The Right Badge of Courage


The way superintendents respond to differences with their boards has a profound impact on school improvement.

Many superintendents leave their positions commenting publicly that they simply would not play the school board's games or that their principles were rigorous and unbendable. These anecdotes are recounted with different names and communities attached, but the flavor and sense of righteousness are much the same--the superintendents were dismissed because they would not neglect their principles.

Yet the conflicts that lead to a superintendent's departure are rarely about morals, educational beliefs or integrity. Instead, they often reflect how we as professionals interpret and respond to the differences we encounter in philosophy and approach.

It seems to me that superintendents have a responsibility to work with boards in such a manner that we are able both to keep our jobs and do our jobs.

Heightened Expectations
The last five years have seen an enormous change in the role of the superintendent. This is due, in part, because for the first time in our nation's history, public schools have been called upon to educate all students effectively. This is a dramatically new and different role for schools, school leaders and boards. No country or society has ever attempted to accomplish this goal.

This challenge to educate all young people has developed at a time when requirements for success in the work world also have expanded dramatically. It is not enough for our graduates to be literate and understand basic mathematics. Students must apply their basic skills to solve problems, think critically and work cooperatively with others to create new solutions in the workplace. So, too, must school leaders.

These new conditions have placed education at the top of the nation's agenda and created heightened expectations for the superintendent. Consider the tasks we face. Superintendents are expected to address the demand that all students be educated to high standards. They are charged with providing safe environments for children--often in communities in which no other safe havens for youth exist. And they are asked to fulfill these expectations before an increasingly political and public backdrop.

Mounting Strain
Superintendents of today have not been prepared for this new role. For the most part, they do not have the experience or the preparation for this newly politicized work.

Superintendents have been accustomed to being in charge and have not had to share significant power or responsibility with others in the community. These changes have created a great deal of strain and pressure on superintendents.

As both an indicator and a result of these growing pressures, the average tenure of an urban superintendent is just 2½ years. These are not issues only for urban professionals, however; in suburban districts the average superintendent's tenure is a mere 5 and 6 years. Not a week goes by without a superintendent somewhere leaving the job, or failing to have his or her contract renewed. And most of these partings are not one-sided. It may be the superintendent who takes the lead in separating from the school board, or it may be the board that shows the superintendent the door. In either case, the district loses.

We know without a doubt that lasting improvement requires long-term commitment. If superintendents are to have the longevity necessary to sustain improvement in student achievement, are we wearing the right badge of courage when we leave a district after three years because of irreconcilable differences?

Pointing Fingers
The attitude that you can pick up your marbles and leave the game because you are upset with the other players simply has to change. We all hear superintendents at conferences blaming their boards for their demise. "They just would not listen to me." "All they are interested in is patronage." "They really don't care about the kids." "They are too political." Even if there is truth in these statements, we also must turn around and ask ourselves: "What did we do to educate the board?" "Why were these board members chosen to represent their communities?"

Recently I spoke to a bright, energetic superintendent who told me he wished his board would stay out of his way and let him do his job. After all, he argued, he is the expert; he was hired for his education and experience. What makes them able to tell him what to do?

Fortunately, this was a superintendent who enjoyed a good relationship with his board, and in spite of the frustration reflected in his private comments, he was making a great deal of progress in his district. But I wondered what would happen if a new board member was elected who felt the superintendent was too powerful or was not concentrating on the right things. Would my colleague's tenure end because he had not created the conditions within which he and his board could work effectively together?

In this superintendent's community, everything was working well and the district was making strides. Nonetheless, I saw clear possibilities that the work might end too soon and that the district's progress would be interrupted without reaching its mature potential for sustainable impact on the students. How, I asked myself, could such a bright and motivated superintendent refuse to take direction or have a conversation with his board about how they think he should be running the district? Doesn't he see that he is jeopardizing the success of his work if he fails to cultivate a mutually respectful relationship with his board?

Redefining Relationships
I can point to my experience as a superintendent to answer my own questions. I have served as superintendent in my present district for 10 years and recently won a six-year extension on my contract. I never have changed my principles, but to be able both to keep my job and do my job, I have had to make adjustments and changes in the way that I work.

I set about changing my relationship with my board about six years ago. At that time, a board member ran in opposition to my programs and administrative policies, and she won by a landslide. At about the same time, I became involved in the Danforth Foundation's Superintendent Program and began working with people like Charlotte Roberts (co-author of The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook: Strategies and Tools for Building a Learning Organization), Peter Senge (The Fifth Discipline) and Ronald Heifetz (Leadership Without Easy Answers).

At one particular session, Heifetz pressed me very hard and directly. "Peter," he insisted, "this new board member won by a landslide. She represents a large group of people. You need to find out what those people want and begin to narrow the gap between their reality and what you are doing."

I had not thought of this kind of searching as one of my responsibilities. But at the same time that Ron's words echoed in my mind, I was confronted by Senge's work that points to the difference between dialogue (from dialogos to draw out) and discussion (from similar roots to concussion and percussion). I realized I was practicing discussion in almost every instance when I interacted with my board. I did not try to draw them out and understand their positions and constituents' concerns. Instead, I clung to my own positions. I dug into my foxhole and defended it with my life.

I thought it was courage and integrity that led me to defend my principles so vigorously. I could not understand why people did not see things my way. But it was the wrong badge of courage, and if I kept insisting that my position was always the right one, this would have led to my downfall. As an individual, I trust I would have found other engaging work in education. When a superintendent leaves a district, however, the schools, students and community lose vast amounts of continuity and progress toward sustainable reform.

Slowly, I began to understand the role of dialogue. I learned that every member of the board had a reason for feeling the way he or she did. I found that if we listened carefully and accepted other points of view, both sides could grow and develop united positions that would advance the agenda for the children.

Time-Tested Approach
The effectiveness of this approach has been tested many times with the election of new board members in our district. During their campaigns, many have expressed real concern about how the district was being operated. But their election and tenure on the board has not meant upheaval for the district. We have worked hard to understand one another's positions and have been able to create stronger solutions to the problems we jointly face.

The superintendency of the 21st century will require many new skills. It is imperative that superintendents create the conditions within which they can spend longer tenures in districts. It is not enough to show incremental improvements each year. One cannot declare that a district has been turned around until there is sustainable and substantial improvement in achievement for all students. This requires time, determination, creativity and longevity.

We cannot take our marbles and go home because only by staying in the game can we put in place reforms that will lead to sustainable improvements in achievement for all students. When we do this (and only when we do this) will we wear the Right Badge of Courage.

Peter Negroni is superintendent of the Springfield Public Schools, P.O. Box 1410, Springfield, MA 01102.