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School & District Management Opinion

Superintendents’ ‘Coach Speak’

By Paul T. Hill & James R. Harvey — April 10, 2002 7 min read
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Helping school leaders get beyond misleading platitudes to confront real problems.

Everyone who follows sports is familiar with “coach speak.” Following the latest defeat, most coaches are likely to offer up a string of bromides to the public. “We get better each week. ... I like the effort. ... We haven’t learned how to win the tough ones. ... They’re buying in to what we’re teaching. ... We’re not over the hump yet.” It’s not terribly specific, but it all sounds pretty good.

A similar set of platitudes is the stock in trade of just about every successful corporate CEO, whether riding a hot new product or bedeviled by a meltdown in stock value. “We have the best people in the industry. ... We’re addressing distribution bottlenecks. ... Sales remain strong. ... Management is committed to shareholder value.” Corporate insiders, like avid sports fans, have no trouble interpreting these signals. But to the uninformed, it’s all quite reassuringly vague.

School superintendents play a similar role of maintaining public confidence. “All children can learn. ... We’re committed to high standards. ... We’re on the right track. ... All staff participate in professional development.” Who can find fault with any of that? But what does it all mean?

One thing that distinguishes coaches and corporate executives from school superintendents is that the first two are not required to maintain their public pretense in private. Most of us understand that when the coach or CEO returns to the privacy of the locker room or corporate headquarters, excuses are not welcome. The search for victories or a stronger bottom line is all that matters. Organizational shortcomings are candidly addressed. Weaknesses are ruthlessly exposed. People are reassigned, and heads can roll.

Yet, after two decades of watching school superintendents talk about reforming education, it is clear that although superintendents, like coaches and CEOs, have to reassure local citizens that all is well, their jobs require them to act within the system as though their public pronouncements settled the matter. Organizational shortcomings cannot be taken up; management weaknesses are swept under the rug; and civil service requirements make personnel actions prohibitively difficult. Within the organization, as outside it, platitudes frame the discussion, conceal real problems, and obscure sensible solutions.

In a process that began last December, we have taken superintendents “into the locker room,” singly and in groups, for no- attribution discussions. These were all first-rate men and women, current and former leaders of troubled school systems in large and medium-size districts. In a phrase, they took the gloves off during these discussions. They talked about the achievement gap between black and white children. They acknowledged their distress at how little is done for children who learn least in their schools. They avoided talking about the “neat things we are doing,” in favor of looking at “what might actually work, and what stands in the way of doing it.”

One superintendent described a choice between ‘initiatives that might work but would get you fired, and initiatives that are too weak to do much, but might survive long enough to make a little bit of difference.’

What came through was a candid sense that most popular “remedies” are fragmentary and weak. As one superintendent said, “You can start something that might make a difference, but you would never survive long enough to see it work out.” Another framed the problem as a constant choice between “initiatives that might work but would get you fired, and initiatives that are too weak to do much, but might survive long enough to make a little bit of difference.”

The superintendents had little trouble saying what needed to be done. All said it is necessary to do different things for the most disadvantaged children than for those in the middle class. Doing different things, they said, would require reallocating money and personnel. They talked about all-literacy primary schools, offering reading-focused preschools to poor children only, ungraded primary schools to eliminate the stigma of children being held back, back-to- basics and charter schools, longer school years for disadvantaged students, and even boarding schools for children from abusive or dangerous homes.

In place of ritualized talk about learning goals or professional development, these superintendents talked tough about reading, longer school days, and giving the most at-risk kids extra time. And they talked about these issues in ways that forced everyone to acknowledge the severe nature of the problems and the real difficulties of addressing them. This is the conversation that the superintendent as coach or CEO should be having in the locker room, but seldom does.

Here is what was disheartening about the discussion: There was also near-universal agreement that these badly needed reforms are mostly a pipe dream.

Money is a huge issue: “You need to be able to change how every dollar is spent,” said one superintendent. But that would require funds from existing programs and schools in upper-income neighborhoods. Influential neighborhoods have the programs and teachers parents want, and they won’t give them up readily. Federal and state programs determine where much money goes, and they also empower central-office units that can resist change effectively. Central- office staff can resist a superintendent, knowing that when the superintendent is gone, they will still be there. As one superintendent put it: “You have to try to get hold of the central office. This requires getting hold of the money it now controls.”

The public discussion of school reform must get real. It has to recognize that different children need different approaches.

Many superintendents also feel whipsawed in their relationships with teachers and their unions: “We can get union agreement for one thing, or cooperation from individual teachers for another, but we can rarely get both the union and the teachers to agree at the same time,” said one.

Above all, the discussion revealed that, unlike coaches and CEOs, school superintendents have almost no control over their own time or the resources they are supposed to marshal. “I can’t control my own time and agenda,” said one minority woman, an experienced school administrator. Central-office people often have links in the community, and personal alliances with school board members that superintendents, as hired outsiders, often lack. Said one participant: “The central office can talk and talk and make sure nothing dramatic is done.”

What became painfully clear was that even the ablest superintendents come into the job unprepared for its political complexities. As one superintendent explained: “We have to learn all the toughest things on the job: dealing with unions, firing principals, being humane bosses while putting kids first. Our ed school training implies these things just don’t come up.”

Defining these challenges is easy. What’s hard is doing something about them. But several important considerations flow from this conversation.

First, the public discussion of school reform must get real. It has to recognize and change the now-unequal within-district competition for resources between poor and middle-class public schools. It also should unflinchingly address the system of job protections and seniority preferences that ties up funds and makes staff reassignment next to impossible.

Second, it has to recognize that different children need different approaches. The fact that these schools are all public does not mean that they should all have the same amounts of money, programs, or schedules. Influential parents should not be allowed to block programs for poor children that they may not want for their own children.

It's one thing to listen with a straight face as the coach or CEO pours oil on troubled public waters. But it's quite another when the superintendent goes back to her office and her hands are tied, and the real problems still fester.

Finally, superintendents need to be empowered with the decisionmaking authority and responsibility of CEOs and coaches. They need to be able to hire and fire principals and decide what their central offices should do, who will work in them, and how big they will be.

Superintendents also need forms of training and mentoring that are rare today. They need to understand city politics and learn to head off crises that can dominate their time or get them fired. University training programs should stop denying that things often go wrong with personnel, unions, school boards, and central-office mandarins. Sitting superintendents can also help prepare successors by being candid about these issues, instead of glossing over them for fear that such frank discussion will weaken support for public education.

It’s one thing to listen with a straight face as the coach or CEO pours oil on troubled public waters. Everyone understands that, in the privacy of the locker room and office, these leaders are in a position to do something about the real problems.

But it’s quite another if people let themselves be gulled when the superintendent says everything is going in the right direction. Let’s face it. When the superintendent goes back to her office, her hands are tied, and the real problems still fester.

Policymakers, philanthropists, and researchers need to help superintendents. But they also need to listen carefully and ask hard, even impolite, questions.

Paul T. Hill and James R. Harvey are members of a University of Washington research team conducting studies of school and district leadership for the Wallace-Reader’s Digest Funds. Mr. Hill is a research professor in the university’s school of public affairs, in Seattle, and the director of the Center for Reinventing Public Education. Mr. Harvey is a research consultant at the center.

A version of this article appeared in the April 10, 2002 edition of Education Week as Superintendents’ ‘Coach Speak’

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