A Radical Role for Superintendents

More than a manager of buildings and people, the effective superintendent must move to the head of the class by PETER J. NEGRONI

When I announced my retirement last spring after 11 years as superintendent of a diverse school system with 26,000 students and more than 40 school buildings in Springfield, Mass., a leading national newspaper placed the position-available advertisement poorly, listing it under "S" for superintendent rather than "E" for education.

Applications for superintendents of buildings and grounds came pouring in, along with well-meaning applicants who paraded their impressive credentials to oversee water heaters, cleaning operations and rent collection for large numbers of apartment buildings.

As amusing as this mistake at first appears, it also reflects an unsettling recent history of school superintendencies. For the past several decades, superintendents and principals have become increasingly focused on managing systems, keeping buildings, schools and the business of education moving as smoothly as possible.

As Professor Richard Elmore of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education describes in his recent article "Building a New Structure for School Leadership," administrators only infrequently have been involved in teaching and learning and instead have been overseeing the structures--the metaphorical water heaters and cleaning systems--that surround instruction. In Elmore's terms, the administrative structure of schools and districts has buffered the instructional core of schools from disruption, scrutiny and improvement.

Management vs. Mystery
The need for administrators to buffer the instructional core of education has its roots in definitions of instruction as a process that is highly individual, idiosyncratic, creative and mysterious. To protect the inviolability of instruction as practiced in individual classrooms, superintendents increasingly have been diverted from teaching and learning and have been pressed instead into service as political beings whose primary activities are meant to foster confidence in schools and communities.

Because scrutiny of instruction is not possible within a model of teaching as essentially mysterious and magical, other means of ensuring confidence and support for education have arisen to serve the public and define the role of superintendents. Do the buses run on time? Are the cafeterias clean and orderly? These matters of management can more easily be comprehended by the public (and thus can be more satisfying for an administrator) than the messy and often-hidden work of teaching and learning.

Yet this dichotomy between the smooth management of schools as systems and the mysterious work of teaching and learning has failed to serve. In the political and economic climate of a 21st century democracy, the need to educate all students to high standards is not a matter of choice, personal motivation or rhetoric. It is a moral imperative. We cannot let 75 percent of children fail as was silently and passively accepted in generations past.

However, the imperative to educate all students to high standards requires something concrete and often powerfully resisted. Educating all students to high standards requires, quite simply, a standard. Not a series of alternative measurements, but one measurement. Not a sense of accomplishment or progress, but a roadmap by which progress, performance and accomplishment can be interpreted and measured.

The establishment and embrace of such a roadmap is essentially connected not to the management of systems, but to the previously cloistered work of teaching and learning. There is room for creativity and inspiration in standards-based instruction, but educators who cling to a definition of teaching and learning as mysterious, individual and idiosyncratic will pay a fatal price for continuing to resist the movement for standards.

Multiple and powerful pressures, including public finance for public education, the impossibly high social price of educational failure and the widespread availability of school-specific educational data, will ineluctably press for standards-based reform. Elmore argues persuasively that if public educators maintain their insistence that the instructional core of schools not be subject to external scrutiny, then the market challenges of vouchers, capitation (head count) grants and charter schools will carry the day, and public educators, Elmore predicts, will "watch the public purposes of public education drift away into matters of individual taste and preference."

Radical Change
Within this environment, successful leadership that enables all children to be educated to high standards requires we embrace a radical change in the superintendency. We cannot manage systems if that means we neglect teaching and learning, leaving the gritty business of instruction to others. We cannot embrace individualized decentralization--that alphabet soup of school-based/-shared/-centered management and decision making--if it continues to consume educators' time at the boundaries of teaching and learning. To do so means we are leaving the core of instructional matters unquestioned, unexamined and essentially mysterious.

Further, we must not be distracted by arguments against standardized measurements that insist we look first at the limited percentage of students for whom a standardized instrument is not workable. Doing so diverts our attention from the masses of children for whom standardized assessments are not just appropriate, but would serve as a much-deserved route to achieving future success.

Today's superintendents must take the responsibility of guiding their communities through the process of developing a common language about teaching and learning. Superintendents throughout the country must personally provide guidance, focus and leadership for the community's process of deciding on measurements and assessments. This is true regardless of whether state-level policymakers are already at work establishing universal standards and assessments. If they are not doing so yet, they will be.

If we truly intend to educate all students to high standards, then successful leadership requires that superintendents must become head teachers again. We must visit schools, we must spend time in classrooms and we must work hand-in-glove with the curriculum people in our districts. We as superintendents should not be visiting the schools by ourselves.

Instead, we must invite others to join us so we take the leadership in developing a shared set of lenses through which principals, curriculum leaders and others will observe and change the ways that teachers teach and the ways that children learn. We must lead the effort for teaching and learning. The more focused the superintendent is on teaching and learning, the more focused the district will be on teaching and learning.

This is not to say that one has to be an educator or move up steadily through the teaching ranks to lead this process. One has to learn what it means to be an educator, spend time in schools and closely watch what goes on within schools and classrooms. We have to know the data, and the data must serve as the basis for dialogue. Leadership for teaching can be learned, and we can learn from one another. The process of guiding teaching and learning will model the very outcomes that we are trying to gain.

