From Custodian to Conductor

For today's superintendent, the challenge is to bring out the best in all the players, harmonizing them into a symphony of success. The work is all about relationships. by Paul D. Houston

In AASA's recent study of the American school superintendent, we made an interesting discovery. At a time when the press is full of stories about school conflict and school superintendents losing their jobs, we found a large percentage of people in the job like their work and would choose it again as a career.

The reason was clear from our other data. While they understand the job is extremely difficult with questionable longevity, it is also important work and they thrive on making a difference in the lives they touch.

Leaders of the nation's school systems must have courage, insight and a clear purpose because they are the ones in the community who are standing up for public education as the cornerstone of our democratic system. As noted political scientist and author Benjamin Barber has pointed out, public schools are important not just because they serve the public but because they create the public. And the person at the vortex of that work is the superintendent. To do the work, they need to understand they are in the people business, and the key to their success is building solid, productive relationships with every stakeholder in the school district.

These school districts are living, breathing organisms with interrelated parts that give the system its characteristics and properties. Superintendents are charged with ensuring every part is high-functioning, works in tandem with the other parts and helps fulfill the purpose of the district Ñ to provide a high-quality education for every student.

If the school district were self-contained that job might be relatively easy, but as the boundaries between state, local and federal power over education blur, superintendents are faced with the challenge of not only keeping the organization alive but also keeping it on track.

What used to be a relatively straightforward responsibility is now a complex maze of legislation, politics and community activism. Success requires a level head, a willingness to collaborate and an understanding of the importance of relationships.

A Short History
Education has historically been a state function. State legislatures initially allocated money to local communities for education. Eventually, as the education system grew and became more complex, legislatures created local committees to oversee expenditures of funds. Thus the first superintendents were largely bureaucrats carrying out state laws, collecting data and accounting for the money. New York is credited with creating the first state superintendency when a paid state officer was appointed in 1812 to handle the accounting function for these local committees.

As more students pursued formal education and school districts grew larger, local boards hired superintendents to control operations. Buffalo, N.Y., and Louisville, Ky., hired the first local superintendents in 1837; by 1870 more than 30 large districts had superintendents. In fact, in 1865 the National Education Association created a superintendents division, which was the genesis of the American Association of School Administrators.

For decades, superintendents oversaw the business of the schools — the budget, buildings and daily operations — and gained power and prestige as major community leaders. During this "golden era," superintendents were respected in the community for their business acumen and their moral courage as custodians of the nation's future. They ran the nationÕs education system with little interference from local boards. Even states ceded much of their authority to the superintendent whose role was to make the decisions about school district management. Relationships were respectful and relatively positive.

The culture quakes of the 1960s and '70s and the growing criticism of public education spawned by Sputnik and accelerated by civil rights, women's rights and disability rights movements seriously deteriorated the status and role of superintendents. The rise of powerful teacher unions and special-interest groups changed the manner in which school board members were chosen. Boards became splintered and community groups interested in education became more aggressive and sometimes hostile toward superintendents. Federal legislation including the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and Title IX further curtailed superintendents' power by taking away much of their authority to determine how students would be best served by their local schools.

While accountability for the system remained with the superintendent, authority was dispersed over a broader landscape. Superintendents moved from being the benevolent father figures (because in the context of the times that's what they were) to being the community scapegoats and lightning rods, blamed for perceived shortcomings of the system. They became the target of the grassroots community members who believed their students weren't getting everything they deserved and policymakers who demanded different outcomes from the education system.

Yet throughout these upheavals, the basic job description remained remarkably unchanged. The superintendent made sure the buses ran, the lunchroom served warm meals, the books were delivered, the teachers were hired, and the buildings were built and maintained. It was the classic role of manager.

The last third of the 20th century saw major shifts in expectations for schools and those who led them. America had for decades paid lip service to the dual requisites of equity (access and opportunity for schooling) and excellence (high levels of achievement for all). As America approached the 21st century, the goal of access clearly had been reached: There was a place at the table for everyone, including those who were able and those who were not, those who spoke English and those who did not, and those who belonged to the majority culture and those who did not.

