Education Opinion

Q&A With Broad Superintendents Academy On Learning & Leadership

By Tom Vander Ark — June 19, 2013 5 min read
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On Thursday I’m visiting with the participants in the Broad Superintendents Academy--the best preparation
for aspiring system heads. For more than a decade the Academy has identified “transformational leaders with a proven track record of success and prepares
them to lead large urban school districts, state departments of education and high-growth public charter systems.” Over the past ten years, Broad grads
have held 95 superintendent roles and 148 senior executive positions in large urban school districts.

Learning must be personalized for everyone, no matter what age. That’s why Academy Managing Director Christina Heitz and I have structured a fun
interactive session with this year’s class. Flipped classroom style, she pushed a lot of the content out to the class in advance including a video
interview with me--following is a summary.

1. What is your vision for the future of student learning?

It’s not classroom learning, it’s a customized playlist of experiences for every student every day combined with hands-on often team-based
community-connected experiences-- School of One powered Expeditionary Learning (see recent feature on a new NYC EL school).

2. What do you think are the biggest levers for change in order to achieve that vision?

  • Leveraging teacher leadership:
    Many teachers, students and parents have adopted personal digital learning on their own. Leaders must start by listening and learning from what’s
    already happening and finding ways to leverage it.

  • New schools.
    It’s particularly important to start new competency-based blended secondary schools that create a picture of the future (see 3 part series on NGLC grantee schools).

  • Aggregated demand.
    Because the toolset is maturing quickly, it’s important to stay flexible (i.e., no long term contracts) and look for ways to combine purchasing power
    with other entities.

3. If you became a superintendent again tomorrow, what are some personalized learning strategies that you would deploy?

My book,

Getting Smart

, outlines three primary benefits of digital learning: customization, motivation and equalization. To start reaping these benefits, I’d start by helping
every school introduce:

  • Adaptive instruction: new tools like Dreambox, i-Ready, Mangahigh, and ST Math combine engaging game-based instruction with the power
    of adaptive assessment. These are so good, they should be incorporated into every elementary student week.

  • High access environments: every school should be phasing in high access environments. Schools should provide an equity layer sufficient to support
    online state testing. Students should be encouraged to bring their own mobile devices.

  • See the DLN

    Blended Learning Implementation Guide

    (we’ll issue version 2.0 in a month--questions, comments, suggestions welcome).

4. How would you convince your board to take on this level of innovation?

It’s clear that the only option for

Improving Urban Education is a Digital Portfolio Approach

--supporting struggling schools, opening new schools, closing failing schools, and adding a layer of digital opportunity. I would suggest avoiding any
district where there isn’t (or not likely to be) support for that agenda.

5. What are the most important decisions made as CEO that you felt you needed to make yourself?

Leadership selection is the most important set of decisions. Superintendents need the ability to shape their own management team and (with few exceptions)
should retain the final say on hiring school leaders.

With the board chair, a superintendent should manage the board agenda that guides how policy decisions are made. (The Common Core and shift to digital
learning make it a great time to sunset district policies and create a 24-30 month policy development calendar.)

The only other decisions that I didn’t delegate to my team were bond and levy recommendations--the big ticket items where I took a lot of advice but wanted
to retain the ability to make important but unpopular decisions.

6. As a superintendent, what were the most important things you did during the first 3-6 months on the job?

My 90 day plan went out the window with the day one strike. The good news is that, by walking the picket line and holding town hall meetings at night, I
met everyone in town with an opinion in the first seven days. That turned out to be incredibly valuable. Without the “benefit” of a strike, I’d suggest
visiting every classroom and every current/potential community partner in the first few months.

For 90 days, I covered the walls of the central office with butcher block paper and posted sticky note reactions (from me and others) about what appears to
be working and what needed to improve about every school and department. The level of candor and transparency was a positive shock to the system.

In my first few days I noticed that everyone was afraid of a certain principal--he was a tyrant and mistreating teachers. I told him
a couple times that his behavior was unacceptable. On the third incident, I called him into my office and said, “You’re a jerk, you’re fired.” It cost the
district about $150,000 but it was worth it. You need a few early symbolic acts that let folks know what you stand for.

I visited every faith congregation that would have me, joined Rotary and the board of Chamber of Commerce and the Boys and Girls Club. Once you get the
basic strategy headed in the right direction, the work of community building is the most important job.

7. Tell us about a major failure and what lessons you learned.

There’s a long list to choose from:

  • From a failed bond: you can’t overreach and under campaign; you either need to give the community what they want or help them discover a better

  • From hiring the wrong person: admit it fast; make a change.

  • From two business failures: there’s a short window and clock is ticking; don’t be afraid to cut your losses and move on when it’s clear that it won’t

  • From bad investments: don’t make the same mistake more than twice.

8. What was one of the most contentious
decisions you made? What were the results?

In my first two years, we went from being the most expensive administrative district in the state to the lowest cost. The cuts were combined with a push
for more autonomy and more accountability (Rudy Crew was doing the same in Tacoma, John Stanford has a similar agenda in Seattle). I (we) overestimated the
ability of school leaders (who had been treated as ‘building managers’) to handle creation of a coherent school model around a common intellectual mission. I don’t regret moving fast but wish I had better matched
resources and needs.

The new schools we created, Internet Academy and an academic middle school
, were controversial but quickly successful examples of a portfolio approach. New schools are a sticky initiative for leaders and donors.

The opinions expressed in Vander Ark on Innovation are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.