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Special Report
School & District Management

Superintendents Want Chief Academic Officers They Can Trust

By Corey Mitchell — March 16, 2015 7 min read
Duval County, Fla., schools Superintendent Nikolai P. Vitti, front, visits R.V. Daniels Elementary with Chief of Schools Addison Davis, who oversees academics for the 125,000-student district.

Andrés A. Alonso has a three-dimensional view of the relationship between superintendents and chief academic officers, built largely around his experiences as the top academic administrator for the New York City schools, the CEO of the Baltimore schools, and in his current role as a professor in the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

There isn’t a handbook on what makes the two leadership positions click, because “it takes all kinds of combinations and approaches,” Mr. Alonso said.

But one constant is vital: trust.

The CAO is not only a chief central-office deputy but also interpreter and oracle, someone the superintendent relies on heavily to shape and communicate a vision for improving teaching and learning. That can give the CAO position unusual power in a school district, experts say.

“Smart superintendents spend time hiring a person they can trust,” Mr. Alonso said. “That [CAO] is their line to the principals and their line to teachers and classrooms.”

Great responsibility comes with that power. While CAOs need independence to expand that vision and execute the schools chiefs’ plans, their philosophies must remain aligned with the superintendent’s. Otherwise, they will begin sending mixed signals to the school community. And not being on the same page could be a big problem as schools work to implement the Common Core State Standards, manage federal testing mandates, and search for better ways to evaluate principals and teachers.

Polk County, Fla., schools Superintendent Kathryn M. LeRoy and Duval County, Fla., schools Superintendent Nikolai P. Vitti are both former chief academic officers. The two agree that while CAOs need to be empowered, they also must ensure that the superintendent has the final word.

“They shouldn’t be sending mixed messages,” said Jody Spiro, the director of education leadership for the New York City-based Wallace Foundation. “They must share values for teaching and learning and have a shared vision of how to go about making it happen.” (The Wallace Foundation supports coverage of leadership, arts education, and extended and expanded learning time in Education Week.)

Failed Partnership

When a superintendent and chief academic officer don’t see eye to eye, chaos can ensue, Mr. Alonso said.

“You lose coherence in the work, and instead of intelligent nuance and understanding of complex options, you get micropolitics,” he pointed out. “It sabotages the vision of the superintendent and the board.”

In one public spat from 2003, former San Diego schools Superintendent Alan D. Bersin scaled back the role of his chancellor of instruction, Anthony J. Alvarado, and eventually engineered a buyout for him amid mounting public criticism of their reform plan, Blueprint for Student Success.

Education researchers and foundations had praised the blueprint, but Mr. Bersin felt the wrath of teachers, administrators, and school board members in the 132,000-student district, who argued that Mr. Alvarado was much too inflexible in implementing the plan, with its intensive professional-development requirements, double- and triple-length reading classes, and extended learning time for struggling schools. Opponents eventually forced the district to roll back the improvement plan, and it rolled out a new plan that was very different from its predecessor.

In the years since the San Diego leadership conflict, more districts have created CAO positions, but the job expectations have varied from system to system. Some CAOs operate independently with free rein to take the lead on teaching and learning policies. Others take a backseat to the superintendent, operating more like compliance officers rather than trendsetters. However, in recent years, the trend is heading more toward CAOs as trendsetters rather than compliance officers.

Regardless of the model, disagreements between the superintendent and the CAO can lead to “misery every other day,” said Ivonne G. Durant, the chief of academics and school leadership for the 61,000-student El Paso, Texas, schools and a former CAO for the 157,000-student Dallas schools.

Ultimately, it is a strong CEO/CAO partnership that leads to good decisionmaking, superintendents say.

“Ideally, the superintendent clearly understands the work of the CAO,” said Mr. Vitti of the 125,000-student Duval County schools. “That eliminates many of the potential barriers and obstacles,” such as low expectations for students, staff resistance to innovation, and an unwillingness to get rid of long-tenured principals who aren’t effective, he said.

Accountability Needs

Beginning in the 1990s, many of the country’s largest districts—including Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York—hired chief executive officers with experience in business or the military instead of superintendents with traditional education experience. Many smaller districts followed suit, seeking leaders outside the traditional K-12 pipeline.

The chief academic officer emerged as a natural outgrowth of the rise of the nontraditional superintendent, because the new school leaders needed a person schooled in all phases of curricula, teaching, and administration—from the classroom to the central office.

“Instruction is the primary function of a school system, and that’s the person that really knows the business,” said Daniel A. Domenech, the executive director of the Alexandria, Va.-based AASA, the School Superintendents Association, and a former superintendent of the 186,000-student Fairfax County, Va., schools.

And experts say that function will be increasingly important in the years ahead.

“Education looks a lot different today because of the focus on accountability and student achievement,” Mr. Vitti said. He was the CAO of the 350,000-student Miami-Dade County, Fla., schools in 2012, before taking his current job, and sees districts turning to people with strong CAO backgrounds to fill school chief vacancies.

“In the [superintendent’s role] today, you need to be an instructional leader,” Mr. Vitti said. “In the past, the superintendent was a political and managerial job.”

Choosing a CAO

When choosing a CAO, many superintendents opt for an experienced educator who knows the local terrain well.

“I don’t think you can only rely on people you bring with you,” Mr. Vitti said. “You’ll never truly understand the school district and community you’re trying to change.”

Other school leadership experts echo that sentiment.

“There’s no substitute for understanding the context, the needs of the student population, the culture of the district. That stuff is usually hidden,” said Ms. Spiro of the Wallace Foundation. “This isn’t something you learn overnight. It takes years sometimes to glean this.”

But for some school chiefs, familiarity breeds loyalty, as superintendents and chief academic officers arrive and depart as a package deal.

“It’s always a good idea to leave with your superintendent,” said El Paso’s Ms. Durant.

Ms. LeRoy had the best of both worlds—an experienced, local leader in place initially, followed by a trusted colleague later. When she took charge of the 95,000-student Polk County, Fla., schools in summer 2013, she had a veteran chief academic officer already on the job. After the CAO retired, Ms. LeRoy filled the slot with Jacqueline Bowen, a colleague who followed her to Polk County a year earlier.

Ms. Bowen worked in a different job in the district for a year before taking over as CAO, and her predecessor stayed on as a paid consultant to smooth the transition.

In some districts, CAOs are the clear-cut second in command, answering only to the superintendent. But Mr. Domenech of the AASA said CAOs are often no different from other top administrators.

In many cases, the associate superintendent for instruction is at the same level as the directors of human resources or finance and support services, with all of them reporting to the superintendent.

But because of their skills working with curriculum and instructional issues, CAOs are more likely to be superintendents-in-waiting than other central-office colleagues, Mr. Domenench pointed out.

In many large school districts, the CAO has to manage a team charged with overseeing curriculum, assessment, and principal coaches, Harvard’s Mr. Alonso said.

That experience reveals another truth about the CAO’s leadership role in a district, he said.

“It’s less about the relationship between the superintendent and CAO—it’s more about the relationship between the CAO and the rest of the central-office staff,” Mr. Alonso said. “They’re the focus of the instructional agenda. It’s absolutely key.”

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 Superintendents Want CAOs They Can Trust

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