Evolving Standards of Superintendency

lead-by-doingRecently, the superintendent of a sprawling school district in the south led a captivating conversation with the K12 Insight team about the shifts in our public education system.

His sweeping presentation touched on topics ranging from his classroom experience as an energetic student and math teacher, to his entry into administration and his vision for education in a time of tumultuous change. But it was his reflections on how the superintendent’s role has evolved over the past 30 years that struck a chord with me.

Nearly every day, I’m on the phone with superintendents and senior staff members discussing their concerns and initiatives. And his thoughtful analysis of how the role of the superintendent has changed  opened my eyes to expanded opportunities for K12 Insight’s capacity to drive positive change in our clients’ districts.

He explained that in the 1960s and ‘70s a superintendent was more of a technician who applied known solutions to well-defined problems. Society expected schools to produce competent employees for large, entrenched corporations, which was a role schools served since public education was more or less formalized in the 1850s.

In the 1980s and ‘90s, with our communities being redefined by the rise of globalization and the implementation of new social reforms, a superintendent needed to be a manager. The manager assembled a team and worked through that team to maximize the productivity of the organization. But, managers were limited by the restrictive bounds of the organization as they found it.

Now, in 2013, the superintendent is the public face of a school district most likely beset by global and local pressures. Each and every decision is susceptible to social media sniping from the keyboards of critics, whether they are informed or not, well-intentioned or self-seeking. As such, the current economy no longer rewards competence alone but demands agile problem-solving skills, cultural competence and technical proficiency. Consequently, superintendents must evolve into leaders.

He then held up a half-full glass of water to illustrate his point. A leader doesn’t simply seek to fill a glass of water if what they really need is a full bucket of water to do the job. The leader must work tirelessly within the community to expand the capacity of the school district to meet the challenges it faces.

Though schools are largely unaccustomed to engaging in these efforts, they must become transparent so that parents, staff and students (not to mention voters) understand and trust district leaders to reform our schools. A community then builds around schools, giving the leader permission to innovate and implement policies that support greater student achievement.

It is a powerful message to consider as we advance throughout the school year. Can district leaders accept the challenge and lead?

Categories: Client Spotlight, Essay

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