Preparing Non-Educators for the Superintendency

The Broad Foundation trains cohorts of skilled executives in various fields for leading urban school systems by Tim Quinn

“Why don’t we just ask principals to implement the changes we know will work to improve classroom performance — and then hold the principals accountable?”

“How can school district superintendents be held responsible for improving student achievement if they produce no results and yet keep their job or even get a pay raise?”

Spend a few minutes observing the Broad Superintendents Academy and this is what you will hear — the voices of experienced, proven leaders from business, military, civic and government sectors sharing ideas with their counterparts in education. They are baffled that public education, unlike any other industry, has such trouble successfully reforming itself and improving its end product, well-educated children.

But at the academy, participants don’t just try to theoretically answer the questions. They go one step further and prepare to solve them in school districts.

Planting Leaders
The Broad Superintendents Academy is a rigorous 10-month executive management program designed to prepare CEOs and senior executives from business, non-profit, military, government and education backgrounds to lead urban public school systems. The Broad Academy is the only superintendent preparation program in the country that actively recruits and trains outstanding, proven leaders, both inside and outside of the education field, to be superintendents of the nation’s largest districts.

Academy participants keep their current jobs while attending seven all-expenses-paid, extended weekend training sessions, which cover CEO-level skills in educational leadership, finance, management, operations and organizational systems. Acceptance into the program is highly competitive and selective.

The goal of the academy is to prepare strong, effective leaders to raise student achievement in the largest urban school districts. While these districts comprise less than 1 percent of all school districts in the country, they actually serve about a quarter of our nation’s school-age children, approximately 60 percent of whom live in poverty and 70 percent of whom are minority. It is no surprise these children have been notoriously underserved, as evidenced by low student achievement and high dropout rates.

Believing effective leadership at the district level is essential to ensure student achievement, business leader and philanthropist Eli Broad created the Broad Superintendents Academy in 2001, and I have served as managing director of the academy since its inception. Over that time, 37 graduates have been placed as superintendents and 45 graduates have accepted senior school district executive positions. More Broad Academy alumni today work as superintendents of large urban districts than graduates of any university’s educational leadership program.

Perhaps the best news is this: In a field where the question of how to move the student achievement needle upward has defied so many for so long, two-thirds of academy graduates who have served as superintendents for at least two years are outperforming their peers in raising student achievement in similar-size districts and in other districts with new superintendents. In addition, nearly three-fourths of Broad-trained superintendents are outperforming comparison groups in reducing income achievement gaps, and more than half are outperforming comparison groups in reducing ethnic achievement gaps.

Massive Scope
Roy Romer, former governor of Colorado and former superintendent in Los Angeles, has called the urban superintendency “the hardest job in America,” going so far as to say, “You have to be a challenge junkie to even consider doing this work.”

It takes strong leadership skills to successfully run an entity as large and complex as an urban school district, much less turn around one that is low-performing.

Most people don’t realize many urban school systems are as large as the biggest companies in America. The New York City Department of Education, with a budget of nearly $13 billion, ranks among the top of the Fortune 500 list in terms of size, alongside companies such as Sun Microsystems and Continental Airlines. Many urban districts have more employees and larger budgets than any other entity, business or government in their city.

Urban school district leaders have a massive scope of responsibility. The district’s problems are their problems — low achievement, high dropout rates, dysfunctional operational systems, facilities in urgent need of repair, labor issues and declining funding to name just a few. Inescapably, a superintendent seeking to overcome these hurdles also must operate within a highly political, racially sensitive, media-intensive, highly unionized and highly regulated public environment.

All this, yet most school district leaders and school board members have no specific experience or training in managing an organization of this size.

Consider this: Does the CEO of a major corporation need to be an expert in the end product, say computer software? Not necessarily, but the CEO must be an expert in managing people, complex systems, budgets and facilities. Chief executives need strong leadership skills that allow them to set and communicate the vision for the company and motivate all stakeholders to achieve it. They need to be well-equipped to hire top experts who know and can implement best practices in producing computer software.

The same is true for large urban school districts, where the end product at issue is educated children, prepared to succeed in college, in careers and in life.

Unfortunately, most current educational leadership programs are not preparing leaders — whether traditional or nontraditional — to handle the realities and complex challenges of leading an urban school district.

Being a “certified school administrator” is not the same as being a “qualified urban school system leader.” Most traditional university-based educational leadership programs will not even accept nontraditional candidates, regardless of how impressive their experience and results in leading large-scale organizations.

But nontraditional leaders offer an important ingredient, one in great demand — fresh ideas and new perspectives on solving systemic problems in urban education.

Breaking the Enigma
Often nontraditional candidates have a tough time making it through the typical superintendent search process. School boards are still most comfortable hiring a traditional superintendent with a background in education.

