Linking Superintendent Actions to Classroom Improvement

To ensure superintendent actions are calibrated and connected to instructional improvement, the Connecticut Superintendents’ Network focuses on the idea of the “strategic through-line” that links what superintendents do to what students are learning in the classroom.

This focus includes all the links in the chain between superintendents and students, embracing the work of central-office personnel, principals, teachers and other staff in supporting and improving the learning of students.

Six years ago, the network began to use the idea of “theories of action” to suggest that superintendents should develop and articulate the hypotheses that undergird their leadership choices — to make explicit that “if we do X, then we expect Y to happen.” These theories needed to be falsifiable, publicly stated, tied to larger strategy and used to shape decision making in the school district.

Once theories of action became widely used (by 2005, having one served as a ticket of entry to join the network, and in subsequent years they have been explicitly used to help focus school visits), the network had some common language to help it focus on breakdowns or weak links in the chains that connect the superintendent’s office with classrooms.

For example, four years ago, many superintendents realized having effective teams was an important link in the implementation of their theories of action and that ineffective teams (senior leadership teams as well as other teams at all levels) blocked the successful implementation of their improvement approaches. The network chose to use its annual retreat to learn more about teams, then voted to add a team observation — sometimes on video, sometimes live — to complement its classroom site-visit protocol. Superintendents read about teams, participated in surveys and follow-up discussions about the effectiveness of teams in their school districts, and coached one another on improving team dynamics.

Unpacking Practices
More recently, the network addressed the key roles principals play as part of the chain. This has led superintendents to articulate clearer expectations for their principals, practicing and implementing follow-up conversations with principals when those expectations have not been met, and, generally, paying greater attention to the leadership and supervisory practices they and their principals use in implementing the through-line that connects district strategy with improvements in classroom learning.

The implications of the through-lines work are profound. Paying attention to the chain means paying attention to the role the superintendent needs to play in envisioning and structuring the through-line and in ensuring it is working to benefit student learning. It unpacks the leadership practice of the superintendents (How do I run my senior leadership team meeting? How do I have a difficult conversation with my high school principal about his implementation of the district strategy?).

By including team observations and supervisory meetings with principals in visits, it makes discussable what and how superintendents need to do to improve. The feedback also makes powerful connections between the teaching and learning that take place in classrooms and the districtwide leadership practices at all levels needed to support teaching and learning.

— Lee Teitel