a strange mix of local politics, personnel tests, and operational ability.

Districts around the country have already proven that even the poorest inner-city schools can be turned around. Just one example is the Ten Schools Program in Los Angeles. Since the program was launched in 1987, these 10 inner-city schools have seen significant improvements in student achievement due to the district's efforts to infuse them with new staff members and to provide intensive professional development around instruction.

What's ironic about the success of programs like Ten Schools is that districts often do not expand them. With an expanded and successful intervention program targeting dysfunctional schools, district executives should feel more comfortable giving other schools more autonomy.

  • Personnel practices that focus on teaching and learning. Education researchers are almost unanimous in their declaration that all good schools have one thing in common: a principal who focuses the school on teaching and learning. How ironic, then, that--in many districts--principal placement and selection continues to turn on a strange mix of local politics, personnel tests, and operational ability.

If they are to begin trusting school-site educators to improve student achievement, district executives will have to do three things with regard to personnel processes: (1) hire more principals who are focused on teaching and learning, (2) provide training to help existing principals develop this focus, and (3) dismiss those who are inept or who concentrate solely on operational issues.

  • A flexible, straightforward budgeting system. One of the most important components of decentralization plans is budgetary autonomy for individual schools. While the degree of local budget control should probably vary by school performance, school-site educators must be able to spend money on their school's instructional priorities.

District policy also must allow schools to purchase goods and services from outside vendors. Only through budgetary control will educators feel ownership of their schools. Only through competition will central offices learn to provide high-quality, cost-effective service to schools.

Districts that have given schools complete control over funds (including Edmonton, Canada, and the Wealden district in East Sussex, England) have found that--more often than not--schools choose to purchase services from the central district organization rather than from outside vendors. But such open bidding forces central district offices to offer targeted services at affordable prices.

These issues are of particular importance for districts forced to hire a new superintendent in the midst of a decentralization movement, a challenge that many large districts have faced or will face in the near future. In Los Angeles, for example, the Los Angeles Unified School District is now in the process of hiring a new superintendent. The current superintendent, Sid Thompson, has led the district's decentralization effort (called LEARN), and approximately half of the district's 650 school sites have voted to join LEARN and take on more site autonomy.

When Superintendent Thompson steps down this summer, Los Angeles will need a superintendent who can take the reforms one step further and who understands how a central district organization can motivate educators to improve teaching and learning. Other districts, implementing similar reform plans, will need to look for superintendents with comparable skills.

In one sense, decentralization makes a superintendent's job more difficult. No longer can the superintendent rely solely on district mandates to implement his or her vision. On the other hand, if a new superintendent is able to create the organizational structure that will focus everyone on teaching and learning, then empowered educators will ensure that academic achievement improves for all students.


Tim DeRoche is a consultant on district-level education reform with the school management program of the University of California, Los Angeles. He was formerly a management consultant in the Los Angeles office of McKinsey & Co.

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