Special Report
School & District Management

Regardless of Their Titles, CAOs Set Tone for Academics

By Sean Cavanagh & Michele Molnar — March 16, 2015 5 min read
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As the pressure to raise student achievement has intensified, many school systems have responded by assigning a single administrator to oversee that difficult work—an individual whose exact title, duties, and status within the K-12 chain of command varies from district to district.

In some cases, those administrators are known as chief academic officers, though they go by many other names, too: assistant superintendents for teaching and learning, chief innovation officers, and curriculum coordinators, among them.

While districts’ interest in designating point people charged with focusing on academic improvement dates back years, perhaps decades, the roles of chief academic officers have grown increasingly defined and commonplace, many observers say. Numerous district officials point to the gradual ramping up of academic expectations and testing from the standards-and-accountability movement of the 1990s through today as having given districts more impetus to create CAO-type positions.

The nature of CAOs’ work typically requires them to navigate a range of needs. Academic chiefs need to accommodate the goals of the superintendent—whose academic vision CAOs presumably share—with the needs of the principals and teachers charged with making learning happen.

And CAOs need to make sure all the pieces contributing to academics—instruction, assessment, and professional training, among them—are working together.

“They’re the messengers for the values and beliefs of school systems and their communities,” said Sheila Brown, the director of the education and society program at The Aspen Institute, based in Washington, who works with a network of superintendents and CAOs from relatively large districts. “They play an incredibly important role in prioritizing high standards for all kids,” and “really set the tone.”

Broad Duties

This Education Week special report explores the diverse roles that CAOs play in school districts from several angles.

One article looks at the professional backgrounds of today’s CAOs and examines the types of professional experiences that have shaped them. Another explores the relationships between school superintendents and CAOs, each of whom are likely to be judged by their ability to bring academic improvement to districts.

And the role that CAOs play in overseeing the summative, formative, and interim tests in districts, and how they use that information to guide instruction, is the focus of another story.

Other coverage in the report dissects the interaction between CAOs and chief technology officers, who are charged with integrating increasingly complex digital tools and systems with instructional goals. Another story examines the different ways in which CAOs work with, and in many cases, oversee school principals.

Finally, the report presents three Q&As with CAOs working in districts in Colorado, Missouri, and Ohio, who talk about the challenges they face.

Survey Reveals Insights

Coverage in this report is bolstered by a nationwide survey conducted by the Education Week Research Center, which provides insight on the day-to-day duties of CAOs and where they fit within the hierarchy of K-12 leadership.

Overall, 80 percent of CAOs responding to the survey were from relatively small districts, with less than 5,000 students.

The survey categorized respondents as CAOs if they identified themselves as the highest-ranking official in their district responsible for curriculum and instruction. But the survey also reveals the somewhat amorphous nature of the job.

The vast majority of respondents said their title isn’t CAO; it’s more likely to be an assistant superintendent overseeing a group of academic-oriented areas, or a curriculum coordinator. Some superintendents, all of whom worked in smaller districts, identified themselves as the CAO; in other cases, principals said they filled that role.

Many CAOs surveyed say their duties extend far beyond curriculum and instruction. In addition to those duties, 60 percent of those surveyed said they’re also the most senior testing/assessment officials in their districts; 22 percent said they’re the human resources chiefs; and 19 percent said they oversee special populations, such as special-needs students and English-language learners.

Infographic: Survey Data: Chief Academic Officers Wear Many Hats

Among other significant responsibilities of administrators who serve as CAOs: 44 percent said school principals report directly to them.

Seventy percent of CAOs said they report directly to their district’s top official, typically the superintendent. Far fewer, 22 percent and 23 percent said they reported, respectively, to their districts’ heads of finance or human resources.

Infographic: Survey Data: The Chief Academic Officer’s Chain of Command

The influence of CAOs also extends to purchasing, the survey finds. Compared to other central office administrators, CAOs have more influence over purchasing related to teacher professional development, assessments, learning management systems, technology, and other areas.

Connecting Academic Dots

One survey respondent with CAO duties, Mary N. Peraro, the assistant superintendent for teaching and learning in the 3,200-student Branford, Conn., school system, is typical in that she juggles responsibilities across academic departments.

She oversees the district’s use of assessments and study units, professional development, and implementation of the Common Core State Standards. She sees her role as “connecting the dots” so teachers and others see how standards, classroom lessons, and professional development all mesh with academic improvement in mind.

Ms. Peraro has spent about 40 years in education, as a teacher, principal, and administrator, all of which she regards as essential preparation for working as a CAO.

Academic chiefs need a “depth of experience, to understand where teachers are, and how to move them,” she asserted.

For years, many districts have assigned specific administrators to take leadership roles on academic issues, noted Linda P. Chen, the chief academic officer for the Baltimore city schools, who has researched the role and evolution of CAOs. But those assignments have become more common over the past 10 to 12 years, she said.

Some of the recent interest clearly stems from the pressure to improve student performance in the era of high-stakes testing, Ms. Chen said. Others say the rise of new teacher evaluation measures is a factor.

But the growth of interest in having a CAO in a leadership role also comes from a broader recognition that it makes sense to have someone promoting a shared vision for academic improvement across schools, particularly among principals and teachers, she added. While the idea of giving individual schools and principals greater autonomy holds appeal in many districts, so does having various parts work together.

“There are certain areas where you need to have coherence,” Ms. Chen said. “The work of schools has become increasingly complex, …[and] the business of schools is academic work.”

Coverage of personalized learning and systems leadership in Education Week and its special reports is supported in part by the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the March 18, 2015 edition of Education Week as Regardless of Title, CAOs ‘Set the Tone’

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