The Superintendent as Change Leader

What the Stupski Foundation discovered about school system leaders who surmount resistance to new ways of thinking and acting at the classroom level by Carrie Portis and Mary W. Garcia

When Edwin Diaz became superintendent of California's Gilroy Unified School District in 2000, it was one of the lowest-performing districts in Santa Clara County. Three-quarters of its schools had failed to meet their improvement targets on the Academic Performance Index, California's test-based accountability system.

More than half the district's 10,000 students come from economically disadvantaged homes. One-third are white, 67 percent are Latino and 30 percent are English language learners.

"Gilroy was dealing with issues of low student performance, significant achievement gaps and growing dissatisfaction among community members," Diaz says. In addition, the school district was "completely decentralized. We were a 'choice' district with magnet schools that each chose its own academic focus, instructional philosophy and schedule."

The community's displeasure with the district's performance was matched by Diaz's commitment to the promise of public education. "It truly is the key to a well-functioning, democratic society," he says. "Without a quality public education, the students in this district will not have the opportunities to achieve their dreams."

Target Instruction
Despite a shared desire for improvement, the roadblocks were significant. The sheer volume of structural issues in a district with no coherent approach was daunting. Diaz's ability to build a relationship with his board was critical in developing a strategy that could spur change on multiple fronts.

As board members took on responsibilities in such areas as facilities improvement, Diaz was able to focus on instructional improvement. The demanding work of improving instructional practices was made more challenging by the need to cut $6 million from the district's budget.

Diaz's initial strategy was to realign the district's resources to fund professional development and leadership capacity and hire literacy facilitators. He implemented a top-down management strategy to establish a common language about teaching and learning while engaging administrators and teachers in the work so they could advocate changes among their peers and maintain the delicate balance between central and site decisions.

"If you aren't struggling with the tension between central and site decisions, you can't truly be engaged in reform," Diaz notes.

The district adopted measures of academic performance to establish benchmarks, then used formative assessments to improve instruction and make changes at the classroom level. Clear data fostered understanding and support for difficult changes such as the discontinuation of a bilingual program that had community support but proved ineffective.

Along the way, Diaz learned that "some people want change until it actually impacts them and what they do on a daily basis and requires them to change what they do and how they do it." Resistance came from district staff and teachers who felt overwhelmed by the scope of change and communities that resented school closures and discontinued programs.

The superintendent's response was to take his roadshow to every school, meeting with teachers and parents during the first few years to explain the changes and the vision for the district. "I continued to repackage the vision and direction so that it was relevant to where we were in the change process," he says.

Another major challenge centered on expectations. "Until we achieved some results, there was disbelief that kids from poor backgrounds could achieve at levels we thought they could," Diaz says.

Those results began to appear within a year when all but three schools met their Academic Performance Index targets. The following year, 11 of the district's 12 schools achieved that goal. "Early successes are critical," Diaz says. "They gave us a bump in enthusiasm."

When Diaz moves on to become the superintendent of the Pasadena, Calif., Unified School District this spring, he will bring the same principles that propelled Gilroy to greater educational attainment.

"It's important to establish a framework for leadership by focusing on results, relationships and processes," he says. "As superintendent, I need to be clear about what I stand for, work with all stakeholders to collectively develop a definition of success and build relationships so that the improvement effort can be sustained over time."

Motivation for Change
The Gilroy district reform effort, in which the Stupski Foundation participated as a supportive partner, raises important questions about what motivates superintendents to undertake fundamental change, what roadblocks they face and what strategies they use to circumvent them.

To gain deeper insight into these issues, the Stupski Foundation interviewed 15 district superintendents and seven leaders of education reform organizations during the 2005-2006 school year. Interviewees candidly described the obstacles to reform and resistance to change they've experienced and generously shared successful approaches that have helped them overcome these challenges. Through their candor and insights, we gained a deeper understanding of superintendents as leaders of change.

Without exception, the superintendents characterized district reform as difficult work in largely uncharted territory with insufficient resources. Why, then, do they take on the challenge? Most superintendents say they are driven by a deep commitment to equity and social justice and a belief that all students can learn when given the proper supports. This moral imperative is not only a critical motivating factor, but also creates a reserve of resiliency for overcoming the barriers to change.

