Morton Sherman on Professional Networking

Type: Article
Topics: Leadership Development, School Administrator Magazine

September 01, 2016

Inside AASA

After 25 years as superintendent of school districts in Alexandria, Va., Cherry Hill, N.J., South Orangetown, N.Y., and elsewhere, Mort Sherman wasn’t ready to hang up his hat. In July 2015, he became AASA’s associate executive director of leadership services and awards, a role he sees as a direct extension of the work he did leading school systems.

The AASA department he manages has initiated an aspiring superintendent program, the national superintendent certification program, the urban superintendents academy, the AASA Collaborative, the digital consortium and the superintendents’ summit on personalized learning. All of these convene school system leaders for skill development and career growth.

The following is the full transcript of AASA staffer Kristin Hubing’s interview with Sherman.

Which school districts have you led?

In reverse chronological order: Alexandria City Public Schools (5 years), Tenafly, N.J. (3 years), Cherry Hill, N.J. (8.5 years), South Orangetown, N.Y., Rockland County (5 years), Norwich Free Academic, Norwich, Conn., (4 years, both superintendent and principal). 25 years as a superintendent all together.

What do you see as your principal role at AASA?

I’ll give you a little preface leading into that. When I left the superintendency, I was thinking I might retire. I might go into consulting. I was searching for the right place, including writing, publishing, that kind of work. And I just am so fortunate that I have fallen into this position here at AASA because it has become a continuation of the calling that I feel superintendents have.

If you come to any of our meetings, the Urban Superintendents Academy, the Certification program, we often talk about the superintendency as being a calling, a serving for children across America. So when I look at my work here, it is an extension of the work I did as superintendent serving others, taking care of children. This was a little bit more indirectly through the superintendents. And I look at the role itself as continually evolving because the needs of the members continue to grow and evolve.

The specifics of my job I see as responding to the superintendents express needs, whether it’s a creation of an urban superintendents academy or something along the line of the digital consortium or the personalized learning cohort or the AASA Collaborative, or now the very specific example of the rural superintendents group that I’m pulling together. Rural superintendents actually called me and said “we’re underrepresented. We want something going on at the national level too.” So talk about an express need. They called. So I see that as one part of the job that in fact we create programs to support and to encourage superintendents.

The second part is beyond the content and in many cases what I hear from superintendents may be the most important which is the networking. The ability to talk candidly and openly and professionally with a colleague about the work they do. And so however I can structure it, whether it’s online, in person, telephone conferences, the feedback I get is tremendous about those opportunities. So it’s about content, it’s about the networking and engagement.

The third part is, I don’t know the jargon, but it’s like the leading edge, the cutting edge of the work that’s going on in the country. The Digital Consortium and the personalized learning are two great examples that partners from Discovery and Google and what’s happening in the world at the very minute that we’re talking about it. These great partners that we have and others help us think about the work we do as superintendents and what’s going on so that we can take that and translate it back to our districts. And so there is that cutting edge, leading edge so that the superintendents are always getting what Apple calls “serial improvement.” Continual. Something Steve Jobs came up with. And so the underlying sentence to all of that is that what I try to do is look at, regardless of the group I pull together, I look at it as looking at the skills and dispositions of leadership that are necessary to create a culture that supports change and innovation to improve student learning. 

How do your 25 years as superintendent inform and guide the work that you do here?

I think the superintendent position is growing more complex for a couple of reasons. I know what it’s like to make the calls about snow closings at 4 a.m. just as you got home from a board meeting at 2 a.m. I know that routine. Being out 5 or 6 evenings at PTA meetings and civic meetings and all that. I understand it, I lived it in large districts, small districts, wealthy districts, urban districts. So that gives me a great understanding and empathy for what superintendents are going through. Which is really helpful as I think about how to support superintendent programs.

At the same time, I am respectful of the position so that I can be the listener. The social media aspects of today’s jobs have compounded both the opportunities and the difficulties. And so those 25 years, I started when I was an assistant superintendent, before personal computers. I’ve been around that long. But I also know that because I know where I came from, I know those early years, it’s given me such a profound respect for the changes superintendents go through whether it’s in the position 5 years or 9 years or over 25 years. So as I look out there, it just has given me that healthy respect to listen to them and know that even though I went through 25 pretty good years, that what they’re going through is different and changing and needs to be continually refreshed in the work we do.

Formal professional networking opportunities have taken on a much more prominent role in what AASA now offers to its members. Why is the networking important to those in the superintendency?

A good friend and colleague of mine, Joe Hairston, who used to be superintendent in Baltimore County and now works at Howard and helped me create the Urban Superintendents Academy. I heard him give a presentation last year to one of the certification programs. He answered it this way. He said “How many superintendents are there in your town? One. How many superintendents are there in your county? Oh, one.” And said “Do the math.” He kept on saying that phrase over and over again until you understand and there’s one Mayor. But there are lots of doctors and lawyers and teachers and clergy and writers. There are many professions, yet in each town, in each place there’s a school system there is one. And that job may not be the same as somebody right next door to you. It’s a very isolating and isolated kind of position. And sometimes we’re free to open up. You know, free to say I have this problem, or can you help me.”

I’ll give you a bit of history. There was a superintendent whose name is Mike Osnato who to this day has affected the work I do. When I went to New York to South Orangetown, he was in Pearl River. He called me the first day I was on the job as a colleague. He said “Welcome. Can I take you out to lunch?” and it was like this wonderful gift from a colleague. We remain in touch 25 years later. I just respect what he did and I learned from what he did. Every time that I go into a job now that I was a seasoned superintendent, if there’s somebody as a colleague who came into the community I picked up the phone and took them out to lunch. Rob Smith and I did that when I first came to Alexandria and he was in Arlington. We went out to lunch. And still are in touch. So that networking, it hit that really hard from the beginning.

In Cherry Hill I created two groups that taught me. Even back in ’97, ’98, so it was called the Southern N.J. Standards Consortium. And it was because at this time it was before NCLB but we as superintendents were struggling with how do you do competency based, outcomes based, all these phrases that were going on. And I said to my colleagues let’s meet, let’s talk regularly. And this is a key point, rather than always reacting, let us be proactive and raise our voices as a group. So we did. And we cooperated together, built a model of testing together and sharing results across districts.

The second thing I did was create a study group among superintendents in Jersey. And invited them once a month to read a book, see a movie on education, whatever it may be. We came together once a month and for two hours we had lunch and we talked about whatever that topic was. And it was wonderful.

Along the way I’ve been a member of the Metropolitan School Study Council when I was in New York, when I was at Cherry Hill I was a member of the Penn Study Council at University of Pennsylvania, when I was here there used to be, it kind of fell apart, I’m not sure why, the Washington School Superintendents organization and we used to have lunch at the Washington Post and get together. It wasn’t quite the same because it was sponsored by the Washington Post, but others were just superintendents. So that networking was part of who I became as a superintendent. The others helped me see it. Today what I try to do is pass it forward.

How does AASA as an organization benefit from the concentrated attention to networking programs?

I was never an evangelical AASA member as a superintendent. I was out there as a member, one year Bruce Hunter invited me to serve on a policy committee and I used to go to the conferences, particularly if they were in good locations. The conferences or the activities, I never felt strongly connected. I felt strongly connected to my colleagues.

So why is it important for AASA now? I truly believe our mission. I truly believe who we are in a very deep way now that I didn’t as a superintendent, which is that we are the lead superintendents organization in the country and therefor have an opportunity and a responsibility to do the things I’ve talked about before, the content, the networking. And the idea of being a cutting edge knowledge factory. And I think we’re becoming that. But we became identified as an advocacy group and I think Dan has worked admirably well to turn the ship and we’re not just advocacy. And maybe it’s part of our DNA, but it’s not only.

Then there’s School Administrator which everybody reads. So AASA, I think, is benefitting as the superintendents benefit. With the content, with the networking. I think it’s not just for membership, but most importantly it serves the superintendents by bringing them together and connecting them. I hope my colleagues don’t bang me over the head, but we’re not done. When you think of the numbers and add it up, there are 13,000 superintendents, 13,000 school systems out there. And so in order to survive, look at the numbers, the average is still 3 years. When you look at the need out there, the networking, and the connecting, then I look at this as opportunity yet to be fulfilled. So here we are getting a good base, good start, good energy, good recognition I think. With a lot more to do. And we’re learning what works and doesn’t work.