But not everyone was being served the same academic meal. Many of the meals lacked the nutrition that would allow the child to meet the increasingly complex standards of an information age. The issue of excellence for all remained unfulfilled. Beginning in 1983 with the publication of "A Nation at Risk," a spate of reports emerged that focused on the need for school reform and higher standards and expectations for education, for excellence.

In 2002, those who were dissatisfied with the progress schools had made on the equity front joined with those who were dissatisfied with the progress toward excellence. The result was a landmark piece of legislation from Congress that became known as No Child Left Behind. The federal law's 1,100-plus pages set rules for schools in myriad areas — from dictating the accountability system, to requiring schools to hire only "highly qualified teachers," to mandating that schools provide military recruiters with student information that had previously been considered highly confidential.

Educators have joked for years that a Golden Rule in education suggests whoever has the gold makes the rules. After NCLB was enacted, the traditional relationship between the states and the federal government was turned upside down. Now the federal government sets the rules and expects the states to comply. The new Golden Rule is more rules, less gold. The decisions, once made by local educators, are now being made at the top levels.

New Expectations
Clearly all this political power shifting has affected the school superintendent. Not only has the authority of the position been eroded, but the expectations have multiplied. Those community leader superintendents of a bygone era would not recognize the job today.

The role of the superintendent has changed dramatically, from community leader to school manager to education leader to scapegoat, and it is anyoneÕs guess where the job is headed. What is clear, however, is that today's educational climate calls for a new way of doing business. With the formal powers of their position stripped away by bargaining agreements, court decisions, state and federal mandates and local political infighting, 21st century superintendents must rely less on government and community support and more on their personal skills and knowledge and their ability to bring people together.

Superintendents today must be communicators, collaborators, consensus creators, community builders, child advocates, champions of curriculum and masters of teaching and learning. At the same time, they are expected to fall in with the bureaucrats, carry out mandates for the policymakers, and placate the business community by managing school districts as if they were conglomerates. School leaders today need to be nimble enough to respond effectively to these varied pressures while staying focused on the crucial mission of improving student learning.

Perhaps the greatest challenge facing school leaders today is leading the renewal of America's commitment to public education. A modern democracy cannot survive or thrive unless its citizens put aside their differences and their personal desires for the good of the whole. For this reason, superintendents need to be steady in their course, but be willing to moderate and mediate the shifting political pressures without abandoning their core values. They must recognize and honor the importance of relationships and relationship building.

Managing Relationships
While superintendents in the past were responsible for the "things" of the organization, modern superintendents also must be responsible for the people and for the processes of the system through which people relate and work.

Today's superintendents are in essence conductors, and relationships are their instruments. To achieve harmony, they must understand the strengths of each instrument, recognize the contribution each makes to the symphony and bring out the best in each musician. School leaders should pay particular attention to five essential relationships and strive to strengthen them.

• Student-to-Learning
The core work of schools is learning and the core relationship is that of student to learning. To promote that connection, superintendents must be aware of the latest research on teaching and learning and be able to lead an administrative team that will ensure that sound teaching and learning are at the center of the education system.

We also know student learning happens when students are motivated and the best motivation is intrinsic. The relationship between student and learning must be built around learning that is meaningful and engaging to students. They can't be told something is important to learn. They must experience it.

• Student-to-Student
Schools must be safe environments, physically and psychologically, which means they must push against the normal tendencies of children to tease and bully others. Schools must help students understand the importance of giving to the greater good and honoring others for their differences. Toward this end, the school leader must understand child development, group dynamics and the myriad other skills involved in helping people, especially young people, get along with each other.

While school safety has become a hot button for most school leaders, they must look past the immediate to understand how student connectedness is central to safety and ultimately to learning. Much of the work of the superintendent is to create this connection between students by creating systems and opportunities that will enhance and deepen this connection.

• Adult-to-Child
Adults must understand the impact their words and actions have on children. Superintendents must ensure that the adults in the school system who work with children not only understand them, but also like and respect them, have empathy for them and hold high expectations for performance. The adults must be able to create classroom environments that encourage students to think critically, participate in school governance and understand the principles of democracy.