Most superintendentsÕ dissatisfaction with the existing level of student academic attainment and the dramatic achievement gaps fuels their internal motivation to forge ahead. Stephen Daeschner, superintendent of the Jefferson County, Ky., Public Schools, explained how such deficits drove change in his district. "We didn't think we were getting results fast enough. Too many kids, especially low-income and minority students, were not meeting our literacy standard. Our district leadership team believed we could get all kids, K-12, performing on grade level. Perhaps even more important, we were able to convince our community to buy into and support that belief."

The superintendents also acknowledged the external imperatives for reform, citing the pressures of No Child Left Behind, state accountability, local media attention and the changing demographics of their districts. Richard Di-Patri, superintendent in Brevard County, Fla., noted, "It's all about student achievement, but it's also about self-preservation. In Florida, the impetus is a difficult and rigorous accountability system. Every school and district gets a grade and itÕs front-page news."

Managing Change
Change means different things to different people, and superintendents were quick to point out that failing to define "change" can thwart a reform initiative before it ever gets under way.

Pedro Garcia, director of Metropolitan Nashville, Tenn., Public Schools, clearly remembers the struggles roused by disparate perceptions of what change would entail. "The board told me when I was hired that they wanted to improve academically and have better achievement in schools," he says. "Did they understand what they were asking? No. Change is painful and hard. There are casualties along the way. People think they want change, but they don't really."

It is important to consider the magnitude of change in district reform and its implications. District reform is not merely adding a new program here or there while keeping the systems and norms largely intact. The superintendents we interviewed spoke of change at a much deeper level—strategic, significant and systemic changes in culture and structures throughout the district. Real reform, they said, requires a break from the past and significant leadership ability to gain agreement for the proposed changes and implement new knowledge and skills districtwide.

Two fundamental challenges superintendents face as change leaders are overcoming resistance to reform and modifying the district's culture. Many superintendents conceded they didn't anticipate the massive effort required to transform the mental models of district personnel and board members so that they could see the district as a system, understand their roles and responsibilities in a new light and increase their expectations of results.

From the classroom to the board room, district personnel need continual exposure to the vision of reform because "cultural norms have to be overcome," according to Eric Smith, senior vice president of college readiness at the College Board and a former superintendent in Virginia, North Carolina and Maryland. "In education, it's hard for people to think differently. There are a lot of biases in bureaucracy. But once people see they can be successful in the new process, they can get on board."

Superintendents and reform leaders stated that the most critical factors in leading reform are an aptitude for and the skill to manage change. Understanding the complexity of the change process is critical, as is the ability to develop effective strategies to engage district staff, the board, the union and the community. If stakeholders don't understand the purpose of the reform, the impact of the change and the time required to implement the change, reform efforts may waver or even fail, which will jeopardize the district's mission and the superintendent's job.

Proven Strategies
Superintendents' responses revealed common challenges and strategies among those education leaders who take on — and succeed at — the role of change agent and reformer. These responses contribute to our understanding of which reform strategies are working in school districts around the country.

• Articulate your vision.
Many successful superintendents led their change efforts with a clear, deliberate articulation of the vision and goals of reform and the desired culture for the district. They worked purposefully to establish a district culture in which personnel have a relentless commitment to results, ownership, equity and continuous learning.

John Deasy, who heads the Prince George's County, Md., system, counsels other district leaders to "use every single opportunity to communicate the unified vision and expectation for student learning. Begin and close every meeting, media opportunity and speech with this vision and expectation."

• Set realistic expectations.
Systemically changing an entire district's culture and structure is a tall order. It's no wonder board members and personnel become frustrated about the amount of effort and time it takes to bring about true reform. Recognizing that stakeholders' sense of resolve may diminish, superintendents say it is essential to set realistic expectations and emphasize a deep commitment to seeing the change through to the end.

"A district needs to see the bigger picture, anticipate what is coming and have a sense of urgency," Thomas Fowler-Finn, superintendent in Cambridge, Mass., says. "Reform needs to be broken down into workable modules, and a cultural change has to occur so that people adopt standards and take responsibility. It all comes down to the will and motivation of school leaders and boards."

Beverly Hall, superintendent of the Atlanta Public Schools, says of her experiences: "I've learned that systemic reform is possible, but you have to be relentless."

