School & District Management

Superintendents Gain Advice, New Insights From Network

By Jeff Archer — March 22, 2005 6 min read
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For teachers, practical advice is as close as the room next door. When principals need to know how things get done in their district, they can pick up the phone and call one another. But a fact of life for most superintendents is that it’s lonely at the top.

Which is why Elizabeth Feser, the schools chief here, jumped at the chance to have a group of 11 superintendents from across Connecticut come visit the Windsor district recently and offer a candid assessment of her work to improve teaching and learning.

“We don’t have people pushing us to be better, like teachers have working with other teachers,” Ms. Feser explained. “We work in such isolation.”

The visit was part of the Connecticut Superintendents’ Network, an attempt to break down that isolation and help district leaders stay focused on instruction. Inspired by the “medical rounds” model used in teaching hospitals, the network brings superintendents together for daylong observations of classrooms in members’ schools. After watching closely, they analyze what they saw.

Now in its fourth year, the network is forming a second cohort of another 12 Connecticut superintendents. Organizers say they’re getting queries from education leaders outside the state who are interested in starting similar exchanges.

Participants say the brainstorming that takes place is extremely rare among superintendents. The talk is frank, and revolves around the immediate challenges they face. The focus is the link between district-level leadership and what happens in the classroom. Many of those involved say it has changed how they go about leading their systems.

“I know that I am a stronger superintendent, and more willing to take risks, because of my work in this network,” said Ms. Feser, who joined the group 18 months ago. “I see what other colleagues are doing. I see what other questions are being posed, and recognize that I wrestle with the same things.”

Trained Observers

At a time when collaboration is in vogue among educators, superintendents find it hard to tap the expertise of their peers. A national survey in 2001 by Public Agenda, the nonprofit New York City-based polling organization, showed 63 percent of superintendents agreed that they had “few chances to discuss problems and share advice with colleagues.”

Harvard professor Richard F. Elmore leads a discussion.

While addressing that complaint, the Connecticut network isn’t merely an open forum. By visiting classrooms—and using an agreed-upon method to evaluate them—participants stay centered on instruction. It also helps that their discussions are led by Richard F. Elmore, an expert on instructional leadership at Harvard University’s graduate school of education.

For many superintendents, the idea that teaching and learning should be their primary concern is new, said Andrew Lachman, the executive director of the Connecticut Center for School Change, a Hartford-based group that underwrites and coordinates the network.

“I think they thought maybe their job was to hire good principals, and let them worry about instruction,” said Mr. Lachman, a former official in New York City’s District 2, which is nationally known for its efforts to train school leaders to focus on classroom practice. “Now, they realize they must be much closer to instruction themselves.”

Every two months, the network meets at a school in one of the participant’s districts. In groups of three or four, members spend 20 minutes in each of five different classrooms. Their observations are guided by a set of common questions, such as “What is the teacher saying and to whom?”

Participants begin to “debrief” together at the end of the day, but they reconvene for a longer discussion the following month.

Each visit centers on a specific challenge outlined by the host superintendent. The expectation isn’t that the group will solve that problem, but that participants will come away with a clearer picture of it and new ideas about next steps in addressing it.

“You get the problem surrounded in some way,” Mr. Elmore said of the structured approach.

A Shift in Thinking

Ms. Feser faces a familiar challenge. Windsor, a 4,300-student suburban district just north of Hartford, is becoming increasingly diverse. Half of its students are black, and more than a quarter live in poverty. With that diversity has come gaps in achievement between students from different backgrounds.

“We’re really looking for the superintendents to help us around the issue of, do teachers set different expectations for different kids?” Ms. Feser said on the morning of the network’s visit in mid-February. “Because that’s what we hear sometimes from parents. We hear that from kids.”

The gathering took place at Sage Park Middle School, which serves 1,023 students. After a brief welcome in the media center, the superintendents headed off with school maps and lists of classrooms. From the back of each room, they jotted down notes on what they saw. At the end of the morning, they met with a group of 12 students to ask them about the school.

Members of the network meet with students at Sage Park Middle School in Windsor, Conn.

Even in their initial discussions that afternoon, a consensus began to emerge. Few of the superintendents saw instances of teachers behaving differently toward different groups of students. What they did see, though, were cases in which students were capable of higher levels of work than they were asked to do.

For example, while students’ writing reflected a great deal of thought, much of the discussion in some of the classrooms focused on more basic activities such as definitions of words. Likewise, students wrestled with complex ideas in their informal banter, but some of their teachers seemed to stick to a script. Not every classroom exhibited the problem, but enough did that the visiting superintendents took notice.

“What I heard was that the issue may be more an issue of overall expectations with respect to the quality of instruction,” Ms. Feser said that afternoon, “as opposed to particular groups of kids.”

She still believes her initial question is worth additional probing, but the visit also has refined her thinking about the instructional challenges that her district must address. Teachers are covering more complex concepts than in the past, she said, but some of them need to try new ways of teaching them.

Expansion Plans

Visits to other districts have focused on different challenges. One superintendent sought the network’s help in figuring out why elementary school reading performance had gone flat after a few years of using new strategies for teaching literacy skills. Another asked why the district’s efforts to infuse writing throughout all subjects hadn’t produced the hoped-for results.

Mary Conway, the superintendent of the 2,600-student Plainfield, Conn., schools, said the feedback on such questions is invaluable.

“There is no handbook out there saying: ‘This is what you need to do when this happens,’ ” said Ms. Conway, who used colleagues’ visit to her district to examine how well students were actively engaged in their learning.

In a sign of the thirst for such guidance, about 40 additional Connecticut districts have asked to be among the 12 that will make up the network’s second cohort. In Massachusetts, a group of 22 urban superintendents is looking to borrow techniques from the Connecticut network.

Organizers of the Connecticut network stress that it took time to get participants to the point where they could have the kind of conversations that are now common. Even though all of the districts were selected because they had clear improvement plans, many of the superintendents’ early discussions lacked specificity and candor, Mr. Lachman said.

“They would say, ‘There was a nice feel to the room,’ ” he recalled.

Running the program for 12 superintendents costs $65,000 a year. Funding comes from the Boston-based Jessie B. Cox Charitable Trust and the Hamden, Conn.-based William Casper Graustein Memorial Fund. Member superintendents also pay fees to the network, ranging from $1,000 to $2,500, depending on their districts’ size.

Ms. Feser is convinced the network is well worth the time and money that it takes. “It has given me courage,” she said.

Coverage of leadership is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org.

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