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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Superintendent Turnover: Passing the Baton v. Hitting Reset

By Rick Hess — May 20, 2013 2 min read
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As I noted on Friday, I spent the latter part of last week out in Clark County, Nevada, talking with local leaders and the local Public Education Foundation. The Clark County School District, which encompasses Las Vegas, is the nation’s fifth-largest school system (serving 310,000 kids). After two years in office, superintendent Dwight Jones unexpectedly stepped down two months ago. Nevada chief Jim Guthrie stepped down a short time later, after only about a year in office. This has all led to considerable, and understandable, consternation. Given the recent spate of superintendent openings in big school systems, e.g. Baltimore, Boston, Indianapolis, and so forth, this is a challenge with which a bunch of communities are wrestling.

In Clark County, acting superintendent Pat Skorkowsky is charged with keeping school improvement efforts on track in a system with 40,000 adults and more than 300 schools. Meanwhile, a school board marked by strong personalities and real differences of opinion tries to decide whether to conduct a national search. Oh, and the state has just decided that the district’s “school performance framework,” which leaned on Colorado’s growth model and which formed the backbone of Clark County’s accountability and improvement strategy, needs to be revised to reflect the state’s preference for a more NCLB-like model.

It all takes me back. Some readers may remember that I got my start in education with my 1998 Brookings book Spinning Wheels, in which I studied 57 urban systems and found that the typical district was launching a steady drumbeat of reform initiatives. Given this, it wasn’t too surprising that nothing seemed to deliver -- or stick. Educators learned to close their doors and wait out the breathlessly announced new changes, knowing “this too shall pass.” Leadership turnover aggravated the problem -- as each new supe felt a need to put his own stamp on the district by launching a new set of dynamic reforms (while losing interest in those already in place). The upshot: changes in district leadership can amount to a reset rather than a passing of the baton. If the existing strategy stinks, then hitting reset makes sense. But my experience is that system after system intends to pass the baton, but winds up stumbling into a reset due to mixed signals, petty politics, and the natural inclination of new leaders to respond to expectations and prove their mettle by busting out some fresh moves.

Three suggestions on how to pass that baton and avoid accidentally hitting the reset button.

1. System leadership needs to push back against the natural inclination (especially among local press, advocates, and civic leaders) to rave about fanciful new promises and practices and to push for the district to embrace the hot new thing.

2. Accept that course corrections are inevitable, and that leadership turnover is a good opportunity for just that -- so long as folks work hard to distinguish adjusting course from abandoning course. This also means keeping honest disagreements in context and not throwing everything out the window, hoping that a “fresh start” will purge all contention and conflict.

3. Stay focused on pursuing and tracking incremental gains (in attendance, teacher behavior, enrollment in rigorous courses, cost efficiencies, and such) so that the sense that progress is “too slow” doesn’t lead to a reflexive, frustrated decision to start all over again.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up 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.