But “if the board is profoundly dissatisfied with the status quo, they will be open to considering nontraditional candidates,” says Gary Ray, president of Ray and Associates, a consulting firm that assists urban school boards with superintendent searches. “In those cases, they want a strong leader who can be a change agent and turn around the district. Often community and business leaders will pressure a board to take radical action in hiring a new leader.”

Even when a board is willing to consider alternative candidates, in the end, teachers unions and principals who believe the district should be led by someone who has “walked in their shoes” often succeed in intensely pressuring boards to hire a traditional candidate.

The first nontraditional superintendent of a large urban district was Army Maj. Gen. John Stanford, superintendent of the Seattle Public Schools. Between 1995 until his untimely death in 1998, he made a far-reaching impact and impression not only on the school system but also on the entire city.

In his book, Victory in Our Schools, Stanford described the concern many principals, teachers and parents felt about how a military general would run the school system.

Stanford understood he brought along the stereotype of the army general. But he also knew how far off the mark this stereotype was, and he knew how to overcome it. After 30 years of leading the military, Stanford had learned what leadership means — inspiring, not commanding. To him, it meant communicating a vision for everyone, a common vision of where they could go together.

Stanford knew that he couldn’t answer questions about Bloom’s Taxonomy or Gardner’s multiple intelligences. But he felt strongly that to be a successful superintendent, he didn’t need to know those details. There already were 5,000 educators in the district who did.

Although his tenure was all too brief, he jolted urban education by bringing a fresh perspective and new vitality to the challenges in this field.

Business Acumen
Nontraditional candidates also come from business and industry. Consider the career path of Ofelia San Pedro, former vice president of Miami-based Ryder System, one of the world’s largest transportation companies. San Pedro had some 25 years as a corporate executive under her belt and spent years managing billion-dollar budgets.

In 2003, Miami-Dade Public Schools, the school district she attended as a student, faced a financial crisis and was operating $13 million in the red. Superintendent Rudy Crew recognized that to turn around the budget, it would take the skills and experience of a prominent business leader. He called in San Pedro to oversee financial operations, labor relations, facilities, transportation, food services and information technology.

In just one year (during which she attended the Broad Superintendents Academy), she turned that $13 million budget deficit into a budget surplus of $62.5 million, while also giving 22,000 teachers a raise.

An amazing result? According to San Pedro, this is simply what happens when smart business practices borrowed from the business industry are applied to district operations.
And she doesn’t miss the corporate life at all.

“Even though my private sector work was challenging and provided significant financial benefits, I needed to feel that I was making a difference,” San Pedro says. “At this point in my life, it is much more important that my work directly impact the community and the lives of children.”

Blending Talents
In each academy cohort, participants’ diverse professional backgrounds create rich learning experiences and allow for a deep cross-fertilization of ideas. Although academy fellows learn from the urban superintendents, school board presidents, union leaders, leading education practitioners, researchers, corporate CEOs and high-level government officials who are speakers and faculty members, they most often learn even more from one other.

“I was skeptical at first of how much someone from outside of education would bring to the class. I thought those of us with educational backgrounds would have to spend a lot of time bringing them up to speed,” says Thelma Meléndez de Santa Ana, a 2006 Broad Academy graduate and now superintendent of the Pomona, Calif., Unified Schools. “But we were amazed at how much we all learned from each other. Great leadership is definitely a transferable skill.”

Nontraditional superintendents, who are accomplished leaders in other arenas, bring critically needed strengths and experiences to the job, including:
• Experience managing large, complex, diverse operations;
• Experience leading large-scale systems change and culture changes;
• Skills in strategic visioning, planning and accountability;
• Expertise in financial management; and
• Skills in systems and operational management.

That said, there are critical lessons nontraditional leaders learn from their traditional education counterparts during the academy. These include the practice of teaching and learning; the culture of education; the politics of urban districts, including those inherent in race and class issues; and how to work with elected boards.

Practical Direction
The academy curriculum is designed to instill these elements while covering topics relevant to the knowledge and practical needs of the first-year urban superintendent through case studies, presentations, work projects, reading, independent study and class discussion. The five strands of the curriculum, presented over the course of seven intense weekend sessions are:

• CEO Leadership (the personal skills, strengths and vision to lead)
Nontraditionals accepted into the academy already have strong personal leadership skills and have demonstrated effectiveness in developing a leadership team and establishing a shared vision. Through the academy, they learn the history and context of urban schools, various school reform designs and theories of action for reform.

• Corporate Profit (in education, this means achievement for all children)
Mastering the components of teaching and learning is critical. Alignment of standards, curriculum, assessment and professional development are covered, as well as strategies for using charters and choice to drive improvement in an urban school system. Surprisingly, we have discovered that both traditional and nontraditional fellows have much to learn in this area. While many traditional educators understand effective classroom and school-level practices, they may not have had in-depth study of how to align entire systems for high achievement.

• Connections (establishing effective relationships with the board, school community and diverse publics)
Nontraditionals, in particular, need exposure to strategies for working with elected boards, establishing productive labor-management partnerships, developing positive media relations and navigating the politics of race and class.

