While principal- and superintendent-training programs are ubiquitous, and in many cases a necessary step toward taking on those roles, preparation programs specifically for chief academic officers simply do not exist.
That’s in part because the role itself presents something of a dichotomy: It’s a 30,000-foot-level executive position with the boots-on-the-ground focus of classroom instruction.
And while superintendents are at times recruited from noneducation sectors—politics, business, law—the need for CAOs to have a strong instructional background means many have climbed the district ladder, starting from the classroom.
“These folks are more likely than not going to be on a traditional track,” said Sheila Brown, the director of the education and society program at, based in Washington, who convenes a group of 16 CAOs from urban districts several times a year for professional development. “Many have been teachers and principals, and probably all have had some director or senior-level responsibility for curriculum and instruction.”
But the trajectory isn’t always straight. Some people skip ladder rungs or divert to private consulting on their way to CAO jobs. And, as Ms. Brown points out, “some of them move very quickly” through the tiers to the chief role.
What CAOs do tend to share is that they’ve demonstrated a strong understanding of the instructional demands in the classroom, as well as an ability to recognize instructional knowledge in others.
“It’s a person who can create a strategic plan on the teaching and learning side of the house but also on the human-capital side,” said Ms. Brown. “I think superintendents need them to be real connectors of the work, and dynamic CAOs, they do that.”
Education Week recently talked to several current and former CAOs about their jobs and the professional experiences that led them to be curriculum leaders.
Marie L. Izquierdo
Chief academic officer for Miami-Dade County, Fla., public schools
Student Enrollment: 350,000
Base Salary: $140,777
Education: Florida International University, bachelor of arts and master’s in educational leadership
For Ms. Izquierdo, the goal was never to go to the central office—and it certainly wasn’t to become the superintendent’s second in command. What she really wanted to do was become a principal and open a brand-new high school. “I just wanted to pick out school colors, pick my staff from scratch, and order furniture,” she said.
After five years as a teacher and about a decade as an assistant principal for a middle school in the Miami-Dade district, Ms. Izquierdo was tapped for a principalship at an elementary school in Little Havana, the neighborhood she grew up in. The school had a D grade, based on the state’s rating system at the time, she said.
“We had No Child Left Behind breathing down our necks, and within three years, it was an A, then a higher A in year four,” she said. “By year five, we met 100 percent adequate yearly progress. ... It was a really big success story in that school.”
The Florida Department of Education recruited her to work with superintendents in Miami-Dade, Palm Beach, and Monroe counties on school turnaround. In 2010, the superintendent in Miami-Dade offered her a position as deputy chief of staff. From there, she was on a fast track to assistant superintendent and CAO.
“I’ve always seen my job as exactly the same regardless of the title,” she said. “I’ve always believed my job is to facilitate teaching and learning in the classroom. To get rid of the noise and provide the resources necessary to allow teachers to do their work.”
In other words, she says, her charge is to “untie knots.”
For Ms. Izquierdo, one of the toughest tasks is to maintain focus on student achievement and supporting classrooms, and—“not be easily distracted by peripheral events or circumstances,” she explained. “It’s to keep the main thing, the main thing. ... I’m that person going, ‘What does this have to do with teaching and learning?’”
Donyall D. Dickey
Chief academic support officer, Philadelphia public schools
Student Enrollment: 132,000
Base Salary: $165,000
Education: University of Texas at Austin, bachelor of arts; Loyola University, master’s in educational leadership; George Washington University, Ph.D. in educational leadership and policy studies
When Mr. Dickey took over as CAO for the Philadelphia public schools at the end of last school year, he did something pretty much unheard of: He led teacher professional development himself.
At times, that meant he was standing in front of as many as 1,500 teachers, delving into literary devices and discussions of “main idea.”
“Train-the-trainer model works for some things, in some settings,” he said. “I wanted to try direct support to schools based on what I heard in the field.”
It’s the same way he approached his work as a principal in Baltimore and Howard County, Md. He was directly involved in providing the professional development there, too, and with a focus on content rather than pedagogy. “Rather than saying to people, ‘Here are the strategies you can use,’ we spent time making sure everyone understood the content they were supposed to be teaching really well,” Mr. Dickey explained. “That gave life to the strategies.”
Mr. Dickey is one of the leaders who shot up through the ranks quickly. He taught for just three½ years before taking on his first assistant principalship—a promotion he fully attributes to his students’ academic gains.
“After my first year of being a teacher, my students were recognized for having the most significant gains in the school,” he said.
To continue to hone his own teaching skills, and to gain experience with the, Mr. Dickey is aiming to teach at least three demonstration lessons every year as the CAO—one each in an elementary, middle, and high school classroom. “There are few things you can substitute for classroom experience,” he said. “And I don’t know what they are.”
Chief innovation and academic officer, Denver public schools
Student Enrollment: 90,000
Base Salary: $179,000
Education: Wesleyan University, bachelor of arts; Harvard Graduate School of Education, master’s in educational administration
Ms. Whitehead-Bust breaks the mold for chief academic officers: She’s never been a traditional classroom teacher.
