Guest Column

Hope for Those Who Want to ‘Do the Right Thing’


Two summers ago, I attended a wonderful, five-day conference at Harvard University along with 50 other superintendents from around the country to learn about some of the latest discoveries in the fields of law, medicine, religion, politics and music--all seemingly unrelated to education at first glance. But the assumption of the conference organizers was that superintendents needed a chance to learn and reflect on the excellent work of others who are making a contribution to the world because it could enlighten their actions as school leaders.


We all bought this argument, partly because it was Harvard and partly because most of us admitted we hadn't had time to read and think critically in a long while.

So what do public school superintendents talk about when given the gift of reflection, a group of empathetic colleagues and commentary from experts about their recent discoveries? Although the topical sessions were excellent, it was what happened between sessions that really was telling. Days 1 and 2 were spent in personalized introductions, networking and sharing of some successes. By Day 3, this facade began to crack, and so began the real sharing about the barriers to excellence that these superintendents were facing back home.

One superintendent talked about a budget cut he had avoided making because he lacked school board and community support for it. He talked about how he would be forced to make tough decisions when he returned because the school district was starting the year with an unbalanced budget. He anguished over the fact he had not been able to marshal enough support to "do the right thing," as he put it.

A second superintendent dreaded the opening of school since she had not been able to convince her board and community to balance enrollments between schools through boundary changes. These boundary changes were five years overdue, and some schools were terribly overcrowded while others had numerous vacant classrooms. The resistance to remedying this problem came from the middle to high socioeconomic neighborhoods that purposefully pitted themselves against the lower socioeconomic groups. The wealthier parents had generated organized support in school board elections, thus creating a board stalemate for the superintendent who was trying to shift boundaries without regard to family income.

Late on the fourth afternoon a small group formed around the snack table and began discussing ways to outfit schools for technology programs. Much of the conversation centered on how to get the resources to pay for the hardware and computer network. One superintendent explained that his community had failed to pass a technology levy three times, so he had resorted to partnering with a major technology firm that outfitted many of his schools with laptops. He had misgivings about this solution since it involved some marketing of the company’s products through demonstrations to school staff and students. He wondered if this constituted a conflict of interest.

And on the fifth afternoon a superintendent in the throes of an achievement test scandal talked about the public backlash she was receiving for investigating a principal and his possible tampering with the test to make his school's performance profile the highest in the district. Did the public want the truth or did they wish to be deceived if it fit their inflated expectations of their own students' performance? The superintendent argued for equitable treatment of all students who took the test, and her position created a maelstrom of controversy that made national news.

Persistence Amidst Adversity
In each of these situations a superintendent was politically forced to duck an important issue or accept blame for being proactive on an equity matter. Such behavior contributed to mismanaged schools or set up superintendents as lightning rods in their communities.

What I found most impressive in every scenario was the superintendent's persistent advocacy for equity and good management, even in the face of job threats and non-support by the public. No confusion existed in these superintendents’ minds about what was the right thing to do, but they expressed concern about how to make the right decision with a consensus of board and community support.

Solutions were in short supply at that Harvard gathering two years ago, but last summer, I found myself with 82 superintendents at a conference sponsored by Phil Schlechty and his Center for Leadership and School Reform. Schlechty acknowledged superintendent problems in a profound, systemic way and spawned some potential answers about how to facilitate public support.

Perhaps the best discussion came in the form of a strategy described by John Kotter, a professor at the Harvard Business School, in his book Leading Change. He believes that transformational change needs a "guided coalition" of people with the following characteristics. The coalition:

  • is not a representative group or a committee, but rather a group of individuals with a special commitment to the endeavor. Members may hold different views, but they must be like-minded in purpose. The coalition is not intended to be an implementation team but rather to ensure that implementation occurs.

  • needs to include people who have positional power, expertise, credibility and/or leadership. No one individual member of the coalition is expected to have all four traits, but the collective group must.

  • invites a few leaders of related advocacy groups to join. The power of the guided coalition must subsume the advocacy group in the end.

  • catalyses and communicates the vision to others and creates expectations for results.

    Committed Voices

  • Could it be that we as superintendents have become so hung up on using representative committees to solve important school district issues that the democratic structure itself defeats us in the end? Yet even if we resist appointing central committees, what about the impact of mini-representative committees that we have created through site-based management?

    My own failure as a district superintendent to reduce the budget through a democratic, representational site approach offered me proof that these groups need to be structured along the lines of Kotter’s guided coalitions.

    Decisions cannot be institutionalized unless people in positions of power see it as their work. This would go a long way toward supporting the beleaguered and isolated superintendent who is calling for important equity and management decisions to serve the common good of all students

    In essence, we need local, vocal political support more than representation of everyone. And we need these committed voices to lead the open forum discussion at board meetings so that board members and the superintendent can respond to the public rather than trying to lead the public.

    A Break From Tradition

    Kotter offers one noteworthy caution here, namely to avoid appointing individuals with egos "that fill up a room, leaving no space for anyone else," and to avoid "people who create enough mistrust to kill the teamwork." This is much easier in the private sector than the public sector, where superintendents have to play the people cards they are dealt. One has no control over a union president who serves as the chief creator of mistrust. This provides all the more reason to invest in ongoing trust-building work so that leadership can depend on a baseline of support for such coalition building whenever it occurs.

    The power of these co-designed change efforts offers a sharp contrast to the opening situations described by the four superintendents. The guided coalition moves superintendents from isolation and backlash to political support, and from piecemeal change to a more equitable approach based on common advocacies. It is a way to prevent a small focused minority from controlling policy decisions for all students.

    Using guided coalitions would really be doing the right thing, and it offers hope for superintendents and communities that are stuck in old structures while trying to make new systemic decisions.

    MAK Mitchell, who spent six years as a superintendent, is principal of ARMAK and Associates, a consulting firm on leadership and technology, located at 2040 Waverly Place North, Suite 303, Seattle, Wash. 98109. E-mail: