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A Complex Web: The New

Normal for Superintendents

A superintendents network in Pennsylvania wrestles to make sense of systems that ‘may be beyond our cognitive limits’


For the past 70 years, groups of superintendents from the greater Philadelphia region have met monthly at the University of Pennsylvania to discuss current trends and challenges relating to their leadership roles. Recently, one of the study councils decided it needed “to go beyond the generic, the hackneyed and the mundane to develop a theme that is exciting and cutting-edge, that deals with the ‘new normal’ that is evolving in these most demanding times.”

The superintendents shared a simple but disheartening perception: The institution of public education is under siege, and even the best-resourced and highest-performing school districts are in a fight for economic and political survival.

Within that context, the study council opted to organize its programs around this theme: Rethinking the architecture of leading and learning. This enabled the school system leaders to consider a range of the issues they are confronting:

  • From meeting the challenges of charter schools to understanding the potential in new teacher evaluation systems.
  • From considering how leaders in other fields (e.g., technology firms) are dealing with the current context to digging into ways to use technology as a force in instruction and learning.
  • From dealing with swinging pendulums to strategically leading/managing talent (staff and school board).

Sokoloff Lytle
Harris Sokoloff (left) and James "Torch" Lytle of the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education use the threads on a spider map to illustrate the complexity of the superintendency.

Starting Assumptions
In response, the two of us developed a nine-month program. What emerged was a combination of organized sessions dealing with the increasing complexity of district leadership, including the possibility of creating self-improving school systems.

In response, the two of us developed a nine-month program. What emerged was a combination of organized sessions dealing with the increasing complexity of district leadership, including the possibility of creating self-improving school systems.

The study council, with about 25 participating superintendents, quickly embraced the notion of complexity because it so accurately incorporated what they were living daily. As the year progressed, the group discussed everything from choice and out-of-school learning to declining resources and dealing with board member e-mails, texts and tweets 24 hours a day.

As instructors, we started with an assumption — that superintendents could address many of the challenges facing schools and districts if they became self-improving systems organized in learning networks, an approach advocated by British educational sociologist David Hargreaves. But that assumption was tested by the ensuing conversations as we collectively recognized the pressures and complexities the superintendents were confronting.

The five sessions dealt with:

  • The pressures and anxieties students, their parents, teachers, principals, superintendents and school boards are feeling.
  • The multiple ways instructional and communications technology are reshaping the schooling experience, and teaching and learning.
  • How districts are coping with increasing competition and market pressures.
  • The commoditization of schooling.
  • Reflecting on one’s leadership role, accomplishments and challenges, both past and future, in the face of increasing complexity.

Recurrent Themes
Lurking behind these topics were such shared challenges as responding to state accountability systems, adopting and adapting new teacher and principal evaluation systems mandated by state departments of education, implementing core curriculum content standards, anticipating national assessments and increasing college access.

As the sessions progressed, several telling and recurrent issues emerged:

  • Awareness of widespread anxiety and uncertainty among stakeholder groups, employees, students, parents and communities.
  • Coping with increased expectations for 24-hour communication (especially from the school board), district website design and social media management.
  • Dealing with school and district “brand management,” privatization, choice, market models, competition, charters, vouchers and virtual schools.
  • Managing resource contraction while trying to improve student achievement.
  • Fending off (perceived) attacks on public education.
  • Keeping up with shifting state and federal mandates.

A recurrent theme was that there have been dramatic changes in the education sector and the superintendency over the past three decades, and these changes are not sufficiently understood by policymakers, boards of education or academics.

As the concerns of the group became more focused, we moved from learning networks as the central theme to that of “embracing complexity,” a construct developed in the September 2011 issue of Harvard Business Review.

But we also recognized the discussions we were having were a version of networked learning because we were dependent on each other to generate a more comprehensive understanding of the complexities of leading than any of us could have done individually.

Degree of Complexity
What do we know about the relationship between leadership and complexity?

In the lead article from the “embracing complexity” issue of Harvard Business Review, authors Gökçe Sargut and Rita Gunther McGrath stipulate that “complex organizations are far more difficult to manage than merely complicated ones. It’s harder to predict what will happen, because complex systems interact in unexpected ways. It’s harder to make sense of things, because the degree of complexity may lie beyond our cognitive limits.”

