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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

Searching for Common Ground: How Education Leaders Can Navigate Divisiveness

Superintendents and school boards operate in communities in which there coexist profoundly different views
By Rick Hess — December 13, 2022 5 min read
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Pedro Noguera, the dean of the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education, and I have a podcast (Common Ground: Conversations on Schooling) in which we dig into our disagreements and seek to identify common ground on some of education’s thorniest questions. I thought readers might be interested in occasional snippets of those conversations. Over the past few years, school boards have been very much in the news. This month, a handful of Florida boards terminated their district superintendents, prompting heated debate about whether this was democratic accountability or political overreach. Pedro and I discussed our thoughts on how school boards should interact with the public, the importance of superintendents, and why it seems like there’s been a lot more chatter about these roles now.

—Rick

Rick: This past year, we’ve seen a lot of superintendents in the hot seat and school board members facing recalls. Just the other week, there was a stir in Florida over the ousting of a few district superintendents—in what some called a politically motivated move and what others regarded as an example of democratic accountability. What are you seeing, and how are you thinking about it?

Pedro: I was once a school board member myself, as you know, and what’s strange about this is that, in most communities, people don’t even know who their school board members are. It’s kind of been this anonymous job, but suddenly, they are at the fulcrum of a lot of controversy. I think many of them are overwhelmed, especially because in some cases, there have been threats of violence at board meetings. I know there are a lot of superintendents who have been quitting because they say it is not worth it anymore. That’s a huge problem because our schools need good leaders and too many are being intimidated and driven out of their jobs unfairly. It’s another sign that the polarization we’ve seen in other aspects of our country have now invaded education, even at the local level. This is not a good thing for kids or schools.

Rick: In some sense, it seems there’s been a bit of a perfect storm. One, during the pandemic, a lot of how schools operated suddenly became more transparent to parents. And so, parents, whether they see their kid’s teacher working really hard or delivering a lesson plan that they find deeply problematic, it’s right there. There was a lot less buffer than we’d been used to. Second, there were COVID-related fights about social distancing, masking, school closures, and vaccinations. And that stirred a lot of activity and organization. Third, there are things like social-emotional learning, critical race theory, and issues related to sex and gender that are charged, value-laden debates and which bleed into the national political discourse. It seems to me that these combined over the past few years to turbocharge school politics. And right in the middle of that storm are these superintendents and school boards who operate in communities in which there coexist profoundly different views on all this. And I think board members and superintendents can get overwhelmed trying to negotiate these currents.

Pedro: I also think that most board members and superintendents really haven’t been trained on how to communicate with the public and how to mediate these controversies, so it’s overwhelming for them. I’ve been talking to superintendents quite a bit, and many of them are thinking about retiring early because of these conflicts, and a lot of them really don’t have a clear sense of how to get through this. And you know they’re saying, “This is not what we signed up for.” We need to make education a nonpartisan issue.

Rick: One of the things I’ve long had doubts about is the advisability of some efforts to reform governance, such as seemingly innocuous “sunshine laws.” These laws govern how board members can communicate, making it tough for them to meet privately or hash things out. It becomes very hard for a couple of board members to really talk things through like colleagues, rather than just engage in formal public hearings—with all the formal routines and performative dynamics that kick in. Day to day, board members just don’t have a lot of opportunity to sit down, listen, and work disagreements out.

Pedro: The reason we have those laws, of course, is to ensure transparency. Particularly around financial decisions because, as we both know, there’s corruption and nepotism in certain districts, and there have been cases of kickbacks and friends getting district contracts. Too often, people are not just thinking about kids. When they think about school districts, they’re thinking about jobs and money. But I get your point. If we don’t have the ability to discuss tough issues without intense public scrutiny, it makes it very hard to come up with reasonable policies that work in the best interest of the community. I don’t know what the answer is to this problem. But I know there’s good reason to keep some of those sunshine laws, given the track record, and we should be careful about allowing boards to make important decisions in private.

Rick: I hear you. And you’re obviously right about corruption and fiduciary transparency. I guess I wonder if we can’t find ways to address those concerns while also giving board members more leeway to seek common ground on more value-laden disputes. There’s a related point I want to raise, too. On the one hand, we talk a lot about the need for education leaders to engage their constituents, earn buy-in, and seek consensus—and the importance of preparing leaders to do so. On the other hand, I’ve often been unimpressed by many superintendents’ actual ability to do this and I don’t know how many really get much support on that score. When I talk to superintendents, they always make it a point to say, “Obviously I want to engage everyone in the community, and that’s a priority.” In practice, when I’ve worked with superintendents or observed them closely, I find that to be much less true.

Pedro: You know the hardest thing to teach a leader is how to exercise good judgment, when to display discretion—especially in their public remarks—and how to work with people that are hostile and angry. But these are really important leadership skills, especially right now. And, I think, those who don’t have those kinds of abilities will find the superintendent job is just not tenable after a while. What you often see is that board members get elected, and they abuse or misuse power—and too many serve for way too long. That’s the reason I think it is important for there to be public participation in school board elections and meetings. The public must be informed so that the issues that are most important for serving kids are at the forefront.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. To hear the rest of the conversation, check out Episode 6 of Rick and Pedro’s Common Ground Podcast, “School Board and Superintendents.”

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.

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