Hall points to a recently commissioned study of progress during the first five years of her administration. It states the district is "making very good progress, especially at the elementary school level. But no one in the country has totally reformed a school district like Atlanta, and the study asserted that it will take 12 to 15 years to completely transform an urban school district."

• Engage your board.
Governance was the most frequently cited obstacle to significant reform, but the superintendents offered a number of strategies to build a stable relationship with a school districtÕs governing body. Some superintendents have focused on helping board members understand their role in reform and realize that their political success can be tied to a platform that advocates whole-system reform.

A few superintendents used their contract to gain consensus on a reform agenda and to clarify the board and superintendent roles in policy and management. "My superintendent contract and the reform discussion happened from the beginning," Fowler-Finn reports. "The board recognized the necessity to give greater agency to the superintendent to make the necessary changes."

Others have been able to concentrate their boards' attention on instruction quality and educational equity, aided by a heightened awareness of achievement gaps, particularly for low-income and minority students. "Boards in the past typically never got engaged in student performance," DiPatri says. "Now, with strict state and federal accountability, they've bought in lock, stock and barrel."

Another strategy is to develop one's own constituency among business and civic groups, thereby enlisting the support of the community and mitigating dependence on the individual constituencies of board members. "If the school board is elected, the superintendent needs to go out and build a constituency in the community," advises Joan Raymond, who recently retired from the superintendency in South Bend, Ind. "I went on TV, I was all over the media and I worked the community to build my own support base."

• Involve the union.
Many superintendents feel constrained by the union contract as they try to implement changes in such areas as staffing, teacher assignment and class size. For some, bringing the union into the reform process early and showing how key elements such as professional development will benefit teachers has proven to be an effective approach to improve union support for change.

For Fowler-Finn, the union proved to be an effective ally. "The teachers' union did a study of the achievement gap and what should be done," he says. "And as superintendent, I implemented 90 percent of their recommendations."

• Think systemically.
In many school districts, an earlier trend toward decentralization caused central-office departments and schools to operate in isolation. To undertake reform initiatives in such environments, superintendents need to understand and be able to communicate the nature of systemic change to their board and staff.

However, the day-to-day dynamic often undermines a systemic perspective. "The questions [for superintendents] are always framed as 'What are you going to do about X, Y or Z,'" AASA Executive Director Paul Houston notes. "This creates a tendency to react, and that leads to thinking in pieces. But the work is really about all the parts and how they mesh."

"AASA's recent survey of the superintendency revealed the main area in which they needed help was in thinking systemically," he adds.

Many superintendents report they are increasing centralization of curriculum and professional development in order to align personnel, planning and resources around the goal of achievement for all students. In the process, they have had to identify what should be district-controlled and what should be site-controlled. "Redefinition of what should be site-based versus centrally controlled is probably one of the biggest changes in process of reform," Smith said. "There is a shift to managed instruction and the understanding that there are applications and implementation strategies that require high fidelity."

Vicki Phillips, superintendent of the Portland, Ore., Public Schools, added, "In reform you need to walk the balance between what we hold in common, such as the same expectations for children, versus teachers in the schools having creativity and local decision making. There is no single magic bullet; it takes working with teachers, principals and community."

• Focus on instruction.
With educational equity and student achievement as the lodestars of district reform, superintendents and reform leaders emphasize the importance of honing a clear and collective vision of skillful instruction and sustaining a laser-like focus on the quality of teaching and the climate in which rigorous learning takes place. Thomas Payzant, who recently retired from the superintendency in Boston, affirms: "In district-level change, the quality of instruction is the key variable. You need to have clear expectations for learning and a curriculum with consistent, rigorous content."

Hall, Atlanta's superintendent, says "the most critical ingredient in improving student achievement is upgrading instructional strategies. We are getting much better results in student achievement because of enhancements in the quality of teaching."

• Use data.
Statistical information is integral to the process of district reform. As Daeschner notes, "Fear of change is a major barrier [to reform]. Using data is essential to break down resistance and drive systemic change."

He stresses superintendents need to make data accessible and meaningful to principals, teachers and board members. "Data must be compelling, accurate and understandable, or people won't use it. Data help to define the instructional system. Its use must become ingrained in the district culture at all levels of the organization."

