School & District Management Opinion

Four Questions Every New Superintendent Should Ask

By Jonathan Travers & David Rosenberg — August 02, 2013 4 min read
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Congratulations! You’ve just been named superintendent of a large, urban school district. You’re in good company: Dozens of districts—from Boston to Atlanta to Indianapolis—are seeking, or have recently hired, new leaders. Now you face an array of challenges that some will tell you are intractable, along with a slew of competing priorities and constituencies, each of which needs your urgent attention.

So you may be wondering, where do I begin?

As you work through the tangle of issues that you face, we suggest that you quickly home in on the resources—your people, time, and money—to meet the needs of the students in your district. How you use these resources says a lot about your vision for your district; it will also provide insight into the problems you are trying to solve and how your investments may need to change to address them.

In that context, here are four questions that, taken together, will help you quickly understand your resource situation and set you up to pursue the changes that are likely to have the biggest impact on your students.

1. What is your strategy for attracting, developing, and retaining top talent?

At its core, you are running a human-capital system. Teachers teach, and students learn. Ideally, great teachers teach brilliantly, and student learning explodes. But it doesn’t happen by accident. Your system must be structured to identify, recruit, support, and retain the most talented teachers. Is it?

Start by asking:

• What’s the value proposition for teachers in your district? Why would a teacher work in your district?

• Whom do you attract, and why do they stay? Think about what happens to your best teachers. Do they take on your biggest challenges, seek out the lowest-need classes and schools, or leave the district entirely?

• How are you investing in teachers’ professional growth? To what extent are these investments having a meaningful impact on teacher skill and in the classroom?

• What, if anything, happens to teachers who consistently fall short of expectations? Are they coached up, exited, or do they languish in mediocrity, along with their students, for years?

2. How are resources being used inside schools?

As you work through the tangle of issues that you face, we suggest that you quickly home in on the resources—your people, time and money—to meet the needs of the students in your district.”

Successful schools organize resources to meet student needs based on both teacher capacity and available resources. We call this “strategic school design,” and just a few key decisions can differentiate great schools from struggling schools.

Consider the following questions:

• Are your schools designed for authentic teacher collaboration? Great schools build schedules and assignments that support long blocks—90 minutes or more—for collaboration, during which teachers focus on reviewing student work and are supported by expert coaches and/or teacher leaders. What is the case in your district?

• How do school schedules and staffing plans enable students to receive truly individual attention? We’re not talking about incremental across-the-board reductions in class size. We mean structures that support very small flexible groups, reconfigured regularly, targeted to specific student needs.

• Do students have enough time in school, and with teachers, to reach their goals? Is the time available used with urgency? Is it differentiated based on student need?

3. How is your district evolving as the student population changes?

As our nation’s population changes, your district’s student base is likely changing too. In many big cities, district enrollment is falling as charter schools expand, while some families are leaving for distant suburbs. Those suburbs, in turn, are experiencing rapid growth, diversification, and new levels of need. Across the country, schools are serving more English-language learners than ever before.

Against the backdrop of this growing diversity, ask yourself:

• How are your school portfolio and funding system keeping up with evolving student needs? How does the workforce need to evolve to match?

• To what extent do student needs drive the distribution of resources to individual schools? How much is driven by what programs have received historically? How flexible and adjustable is this system?

• How well are your investments in special populations, such as special education and English-language learners, meeting the needs of those students? How could you shift investment to focus on high-impact, early interventions with the greatest potential for positive outcomes?

4. How equipped are you to manage resources strategically?

Your ability to answer the first three questions will offer clues about the extent to which you are set up to identify, evaluate, and execute strategic resource decisions.

Looking at your data infrastructure, are you:

• Tracking teaching-effectiveness data for every teacher, every teacher team, and every school?

• Tracking spending down to the school and student levels, including using actual, not average, teacher salaries?

• Analyzing scheduling and staffing metrics to understand how schools are using resources to meet student needs?

Also consider this: Does your district have the knowledge and skills to uncover the information you will need to make wise resource decisions? If it doesn’t, that’s a challenge worth addressing head on and quickly.

We know these questions won’t give you every answer that you need to get and keep children on track in your district. But we hope they help you ensure that every moment, every dollar, and every ounce of human energy you invest goes where it matters most: toward improving educational outcomes for your students.


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