There’s one other piece. I’ve never looked at Hobsons as a sponsor or a vendor. They’re a thought leader. The whole initiative here in Redefining Ready [AASA’s past-president David Schuler’s campaign to redefine post-secondary readiness], Hobsons is a wonderful partner to help us figure out how to do that, how to operationalize it. So I think AASA benefits when we look at these programs and looks at our partners and what we can then turn back to our members.

Is AASA uniquely positioned to serve those in education who aspire for the top school system leadership positions? Are other organizations out there competing with the association to run programs and services for the time and attention of these individuals?

Let me go back to what I said before. I was never so evangelical about AASA. What happened? Well, I was on the board of a group called the Minority Student Achievement Network. MSAN was 25 districts that got together to compare notes and figure out how to close the achievement gap. With Ron Furguson from Harvard. And now they’re associated with Wisconsin. But we had to form our own organization to figure out how to look at equity across the country. I was a longstanding member of ERDI. It used to stand for Educational Research Development Institute. Now just ERDI.  But the other outcome was we networked. There were 80 of us. Two different networks, 40 each. Closed-shop. No more than that. And I just loved it. I loved going twice a year to be with my colleagues. I appreciated the vendors, but I loved being with my colleagues. 

I truly believe that AASA is uniquely positioned not to compete, but to form this wonderful fabric and network of opportunities for superintendents. When you look at superintendents like Mark Edwards, Phil Lanoue and Tom Tucker and leaders like Dave Schuler, I think these are some of the most amazing superintendents I’ve seen anywhere. I’m humbled by them even though they could all probably be my kids. But AASA brings together, I truly believe, the best and the brightest and those do as well, but not at the level or the magnitude, nor with the national perspective that we bring. Or the connection that Noelle brings to the Hill. And the legislative perspective. 

I try to control it so when you look at who we are and what we offer to superintendents it is very nice if I think someday we all evolve and I’m going to give you the final example in a minute to looking at AASA as this wonderful national umbrella for networking professional learning and support for superintendents. I don’t think anybody else is positioned to do that. So I don’t want any of these groups to go away. I want to form partnerships with each of them. So that’s why compete is too strong a word for me.

Equity is a big issue. It’s a big issue for ASCD. NSBA just created a new position called director of equity. So I know these people, I work with them, and so go back to the MSAN, there was one of the founders of the group outside of Pennsylvania called the Delaware Valley Minority Consortium, still exists. So University of Pennsylvania is active. So what do I do in keeping with the theme? Cause I love this question. I call all these other organizations and said “we’re all doing the same thing with the same goals, why are we doing it separately?” Whether is common programming, common philosophy, but at least let’s have the conversations. So I just think that’s exciting. Initially I’m going to be working with ASCD, AASA, Amy Sichel is joining us as a past president. And University of Pennsylvania. Our Children’s Programs group is joining us in the conversation. And that’s the key question. There here it’s not how do we compete or do we compete, but how can we work together on behalf of the superintendents and school districts across America.

The association’s networking initiatives fall under three categories: aspiring supes, early-career supes and experienced supes. The latter group has been pretty well served through AASA’s traditional offerings, but how are you trying to address their needs differently now?

If we look at the certification program, we have three cohorts, about 25 superintendents in each of them. So here’s 75 superintendents who go through our certification program. When I got the feel of it under my belt and had a sense of what the program is, now that I was overseeing it, I saw some gaps, some needs. And so I called together a review committee. And one of the pieces is should we have what’s called the Veteran superintendent’s certification program. And the review committee said no, we don’t think so.This certification program is so powerful and so wonderful, what we’d like is to take what we’ve learned here, continue close affiliation with AASA, but look at areas which would support us. Like the digital consortium. Like the personalized learning. Like the AASA Collaborative. They were saying we want to continue our networking, but let us look more at what we want with the content.

The AASA Certification program is generic. So I think we’ll continue to grow and expand as topics develop and as our members say “we’d like this.” Or if, let’s just say that those three, the collaborative, the personalized learning, and the digital consortium continue, there could be a cohort 2 or a cohort 3. Or we can continue what I wanted to do is start for these veteran superintendents a focus so that it remains networking. I don’t want too many people in a group. We’ve capped it at 50. And so I think that’s going to be an evolving ongoing question for that group. And you know it could be let’s say ESSA, that maybe we need to think also about how for our veteran superintendents, maybe we do more one-way fly-ins or drive-ins around particular topics. Whether it’s superintendents’ contracts, ESSA, or any of these topics. So we’re looking at that as a possibility.