Like gardeners, teachers plant seeds with students every day by what they say to them and how they interact with them. These can be seeds of encouragement and possibility or they can be seeds of doubt and despair. The verbal messages and the meta messages of the little acts carried out by teachers in the classroom create the possibilities for children to dream big dreams or to wither on the vine.

• Adult-to-Adult
Schools are the superintendents' classrooms. They must understand how adult learning differs from child learning and be able to create democratic working conditions and a culture that elevates and energizes the adults in the system. Schools are not widget factories; they are human enterprises and the workers who make these enterprises successful are the teachers, administrators and support staff who come to work every day ready to build new futures for children. If we expect the adults to affirm the children, they must be affirmed. If we want children to collaborate and cooperate, the conditions for that must exist for the adults as well.

While superintendents worry about student learning, that learning is made possible by the adults in the system. Helping them do their work is the superintendentÕs biggest task. And it doesn't hurt if the superintendent has a good sense of humor because with adults involved, things will never work out quite the way you might hope.

• School-to-Community
School districts are not islands in the stream, and superintendents are the only ones capable of anchoring the district to the mainland of their community. In fact, the quality of the school system will rise from the quality of the community around it. Superintendents must be aware that not only does it take a village to raise a child, but that a large part of the role of superintendent is to raise the village. This requires reaching out and building networks of support around the system and its children.

To strengthen the effectiveness of this key relationship, superintendents must become system thinkers. W. Edwards Deming, the father of the quality movement, was fond of pointing out that organizations were perfectly designed to yield the results they were getting. The same can be said for school systems. If we want to change the results, we must change the system; to do that we must change the systems within the system and connect to the systems that surround it.

Making Connections
One of the biggest challenges school systems face is overcoming the misconceptions of our society. We equate organizations to cars or airplanes that can be fixed by changing a part here or there. In reality, human enterprises, including school systems, are more like plants than machines and must be treated as organic entities with interrelated parts.

I am reminded of a professor who once told a group of superintendents that if you drained the Pacific Ocean you would find all the islands connected. He meant that when you look deep enough below the surface of our reality, it isn't a collection of separate entities. School leaders must understand that all the people they work with are connected in basic ways. Leadership in this context must be holistic and healing. All the parts must be seen as subsets of the whole, affecting it and affected by it. It is a new way for leaders to understand their work; it is essential if schools are to model democracy for our students and staff.

The superintendent's work in strengthening relationships is no longer an exercise in power over others. The old model of the superintendency that embodied a sense of omnipotence no longer is possible or desirable. If we want effective school systems, superintendents must transform a "power over" mentality into a "power with" view of working with people.

Leadership, at its core, is getting things done through others. Teachers are not people who must be directed and students are not empty vessels to be filled. The old view that students are there to have education done to them does not fit a holistic view of the universe. Education cannot be invoked into the student. It must be evoked from the student, which means that it must be engaging and meaningful.

A Transformative Role
Modern school superintendents must understand the work they do is vital to the future of our democracy, that it must be holistic and systemic in its approach, that it is work that requires one to reach out to the broader community and that it requires looking at the system in new and creative ways. Schools must be transformed, not because they have failed in their traditional mission, but because the mission and the context have changed so dramatically. Effective school superintendents see themselves as superintendents of learning; they see their roles as transformative, democratic leaders who bring out the best in those around them.

Defining the role as being simply another CEO misses its challenge and its possibility. Superintendents aren't merely running organizations. They are dream merchants and civic saviors. They must bring out the best in all around them and harmonize that into a symphony of success. Superintendents must become composers and conductors who create the music and direct its performance.

To do this they must go beyond focusing on what they do and make certain they understand who they are. Leadership is, at its core, a human enterprise. Superintendents must stay in touch with their humanity so they can help others find theirs. This is what Cornel West once described as "soul work," and it is the essence of the modern superintendent—a far cry from the work that was first envisioned for the role. Superintendents are no longer custodians of the books and buildings. They are the conductors of the orchestra—charged with making beautiful music with all the players.

Paul Houston is AASA executive director.