Punchback: Answering Critics

Does District Leadership Really Matter?

by John Forsyth
The school-level focus of No Child Left Behind — as well as the federally supported emphasis on comprehensive school reform that preceded it — can provide the sense that district leadership is no longer important to school improvement efforts. In fact, supporters of the “too much administration” mantra typically point to central administration as a hurdle to meaningful school improvement. Does research support this contention?

Absolutely not! Several recent research studies of school districts that have significantly — and often rapidly — improved levels of student achievement converge on a critical finding: Effective superintendents are identified as key to the success of improvement efforts.

It has long been the practice in business, military service and in all levels of politics to look to the person at the top for leadership in achieving improvement goals. Research published by Educational Research Service in Supporting School Improvement: Lessons from Districts Successfully Meeting the Challenge supports the notion that the same holds true for educational improvement. Every superintendent in the districts examined in the publication accepted the role of leader of reform. They acknowledged poor student performance in many of their districts’ schools, set high expectations for improvement and made clear no excuses would be accepted for failing to attain it.

Enabling Change

Research conducted in four Texas school districts demonstrates improvement often begins when superintendents undertake the complex and difficult task of changing staff and community attitudes about how much certain groups of children can learn. Attention and time are required to develop coherence between expectations and what is taught — something many schools mistakenly believe already exists.

Other research conducted in the state of Washington stresses that an intense focus on teaching and learning highlights the need to provide teachers with high-quality development opportunities and, perhaps even more important, time for teachers to discuss the practice of teaching.

Financial and human resources must be realigned to support improvement efforts, although often not easily done because every addition comes at the expense of another program or initiative. Not least in terms of difficult changes, a delicate balance needs to be developed between central authority and school autonomy.

Fundamental organizational changes such as these require talented, visionary, hard-working leaders. In addition to being intuitively obvious, this belief is supported by the literature. Researchers have found again and again that change is jump-started and supported by superintendents who have a fundamental belief in the importance of education for all children and who consider it their job to ensure that it happens.

Inspiring Others

Superintendents who’ve led positive change also understand the importance of getting others on board, of leveraging staff talent toward a common goal of higher levels of student learning. A key to the success of improvement efforts has been found to be the superintendent’s ability to develop a team of committed, hard-working people in both the central office and the schools, who will do all they can to see that each and every school reaches the goal of high achievement for all students.

While these effective superintendents provide direction — creating a big picture of where the district needs to be — they also realize that tapping into the talent of others is critical. Thus they encourage school-level personnel to try new ideas and provide both moral and financial support for these efforts. They are clear, however, that flexibility does not negate accountability. These are standards for schools, for principals and for teachers, as well as for students.

Finally, superintendents convey the message that they are personally in it for the long haul. In the words of one principal talking about the superintendent’s role in supporting improvement efforts, “[the superintendent] made it clear he was not going away” until the high expectations were met.

This message of high expectations is found repeatedly in the research literature on successful district-initiated change. And it is not just the message but how the superintendents convey it. Research published by the Council of the Great City Schools describes the fire and soul — the “almost missionary zeal” — of superintendent leaders devoted to getting the job done. Although the superintendents in the districts that were studied differed in their personal styles, the bottom line for all of them was student learning. They did whatever it took to ensure that everyone in their districts stayed focused on this goal.

Does district leadership really matter? Absolutely!

John Forsyth is president and director of research for Educational Research Service, 2000 Clarendon Blvd., Arlington, VA 22201. E-mail: jforsyth@ers.org


John Forsyth suggests these resources on the subject:

  • Supporting School Improvement: Lessons from Districts Successfully Meeting the Challenge, Educational Research Service, 800-791-9308, www.ers.org.

  • High Student Achievement: How Six School Districts Changed into High-Performance Systems, ERS, www.ers.org.

  • “Foundations for Success: Case Studies of How Urban School Systems Improve Student Achievement,” Council of the Great City Schools, 202-393-2427 www.cgcs.org.