• Competence (the ability to manage an effective organization)
Financial management, facilities management, planning and accountability systems and operations are typically areas of strength for nontraditionals where they can share new ideas and strategies with traditional educators.

• Career (the skills and strategies of obtaining and maintaining a superintend-ency)
Many nontraditionals are not prepared for the intense public nature of the superintendent search process, so academy staff are available to advise fellows on what to expect in the search process.

The academy is fortunate to have Arlene Ackerman, former superintendent in San Francisco and the District of Columbia, as superintendent-in-residence, facilitating sessions and providing practical advice, insights and coaching. Each participant is also matched with a faculty adviser who is a successful urban superintendent. Academy fellows meet with their faculty advisers in the adviser’s school district to develop a plan for individual skill-building and to provide necessary exposure to urban district culture for nontraditional participants.

Alumni Support
Broad Academy graduates are expected to provide a return on the investment that has been made in them. The goal is that they pursue superintendent positions or senior cabinet-level posts within 18 months after completing the program. Once in those roles, the goal is to significantly improve student achievement.

Unlike other superintendent preparation programs, the academy supports its graduates in several important ways:

Plan of entry — Actions taken during the first 90 days on the job are critical to long-term success. Academy staff provide guidance as fellows develop their own entry plans into the superintendency to pave the way for long-term success.

Contract support — Feedback is provided on the new superintendent’s employment contract, as well as attorney referrals.

Governance retreats — Intensive off-sites between the new superintendent and the school board are facilitated to establish communication protocols and standards of practice.

Functional area audits — Audits are provided as needed to give the new superintendent a quality snapshot of instructional, communications, human resources and other operational areas.

Superintendent support — This includes a weekend retreat with a team of experienced urban superintendents to share findings, ideas and plans. New superintendents also are assigned an experienced urban superintendent as an executive coach.

Facilitated evaluations — Constructive performance feedback is provided to evaluate the new superintendent’s performance to ensure that positive dialogue occurs around critical issues.

“As a nontraditional superintendent, Broad Academy support during my first year was invaluable,” says Mark Roosevelt, superintendent of the Pittsburgh Public Schools and a former state legislator in Massachusetts. “Being able to bounce ideas and issues off experienced superintendents kept me from becoming my own worst enemy. I was able to avoid some pretty big landmines that I otherwise might not have seen.”

Stepping Stone
Often a nontraditional candidate has an easier time moving into the superintend-ency after first succeeding in an executive role, such as chief operating officer, chief of staff or deputy superintendent. This stepping stone experience can provide a strong grounding in school district culture and systems while providing the opportunity to significantly impact district systems by applying strong organizational skills.

Fred Van Valkenburg, a retired brigadier general in the Air Force and a 2005 graduate of the Broad Superintendents Academy, now works as chief of staff in the 80,000-student Fort Worth, Texas, Independent School District. As wing commander at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Van Valkenburg’s level of responsibility was akin to many city mayors as he managed a staff of more than 35,000 and oversaw budgets in excess of $280 million.

Today, in Fort Worth, Van Valkenburg is responsible for overseeing all district-related support functions, including human resources, policy regulation, government relations, student records and accountability and data quality. This role allows him extensive exposure to the workings of the entire school district and the district’s 10,000 employees.

“Having Fred on our team has made us more effective,” says Fort Worth Superintendent Melody Johnson, who graduated herself from the Broad Superintendents Academy in 2002. “He has brought a fresh perspective and a can-do attitude in improving our systems.”

Dramatic Results
Just as proven, traditional superintendents with the right training can be highly successful in the most challenging urban roles, so too can nontraditional superintendents.
Take Paula Dawning, for example. Dawning had a successful corporate career as vice president of AT&T’s Global Markets Division. After retiring and then graduating from the Broad academy’s first class, she became superintendent of the Benton Harbor, Mich., Area Schools, a 5,800-student urban school system.

When Dawning arrived in 2002, the school district had the highest dropout rate and some of the lowest test scores in the state. She brought a business world sense of urgency to the problems, expecting immediate progress — and that’s what she produced. The results were dramatic — more than 100 percent improvement in reading test scores in just two years and a decrease in the dropout rate by 20 percent. In recognition of her extraordinary accomplishments, Dawning was named the 2006 State Superintendent of the Year by the Michigan Association of School Administrators.

Nearly 100 graduates have completed the Broad Superintendents Academy in the first five classes, and another 14 fellows are expected to graduate this fall. The opportunity for some of the most impressive leaders in America to learn alongside outstanding educators in a strong professional cohort, coupled with the practical and cultural knowledge of urban school systems, helps ensure that success.

Tim Quinn, a former superintendent, is managing director of the Broad Superintendents Academy. He can be reached at P.O. Box 153, Old Mission, MI 49673. E-mail: tq@broadcenter.org

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