Superintendents are using data — and empowering staff and board members with an understanding of data and how to use it them — to set goals, measure results, develop accountability and support planning, evaluation and resource allocation. "Our biggest change has been our accountability model," Garcia says. "Our principals are now truly accountable and know how to use data to look at their work. Five years ago, they were managers; they put reams of data in a drawer. Now they analyze it and they know how to use it to improve achievement."

• Shift the reality.
Several superintendents have found that the adage "seeing is believing" is particularly applicable to school district reform. Visiting successful districts with similar structures and challenges can help "shift the reality" for board members and district staff by demonstrating that change is both advantageous and attainable.

Seeing how things can be done differently is often a more powerful motivator than facts and figures alone. As Phillips counseled, "Sometimes you have to change people's experience before they can change their judgments."

Hall observes, "If [board members, principals and teachers] can see the effects of change and hear about it in a more intimate way, it helps to clarify the concepts or the practices that are being introduced. Everything doesn't need to be perfect, just show signs of progress. It's very important to have a visual image of what best practices look like."

Successful Agents
When interviewees were asked to identify the characteristics of superintendents who are successfully leading district reform, their responses collectively portrayed an individual who has, as both Raymond and Smith put it, "a fire in the belly": passionate, relentless and courageous. Moreover, the education leader understands the politics of leadership, is knowledgeable about the dynamics of systems and is receptive to learning from everyone who can contribute to the goals for student achievement.

Superintendents with the tenacity to lead change are "driven by equity and a social justice agenda," according to Robert Peterkin, director of the Urban Superintendents Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. "They care about making a difference."

They are "persistent and consistent in their focus on results," Deasy adds. "They have strong networks so they have the ability to access help, and they are relentless about their own education."

In her 20 years as director of the Panasonic Foundation, Sophie Sa has observed that successful change leaders "are independent thinkers," adding, "They know it's not about being popular, but being educationally effective. They have the arrogance to think they might be able to do it, but the humility to recognize that they don't know everything."

Superintendents and education leaders identified two key areas in which change agents are eager for a helping hand by attracting strategic partners and developing peer networks.

A strategic partner — a role that foundations and consulting organizations often seek to fill — can be an invaluable source of support as both a "critical friend" and a buffer to internal resistance by providing tools, guidance and legitimacy. Sa affirms "superintendents need thoughtful partners who can bring credibility, experience, knowledge and an understanding of organizational and systems theories."

A strong peer network can be a source of information, inspiration, affirmation and "renewable energy," especially for superintendents who toil in relative isolation, Phillip Schlechty, CEO of the Schlechty Center for Leadership in School Reform, says. "Superintendents can find tremendous support in a network of peers where people come together to understand and learn."

Practice Bred
These interviews with superintendents and leaders of education-reform organizations reinforced the strong belief that theory is born from practice. Key findings of a synthesis of 27 studies covering nearly 3,000 school districts, published by the Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning, clearly echo the strategies we heard in our conversations.

McREL's analysis paints a picture of successful superintendents as those who set non-negotiable goals for achievement and instruction; involve others, especially principals, in setting those goals; align school board support to performance and instructional objectives; continually monitor progress and make corrections when needed; and focus resources, particularly for training, on districtwide goals.

The themes that emerged from the interviews also resonated with a review the Stupski Foundation conducted of district reform research, our own experience partnering with 17 districts and input from other reform-support organizations. This examination identified five attri-butes for building a high-performing, equity-based school district: a values-driven culture, clear instructional focus, leadership for success, accountability for results, and organizational and environmental capacity.

We believe these attributes could be a critical lever for district reform if developed into a comprehensive aligned instructional system that identifies reform vertically from district policy to classroom practice and horizontally across the many subsystems of a district.

The insights shared by the committed educational leaders who participated in these interviews provide valuable lessons and guidance for us, for district leaders and for those who develop and support superintendents leading district change.

Carrie Portis is chief of staff at the Stupski Foundation, 2 Belvedere Place, Suite 310, Mill Valley, CA 94941. E-mail: carriep@stupski.org. Mary Garcia, a former superintendent, is a consultant with the Stupski Foundation. Also contributing to this article were Gerrita Postlewait and Kiley Walsh, both affiliated with the Stupski Foundation.