Walking Through Schools
In the Springfield Public Schools, we revitalized teaching and learning through an intensive program of school walkthroughs guided by the nine Principles of Learning developed by Lauren Resnick, a professor of psychology who directs the Institute for Learning at the University of Pittsburgh. Although these principles are not the only system of measurement a district might use, they provide a set of common definitions and guideposts that ideally suited our mission of providing guidance, focus and leadership for the community's process of deciding on measurements and assessments.

In a vital sense, these principles do not impose a structure or set of expectations on classroom practice. Instead, close attention to classroom practices, using these principles as a roadmap, tends to reveal the structures and expectations already in place within a given school or classroom.

I have visited schools throughout the country, for example, in which teachers have espoused a commitment to access and equity. As we defined the Principles of Learning prior to each walk-through, teachers and principals claimed to understand the difference between an effort-based classroom and an intelligence-based classroom, using the rhetoric of equity with great feeling and a sense of personal responsibility.

Yet actions within these classrooms often belied that stated commitment and shared understanding. Teachers still made statements, both implicit and explicit, that if one is smart, one does not have to study.

Instead of organizing classrooms around effort and encouraging students to internalize the idea that they will excel by working hard, teachers still were managing their classrooms based on innate notions of intelligence, as if some students have it and others do not. Principals would point to the teachers they considered most effective and enlightened, yet within those classrooms, specific practices, such as the words the teachers used with students, the work displayed on classroom walls and the organizational choices when grouping students, often showed that these same classrooms were organized around aptitude, not effort, regardless of what the teacher might say or the principal might believe.

But it is not only teachers and principals who seem to experience a disconnect between what they espouse and what is revealed in the classroom. Recently, I was doing a walk-through of a school in another school district with the superintendent and several principals. As we were entering one classroom, the superintendent said to me, "This is one of the best teachers in our system," stating further that she was especially strong in the area of high expectations for all students.

So I asked him to define the term, "best." What criteria was the superintendent using to place this educator in the category of one of the best? He found the question difficult to answer. As we continued the visit, I asked him to point out evidence in the classroom that would demonstrate that she had high expectations for all students. His answers were very general and not specific to the evidence or lack of evidence in front of him.

My point is that when we see our role as being that of a manager of a system, we get used to terms and words that have little meaning, or whose meaning is vague. A superintendent of education must be able to analyze the teaching and learning taking place in the system and use deliberate language and specific evidence to pinpoint areas of weakness and strength. He or she must be able to see deeply what is happening in a classroom and be able to help other people to see it as well.

What is crucial about these examples is the explicit statement in the first of Resnick's Principles of Learning that schools should be organized around effort, not just aptitude. Learning depends on students and educators exercising sustained and focused effort, rather than relying passively on their talents.

Such explicit statements of expectations are the measurements, or the roadmap, that enable teachers and administrators to see teaching and learning more clearly. Teachers and principals may believe that their classrooms are organized around effort or that the school is organized around equity. However, the specificity of the roadmap reveals the tenets underlying classroom practice and renders such practice available for critique, replication and change.

When guidelines, expectations and standards are shrouded in mystery, there is no accountability and very little movement toward reform. When the superintendent leads the community through a process to adopt explicit guidelines, expectations and standards, though, one can run but not hide. Accountability is present in every action.

Following Roadmaps
The best measurements should be seen as helpful roadmaps. To guide individual students toward standards, curriculum outcomes, measurements and goals, we cannot deploy the equivalent of an individual Global Positioning System for each student. It is not practical for teachers nor does it foster the independence that students require and deserve. But we are also doing a disservice to our students and our communities when we fail to provide any maps, signs or goalposts.

Educating all students to high standards means that we cannot simply point toward the goal, shrug our collective shoulders and carry on with the business of managing schools as systems of buildings. We have a responsibility to provide the needed focus and direction for teaching and learning.

To do this, superintendents must themselves believe in and understand the deep connection between teaching and learning. This connection often escapes people. I can remember visiting an algebra teacher and seeing him teach a very animated lesson. However, I noticed that out of the 25 students in the room, only three or four were paying attention. After the lesson, he asked my opinion about his performance. I told him it seemed to me only a handful of students were getting anything out of the lesson. He brusquely snapped that this was not his problem; it was his job to teach and it was the students’ job to learn.

In his mind, teaching and learning were separate acts. While most educators--and certainly most superintendents--would not be so obvious in delineating teaching from learning, the practices of many would indicate they do not experience a profound connection between teaching and learning.

Of course, some leaders are engaged in precisely this work right now. However, for the mass of superintendents to improve schools in an environment that requires high-level performance for all students, a radical move away from superintendent-as-manager will be needed. Success in this environment places the superintendent squarely at the front of the class.

Peter J. Negroni, former superintendent in Springfield, Mass., is now vice president of teaching and learning with The College Board, 45 Columbus Ave., New York, NY 10023. E-mail: pnegroni@collegeboard.org