School & District Management Opinion

Implementing High Standards

By Paul Kelleher — March 28, 2001 10 min read
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The role of superintendents is critical if rigorous and challenging standards are to be appropriately implemented.

In a superintendent’s world, opportunities to integrate emerging educational theory into our practical work do not often occur. At conferences and through the professional literature, we may be exposed to new research and expert thinking about the issues we face. But we have little time for sustained dialogue and reflection with colleagues about this new learning. Typically, when we return to our districts, we quickly become immersed, once again, in the day-to-day problems of running a complex organization, with little time to consider the practical implications of what we have learned.

I write on behalf of a diverse group of superintendents serving a cross-section of school districts—large and small, urban, rural, suburban. We had a unique experience for a week last summer, when we came together in New York City at the Superintendents’ Work Conference, a program sponsored by Teachers College, Columbia University. Our theme was the standards movement, and we heard from many nationally recognized experts. But we also met daily as a small group to reflect on what we had heard and to share our own experiences in implementing new standards. We would like to share with others the fruits of those discussions, areas in which we found consensus.

Although we have concerns about the implementation of standards nationwide, especially when linked to high-stakes testing, we think the standards movement can increase academic rigor in our schools, strengthen the high-level thinking demanded in our curricula, and provide more opportunities for the active use of knowledge by students.

We also think that the role of the superintendent is critical if rigorous and challenging standards are to be appropriately implemented in a district. The superintendent must be able to perform two overarching functions that may determine success or failure in this endeavor:

First and foremost, the superintendent must change people’s beliefs and attitudes about capability. Intelligence is not fixed. As the University of Pittsburgh research professor Lauren B. Resnick suggests, we must put aside the pervasive notion that aptitude is immutable and replace it with an understanding of what research tells us about the open-ended nature of human ability. Intelligence can be developed and strengthened through strategic problem-solving and other habits of mind that promote learning. Effort can create ability.

With that belief as a base, a superintendent must then transform the system. Testing does not improve achievement. Teaching does. We must ensure that the instructional program does in fact develop and strengthen intelligence. We must help teachers align the curriculum with these rigorous standards and create worthy assessments of student learning. Moreover, we must develop the capacity of the whole organization to provide the services necessary for this achievement.

We know that we face formidable obstacles to such a transformation. Here are a few of the most troublesome:

  • Resistance to changes in how the work of teaching and learning is done. The terms and conditions of employment for teachers will change, for example, as we commit ourselves to bringing every child to the high-level learning required by the standards. Contract negotiations will need to consider educational impact.
  • Competing interests of different constituencies with whom we share power. People involved in education always claim that they only want to do “what is best for the kids.” But among parents, community members, board members, and unions, we know that personal and political agendas often come into play.
  • Prejudices about schooling. Even when people want to act with the best of intentions, transforming beliefs will be difficult. The attitude that a prime purpose of school is to sort out students by ability is firmly grounded in most people’s experience over many years.
  • Other realities that distract us and absorb our energies. Any superintendent’s workday becomes fragmented by a host of demands for time and attention. In such an environment, we know how easy it is to become fully immersed in urgent issues that are urgent, but fundamentally unrelated to the mission of transforming a system.

Overcoming such obstacles and successfully transforming the system will require our highest level of competence, all the knowledge and skills we have learned from our training and our experience. As one of our group phrased it, we’ll need to put fully into practice all the theory covered in “Superintendency 101.” How might that be done? Here is an outline of action in four broad areas:

Develop collaboratively the mission and vision.

  • Promote and articulate new cultural beliefs regarding the importance of effort in expanding intelligence and increasing learning.

  • Build a consensus around those beliefs across stakeholder groups that will protect the system from the tensions produced by opposing forces during times of disagreement and conflict.

  • Find the balance between listening to others and asserting our own convictions in developing the new vision. (The danger of not involving others is that we become leaders without followers. The danger of only facilitating and listening is that we lose our advocacy.)

Develop the capacity of others.

  • Recognize that adult learners also must exercise habits of mind (such as strategic problem-solving, for example) that increase insight and capability.
  • Provide leadership training for boards, administrators, teachers, other staff members, and the community through forums and retreats.
  • Develop a central-office attitude of support for learning, with increasing visibility for central-office staff members in the schools. Too often, in our experience, central offices are seen as paper-generating hindrances to school-based efforts, rather than as sources of support.
  • Provide teachers with the professional time necessary for maintaining a dialogue about students and instructional experiences.

Use our authority appropriately.

  • Revise board policies about retention, promotion, and grouping to support beliefs. Our practices in these areas must become consistent with the new effort-based belief system, not be a reflection of the old aptitude-based system.
  • Align personnel policies and practices. The criteria for teacher hiring and decisions about tenure, as well as induction practices, must be congruent with the new belief system.
  • Ensure that testing results will be used to leverage resources for improved instruction.
  • Hold people accountable for putting the new values into action.

Embody the values and beliefs.

  • Adopt personal behaviors that model the beliefs.
  • Communicate beliefs through remarks at staff meetings, opening-day speeches, and other opportunities for reflection.
  • Ensure that decisions are grounded in the belief system.
  • Conduct small, structured, informal discussions with staff members to clarify the connections between decisions and the belief system.

Even if we are consummate professionals in carrying out these actions, however, transforming the system will require more. By the end of our week of discussions, we came to realize that that this “something more” involves how we deal with four groups that constitute the key protagonists of the standards saga:

Superintendents must take a more proactive and unified stand; they must speak in one voice to enlighten politicians about both the benefits and the pitfalls of standards.

First, politicians. No child has ever learned to read because an elected official established a standard for reading. There are knowledgeable and wise expert voices in the national discussion about standards. But few have actually tried to meet the challenge of this reform in a local school district. We have. In the polemics of the public debate, the very real complexities we superintendents know all too well often get ignored. The need for accountability can lead to unintended negative consequences for students.

Superintendents must take a more proactive and unified stand; they must speak in one voice to enlighten politicians about both the benefits and the pitfalls of standards. Elected representatives must be made to understand that we can both favor new, higher standards and vehemently oppose much of the current state-level implementation through high-stakes testing. We must convince them that we are willing to be held accountable for results, if they in turn will empower us to develop a fair and appropriate system of assessment.

Parents and board members. We need also to educate these key allies about the complexities of standards reform. We must mobilize them and help them become stronger advocates for children, advocates able to tell state and national policymakers how standards might be implemented to benefit children, as well as the potential dangers that must be avoided in current implementation strategies.

Teachers. Everything depends on the teacher. The key point of leverage for changing the system is the instruction that takes place between a teacher and a student. We must concentrate all our resources on improving the quality of teaching. We must enable teachers to increase their repertoire of instructional strategies so that they can meet individual student needs and not leave students behind.

And finally, ourselves. Superintendents must “walk the talk.” We must have the courage to act constantly on the values we espouse. We must be willing to raise difficult questions for the community and our staffs, even when they may not want to hear them. We must, for example, be willing to speak up about eliminating language that conveys, however subtly or unintentionally, lowered expectations. In this context, we should question our easy use of words like “minority.” We must be the voice of conscience.

In our work as superintendents, contradictory and sometimes nonrational forces buffet us. It is only human, at times, to question how valuable or worthwhile the work we do really is. It was heartening, then, to emerge from a week of intense focus on the important issue of standards reform with a renewed conviction of the singular importance our role can play in the process. Superintendents can make the difference in transforming schools systems—so that schools can make tangible the belief that all children can learn.

In addition to Mr. Kelleher, the members of the superintendents’ discussion group included: Alan P. Austen, the superintendent of the Baldwin (N.Y.) Public Schools; Anna DeMolli, the assistant superintendent of the Paterson (N.J.) Public Schools; Mary Devin, the superintendent of Geary County United School District 475 in Junction City, Kan.; Harlan Else, the superintendent of the Cheyenne Mountain School District in Colorado Springs, Colo.; William Foley, the superintendent of the Westfield (N.J.) Public Schools; Michael H. Graner, the superintendent of the Putnam (Conn.) Public Schools.

Annette D. Knox, the superintendent of the Cleveland Municipal School District; Ranier W. Melucci, the superintendent of the Seaford (N.Y.) Unified School District; Josephine N. Moffett, the superintendent of the Freeport (N.Y.) Public Schools; Richard B. Noonan, the superintendent of the Rumson (N.J.) School District; Bill Presutti, the superintendent of the Fair Haven (N.J.) Public Schools; Nib Rosas, the director of regional training in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

Morton Sherman, the superintendent of the Cherry Hill (N.J.) Public Schools; Julian Stafford, the superintendent of the New London (Conn.) Public Schools; Thomas N. Turner, the superintendent of the Franklin (N.J.) School District; Chris Van Woert, the superintendent of the Cranford (N.J.) Public Schools; and Doris McEwen Walker, the superintendent of Clover Park School District in Lakewood, Wash.

Paul Kelleher is the superintendent of the Lawrence, N.Y., public schools. He served as the seminar leader and chief writer for the group whose work is detailed in this essay.

A version of this article appeared in the March 28, 2001 edition of Education Week as Implementing High Standards


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