The term Ms. Whitehead-Bust uses for herself is “crossover leader,” since she spent much of her early career in the charter sector. She served as a founding principal for the Denver-based Highline Academy Charter School and worked with many charters over a decade in Boston as a consultant.
“I’m really grateful I have a slightly different vantage point coming out of the charter sector,” she said, “and for having seen in my experience other ways of doing the core work of teaching and learning.”
She also worked on state policy, helping implement, the landmark 2010 state law that dramatically alters how teachers are evaluated. That bill ties evaluations to student achievement and revamps the tenure-granting process.
According to Ms. Whitehead-Bust, her work as a principal offered some of the best preparation for her job as a CAO. “I think the most important component of our work that we need to get right is reducing complexities for our school leaders,” she said. “We need to be designing around their experiences.”
In her current hybrid role, as the chief academic and innovation officer for the Denver public schools, Ms. Whitehead-Bust oversees approval and accountability for charter schools, in addition to working with district schools. “The advantage is this cross-pollination idea—being able to have one component of my work focused on innovation and charters allows me to understand best practices,” she said. “In Denver, our charter schools outperform our noncharter schools. ... It’s a big advantage to be able to learn from what’s happening in those environments.”
Her policy work has also been a boon for her current role, she said. “I have been able to think about systems and structures at scale,” she said. “High-quality implementation isn’t just the responsibility of heroic leaders, but it’s built into the durable structure of an organization.”
Chief academic officer for Seattle public schools, 2009 to 2011; current superintendent of Highline public schools in Burien, Wash.
Student Enrollments: Seattle, 52,000; Highline, 19,000
Base Salaries: $175,000 in 2011; $220,000 in 2014 as superintendent
Education: University of California, Berkeley, bachelor of arts; Stanford and Harvard universities, masters’ in education; Harvard Graduate School of Education, Ph.D. in administration, planning, and social policy
After seven years as a high school teacher in Cupertino and San Anselmo, Calif., Ms. Enfield jumped on a leadership track—bypassing the assistant principal and principal roles.
Instead, she worked alongside principals as a school improvement coach with the Bay Area School Reform Collaborative. “I was young, I had not been a principal, but my approach to working with principals was to go in and say, ‘Let’s build a relationship. How can I support you? You’re the expert, you’re the leader of the building.’ ”
She focused on using student data “to measure how we as adults were doing,” which “in the 90s, was very new,” she said.
Ms. Enfield moved on to teaching- and learning-support roles with the Pennsylvania education department and Portland, Ore., public schools, before becoming a deputy superintendent in Vancouver, Wash. In 2009, she took over the CAO position for the Seattle system. She has since gone on to become the superintendent of a smaller district nearby.
“Some people will disagree, but I don’t know if you have to have been a principal to be a CAO,” she said. “But you have to have been a teacher. You have to know the interplay between content, assessment, and instructional practice.”
When working with her own CAO now, Ms. Enfield said she’s mindful not to cross the line on instructional decisions. “I’ve explicitly said to [my CAO], ‘Look, this is my passion, my background, my love, but it’s your job, your responsibility. You need to tell me when to [back] off.’”
Sonja Brookins Santelises
Chief academic officer for Baltimore public schools, 2010 to 2013; current vice president of K-12 policy and practice for the Education Trust, based in Washington
Student Enrollment: 85,000
Base Salaries: $175,000 in 2013; $231,000 in 2014 with the Education Trust
Education: Brown University, bachelor of arts; Teachers College, Columbia University, master’s in education administration; Harvard Graduate School of Education, Ph.D. in education administration, planning, and social policy
Ms. Santelises came into the chief academic officer position with just a few years of teaching experience and through what she says was a nontraditional pathway at the time. That didn’t tarnish her “street cred,” though, she said. “School people know if you understand schools. You can’t hide that.”
Before working for the Baltimore schools, Ms. Santelises was an assistant superintendent in Boston, overseeing teaching and learning and then a network of pilot schools. She also worked as a consultant for urban districts. Those few years consulting taught her to “use your hammer wisely,” she said.
As an outside consultant, “if you can’t make your case for why this is the right thing to do for kids, people don’t have to pay you,” she said. “That taught me the power of knowing, understanding, and coaching, and not always using formal authority.”
Her career in education started with the alternative-teacher-preparation program, where she worked as a trainer and recruiter. She then co-founded a year-round school in New York City.
One big challenge for a CAO is to maintain the momentum around academics even amid “the cacophony of crazy politics,” Ms. Santelises said. “I don’t think people realize just how much pressure there is to focus on everything but the core work of teaching and learning.”
As CAO, “I sat with teachers, I was out in classrooms,” she said. Principals and teachers “need to know you know how hard their work is.”
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 Turning District Visions Into Classroom Realities