School & District Management Commentary

Preparing Superintendents for the Real World

By Evan Pitkoff — April 09, 2010 3 min read

Too many times in my career as a school administrator I’ve jokingly muttered under my breath, “They didn’t teach me about this in my preparation program.” The omissions are largely a reflection of the complex, and oftentimes unexpected, aspects of the school leader’s job. But Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower had it right in World War II when he said, “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” Today, universities have to provide aspiring superintendents with authentic experiences that allow them to translate theory into practice. Using the vernacular of our times, they should “keep it real.”

The quality of leadership-preparation programs has been under the microscope lately. In education, as in almost every other field, such programs exist along a wide continuum of quality. So a close look at “best practices” can provide direction to those who seek to improve their superintendent-preparation programs. Here are some of them.

Prospective superintendents should be given ample real-world experiences, such as internships with and opportunities to shadow successful superintendents. Their coursework should focus on scenario planning, in which the superintendents-to-be analyze complex case studies and also report on their own field observations. This helps them synthesize the factors that go into making appropriate decisions—those that will have the most positive impact on students.

Universities that have not already done so should develop comprehensive cohort programs. This type of professional-learning community leads to opportunities for networking, support, and sharing of ideas, and illustrates to future superintendents the power of brainstorming and problem-solving with peers. It serves as an early reminder that leadership need not be so isolated, that superintendent colleagues will be a valuable resource throughout their careers. Universities also should offer postgraduate mentoring and coaching services in collaboration with statewide superintendent organizations.

All superintendent-preparation programs should embed 21st-century skills in their training, so that their graduates can become 21st-century superintendents. The modern superintendent needs to be able to serve as a model for data-driven decisionmaking. He or she must be competent in critical thinking, problem-solving, communicating, and in collaborating with others. Honing these skills will best enable today’s superintendents to effectively guide their districts though meaningful reform, to be true leaders in school improvement efforts. In this context, preparation programs also should deal with issues of politics and governance, as they are likely to affect a superintendent’s ability to lead.

To be an effective superintendent, it is no longer sufficient to be solely a pedagogical specialist. Superintendent-preparation programs should borrow from some corporate models of leadership. Even the best-selling author Jim Collins has provided a sequel to his classic book on leadership, Good to Great, that is more applicable to educational settings—Good to Great and the Social Sectors. One promising idea that draws on this theme can be seen in the “merged” preparation program announced recently by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Coursework for its new doctoral program in education leadership will be taught by faculty members from the schools of education, business, and government.

What should be the guiding principle behind all the decisions a superintendent makes is embodied in a simple question: How will this affect the quality of education for all the children under my watch? Only intensive, authentic exposure to activities that will offer a chance to relate educational reality to leadership theory will produce the kind of superintendents that can adequately answer that broad, student-focused question over time. Universities need to make this consideration the cornerstone of their superintendent-preparation programs.

A version of this article appeared in the April 21, 2010 edition of Education Week


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