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Will Superintendent Talent

Emerge From Conflict?   



When one of us recently contacted a friend who is a practicing superintendent to ask about his well-being, his response was a dejected, “I am still here.”

The comment was just another sign of a crisis in school system leadership that’s unfolding across the nation. Just when school systems need strong, effective superintendents more than ever, school boards are finding few, if any, highly qualified, well-trained and experienced individuals eagerly seeking these key leadership positions.

Well-trained educators who once aspired to become superintendents now see the position as turbulent, highly political and volatile. In our graduate teaching and professional development work, we hear the talented individuals we want to encourage toward school system leadership asking rhetorically, “Why would I want to be a superintendent?”

Who can blame them? When Maine adopted new statewide accountability measures as law in 2007, the governor and state education commissioner openly criticized the quality of superintendents and questioned their role as instructional leaders in K-12 education.

Mission Conflict
Two factors, in our opinion, have an overriding impact on this crisis: (1) continuing conflict over the mission and vision of public schools and (2) the absence of professional and personal supports for school system leaders.

First, the mission and vision of too many school systems remain a matter of doubt and conflict. The states’ priorities and local systems’ goals for students often differ, making consensus around academic programming difficult to achieve. The accountability movement has imposed learning outcomes and tests on districts resulting in a mishmash of purposes and programs that, in the total picture, cannot be funded or sustained.

Severe funding shortfalls give school district leaders even less opportunity for responsive, creative educational solutions. State funding now is aimed at adequacy, not excellence, just when politicians and business leaders are pushing charter schools and choice. It falls to the superintendent to arbitrate and seek consensus in this chaos. Few will aspire to a position where the expectations far outrun the resources.

Second, the superintendency often offers scarce professional and personal support for superintendents, particularly those who seek to make a difference in the instructional quality of their schools. Three decades of relentless criticism of public education is personally wearing. Wave after wave of legislated “solutions” from outside the profession disrupt honest attempts at sustained improvement. Staff cynicism and school board politics have a deadening effect on a leader’s ambitions.

Few superintendents have personal and professional lifelines that offer sustained support and opportunities to analyze and evaluate leadership challenges on a regular basis. Unlike the business world, public education funnels few resources to support leadership.

State associations and regional administrative groups, with the aid of universities and state departments of education, are well-positioned to help with this void. Professional development and personal support go hand in hand.

If all superintendents have access to learning opportunities where they can address the most pressing leadership challenges they face, the work not only will be more manageable but also more rewarding. As Scott Thompson writes in a Panasonic Foundation newsletter, “Superintendents must contend with a staggering array of demands that are, at best, tangentially related to the core business of teaching and learning.”

Ending Isolation
But it will not be enough for the professional community to step up alone.

Policymakers and school boards must commit to creating a mission and vision for schools that is free from politics, focused, constant and thoughtful. Policymakers and school boards must recognize that leaders need personal and professional support. They must make certain these individuals receive care and concern to keep them focused and growing professionally.

The future success of our public schools hinges on strong instructional leadership from our superintendents. We can’t afford to have top school leaders just survive. They need to thrive. Instead of hearing our superintendent colleagues lethargically concede, “I’m still here,” we need a boisterous “Let me tell you about the great work we’re doing with teachers and kids.”

Paul Knowles, a former superintendent, is a lecturer of educational leadership at the University of Maine. E-mail: paul.knowles@umit.maine.edu. Gordon Donaldson is professor emeritus of education at the University of Maine.


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