Guest Column

Who We Are and Who We Need To Be

Viewpoint by Gene R. Carter

In his book Strength to Love, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote "human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted."

Similarly, the salvation of our students lies in the hands of those "creatively maladjusted" district superintendents who commit their greatest energies to tasks that really make a difference in child development and student learning. They find ways to avoid getting caught up in secondary issues that do not connect directly to that important goal, as difficult as that may be.

This century of unprecedented change has brought about conditions that require a new world view. From these shifts are emerging new realities, new opportunities, and new challenges for the superintendency.

The post-Nation at Risk era in public education requires riding a tumultuous sea of change. Among the waves created by this change are restoring confidence in public schools, more order and discipline, tougher academic standards, and higher expectations. It’s a tall order, but school leaders must do more than hold on to the guide wires and weather the changes.

Today, propelled by competitive pressures that have never been greater, teaching and learning is under tough scrutiny from our communities. The complexity of emerging curricular changes requires superintendents to focus the district’s time and resources on school improvement. How students think and learn and how schools can best serve all students become key questions for the 21st century. There are no easy answers. But one thing is absolutely clear. While the managerial and political role and the logistical and administrative functions of schools remain important, instructional leadership by district superintendents is critical to their new leadership role. Superintendents must embrace leadership that supersedes the daily minutiae of events and demands.

We should feel a sense of urgency as we approach the 21st century. The educational and social covenant that much of the world made to its children has eroded. We must reclaim our children. To do so requires a refocusing of our will and a bold moral commitment to develop the type of schools needed to prepare students for the futures in which they will live. Educational leaders must prepare themselves and those who follow them to live and prosper in a new global environment of technology, higher-order thinking, information, and fast-paced innovation, moving schools into the future. These are the contemporary superintendents’ challenges and opportunities.

The fate of public education depends, as never before, on superintendents’ ability to anticipate and envision a totally new system of education. In this new paradigm, superintendents are leaders with creative insight into the new millennium. They are prepared to invent new schools capable of preparing students for life in the learning society. They understand that the school’s mission is to create a culture in which teachers, administrators, and parents are continuously learning.

These superintendents nurture a culture that is built upon a foundation of connectivity, coherence, integrative relationships, abundant information, and the human experience itself. Their focus is on learner outcomes, curriculum, instruction, assessment, and other factors that make a difference in the teaching and learning process. They are made strong by vision, sustained by ethics, and revealed by courage to do "what is right" in meeting the developmental and learning needs of all children.

We are at a watershed in history that affects how we function as a society, how we live, how we exchange ideas, and how we learn. "Creatively maladjusted" superintendents will know how to span the distance between who they are and who they need to be.

Gene Carter, executive director, Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Alexandria, Virginia, is co-author of a new book, The American School Superintendent: Leading in an Age of Pressure.