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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.

School & District Management Opinion

Needed: A Schools Supe with Grit, Not Glitz

By Rick Hess — October 11, 2011 4 min read
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Superintendents for large, urban school districts are a hot commodity, moving often and commanding big bucks. This is a topic I’ve thought about a bunch over the years--hell, it was a question at the heart of my doctoral dissertation and first book, Spinning Wheels. Anyway, Dallas is currently going through a search, and the Dallas Morning News asked if I’d pen a piece offering a few thoughts. It occurred to me that most of the points apply equally well elsewhere. With that in mind, here’s a slightly trimmed version of what I had to say (a full version of the Morning News piece is available here).

For decades, the challenges of school reform seemed nearly insuperable. Even as they spent as much or more than nearby suburbs, city schools struggled under the weight of poverty, broken families, turgid bureaucracies, depressing conditions, and low expectations. The result has been dismal performance.

Worse, big-city school chiefs routinely serve only a few years before leaping to a new job or getting pushed out of office. Knowing the drill, they learn to launch a slew of reforms fast, seeking to build momentum and shake up the system. It also means that superintendents are frequently on the move before their bright ideas have much chance to succeed or fail. Teachers and principals have learned to wait out each superintendent’s new ideas, knowing that the savior of the hour and the newest set of innovations would soon be gone.

The demands of urban schooling--a lot of students and teachers, big budgets, and looming budget shortfalls--require tough-minded leaders able to navigate around familiar pitfalls. Here are four tips to keep in mind when seeking a supe equal to the challenge.

First, when it comes to putting an end to the destructive cycle of leadership turnover and the resulting churning of reform, it’s vital to keep a wary eye on would-be superintendents touting fanciful new fads and to think hard about continuity and coherence.

Second, successful urban superintendents have long relied upon cozy relationships with school board members, teacher and principal associations, vendors, neighborhood groups, and community leaders to keep things on an even keel. It’s become increasingly clear in recent years, though, that these adults can get along swimmingly without doing much for the kids. Calls for collaboration and consensus-building ought to be judged accordingly. Healthy cooperation is obviously a terrific thing, but it has too often served as an excuse for ducking the hard stuff.

Third, school reformers are oft tripped up by the belief that, if superintendents helming troubled districts would just concentrate on curriculum, instruction, and “best practices,” everything else will sort itself out. This myth has been promoted by education advocates, consultants, and professors who would rather avoid wrestling with more prosaic questions of organizational efficiency and competence.

It is a seductive fiction that massive, troubled school systems can be transformed without revamping infrastructure and organization. For all the inspiring paeans to strong principals, individual schools depend on their districts to provide personnel, supplies, data management, and other essential services. High-performing organizations, whether they manage schools, hospitals, or private businesses, require reliable data, transparent budgeting, and high-quality human resources to get the job done.

Finally, while educators decry talk of “efficiency” and “productivity” as displaying an unhealthy fascination with a business mindset, the truth is that trying to maneuver around broken personnel, recordkeeping, budgeting, and textbook distribution systems is a recipe for frustration. Managing instruction depends on the right teachers and staff. If incomplete files, balky personnel systems, or outdated technology make it more difficult to hire good people, train them, or assign them to the right positions, expensive investments in instruction and curriculum yield little.

Such work is not glamorous, doesn’t garner headlines, and won’t generate hosannas from education professors or advocates. But overhauling the personnel system and information technology, ensuring that the central office is responsive, and squeezing out new efficiencies will signal a no-glitz seriousness and assure educators that their work is being supported and dollars are being spent sensibly.

It’s painfully obvious by now that transforming an urban school system is not easy work. It requires strong instructional chops, being a smart steward of limited funds, revamping troubled systems, and exploring how to use new tools and technologies to start pushing the boundaries of what’s possible. All of that requires a gritty willingness to fight hard and fix systems much more than glitzy promises regarding new programs and pedagogy.

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