The authors go on to describe three properties of complex systems. “The first, multiplicity, refers to the number of potentially interacting elements. The second, interdependence, relates to how connected those elements are. The third, diversity, has to do with the degree of their heterogeneity. The greater the multiplicity, interdependence, and diversity, the greater the complexity.”

We would argue that school districts meet all of these standards or definitions for complex systems. Even in a small modal district of four elementary schools, a middle school and a high school, where classrooms and schools are by design loosely coupled, there is multiplicity, interdependence and diversity. As school districts increase in size, the complexity also increases.

To illustrate the situations superintendents currently face, consider Philadelphia and its superintendent, William Hite, who came to the district from Prince George’s County, Md., in October 2012. Rather than dealing with a traditional school board, he reports to the School Reform Commission created in 2001 when the state took over the schools. The commission’s agenda, which he is working diligently to implement, includes:

  • Expanding charter school enrollment — from 50,000 in 2012-13 to 80,000 in 2014-15 — and thereby increasing the number of “high-performing seats.”
  • Borrowing $300 million for operating expenses (thus creating a level of debt service that further erodes the district’s ability to maintain itself).
  • Closing as many as 60 district schools (25 percent) over a two-year period and, at the same time, continuing to convert low-performing schools to charters.
  • Negotiating a teacher contract that would dramatically change wages and working conditions for teachers — by imposing a 15 percent salary cut, reducing benefits, extending the workday, eliminating seniority provisions and transfer rules, and increasing class size.
  • Adopting an FY 2014 budget that requires laying off 3,700 employees, including all assistant principals, counselors and school secretaries, and 675 teachers.
  • Appointing principals for at least 70 schools, 30 percent of the total (at least 50 of whom will likely have no prior experience in the position).

Of course, complexity is not unique to the leadership of urban school systems. Just across the city border on Philadelphia’s Main Line is the Lower Merion Public School District, one of the highest-performing and best-funded districts in the state.

Over the past few years, Superintendent Christopher McGinley has had to deal with a bitter desegregation lawsuit regarding which of two high schools in Lower Merion African-American students would be assigned to attend. He’s also dealing with an embarrassing disclosure that district-provided laptops were photographing students in their bedrooms, balancing a budget squeezed by dramatic increases in state pension costs and a contentious dispute about funding for state-authorized cyber charter schools.

Connected Challenges
The accompanying “spider map” below illustrates the complexity found in the superintendent’s world.

Spider Map

The spider map is meant to capture the range of leadership challenges superintendents face in 2013. We don’t claim that it’s complete; any reader could probably add elements from her or his own experience. Nor do we feel a need to define the items on the map; they are sufficiently self-explanatory.

What struck us in constructing the map is how many parts of it are relatively recent additions to the superintendent’s work. For example, suburban districts that once were homogenous now are multiethnic. And not long ago, office secretaries answered the phone; now the superintendent carries a cell phone and answers from anywhere.

And in the manner of spiderwebs, all pieces of the map connect to all other pieces and often interact with each other.

The map encapsulates the increasing complexity of the superintendent’s job and poses the big question: How does one lead effectively in these conditions?

Reflection Time
Our reading and discussions suggest the starting place is to have a clear sense of mission and purpose buttressed by core values and to live and teach these in every moment. Then those one leads can understand how to act in ways that take the organization toward its goals without needing tight supervision and correction.

A recent IBM Institute report makes this point in describing the three precepts of Bausch & Lomb’s high-performance behavior strategy, Earning Trust, Growing and Helping Others Grow, and Sharing Accountability.

Many other dimensions extend this precept — create a sense of urgency, increase connectivity and diversity, watch for the butterflies that can help your organization soar, support risk, make time and space for collaboration. Most important is this: Make time for reflection. If one is caught in day-to-day decisions, reactive behavior and maintaining control, then one is not leading but instead being led by the events and people in one’s environment.

James (Torch) Lytle, a former superintendent, is professor of practice and chair of the Teaching, Learning and Leadership Division at University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education in Philadelphia. E-mail: jhlytle@gse.upenn.edu. Harris Sokoloff is executive director at Center for School Study Councils at University of Pennsylvania.


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