For each of these, another piece that I’ve done is create steering committees. For the digital consortium, Mark Edwards, Nick Polyak, Mike Lubelfeld, Steve Webb. Big names, good, wonderful people who’ve rolled up their sleeves and said we want to help you with this. So part of this leadership opportunity is not just to come to a meeting, but helping to shape the meeting. 

You mentioned that you’d like to someday see the AASA Collaborative as the granddaddy of them all. Can you tell me more about what that would look like?

The digital consortium and the personalized learning and pretty topic specific. The Collaborative has three parts to it. It has the study groups, the consultancies, and the case studies. It’s member-driven. 

Right now there’s group that’s beginning to work on the impact of social media and what that means. You don’t come in saying here’s my topic, you come in and you join. Looking at the skills and dispositions of leadership to build a culture which allows change and innovation to improve student learning. But what does that mean operationally? That’s what the Collaborative does. They sit and they study and I couple their work with bringing in some of the best thought leaders that I could find to stir the imagination. People like Young Zhao, Heidi Hayes Jacobs, Ron Furguson, Jack Naglieri, Linda Darling-Hammond, the list is long. But finally the thought leaders are the superintendents themselves. That’s what I believe the Collaborative can do better and differently than any other group we have. Is that we learn from each other. There’s such a wealth of experience and knowledge out there among our superintendents. 

Why have you capped the cohorts at 50? (How are the networks using technology to enhance programming, communications, etc.?)

It has to do with the networking. And keeping a handle on it. We may learn to do things better or different, and one of the related issues is the distance. Rather than always coming together in person, this idea of using webinars, other kinds of media to stay connected. We’re on Voxerr. I heard about it a year ago when I was visiting Mark Edwards down in North Carolina. 

Are you familiar with #supe chat? Access is wide open. These are unique forums, but it’s not really social media. It’s like a controlled social media for our networks.
We just started the digital consortium last week, everybody was invited, we sent out through email to join Voxer and then to join the digital consortium. So it’s a closed shop by invitation to the group.

The other is EduPlanet. I look at my job as continually learning and being heuristic in so many ways I continue to ask questions. So here’s a “isn’t there a way I can connect these people between meetings and I can archive material?” question. If you go into EduPlanet, go into the Urban Superintendents Academy particularly. Bernadine Futrell runs that one. You’ll see there’s chat groups going on, there’s archiving of materials, there’s videos plopped in there, there’s a clearing house.

So the connections here that I hope to make larger at some point is through these forms of emerging technology. And the collaborative, I want to come back to that. What we said is that anything we learn from now on, any of this we will publish for the larger members. So whether it’s through the School Administrator or maybe we need to start doing our own monographs again. 

What are your short-term goals and long-term goals for the professional networks?

We’re looking at equity and that’s intra-member organization. We’re looking at the rural superintendents as emerging as some kind of cohort, maybe launch that next April. We’re not going to rush into that.

When I was a kid, the sonic boom, the jets used to go overhead and you saw them and then the sound boom was behind them. And maybe in some ways, AASA is like that sonic boom. We’re all excited. People are joining. They’re excited; they’re coming back to AASA. You have the turnover, the retention is something we want to pay attention to, so how do we have that sonic boom where we know we’re creating these programs and breaking the sound barrier and AASA is zooming ahead over here, we have to catch our members up across the country. And so whatever the sonic booms are, they’re going to continue to be beyond equity and beyond the rural superintendents to be member driven.

I think we also have to look at some of what I call fly-in, drive-ins, or online using digital media in some way to connect our superintendents. I didn’t come to this, nor did Dan come to the work he asked me to do and say here’s a list of the 10 things I want you to accomplish. We didn’t know we were going to do the personalized learning. These things continue to grow to be heuristic. 

How do you know if a program is having its desired effect on the participants?

We’re beginning to incorporate program evaluations into each of them. We have evaluation design built into the Urban Supes Academy. We will be putting metrics next to everything that we wish to accomplish. And so just as superintendents are asked that question, I think it’s fair to ask that internally and externally. How do you know that we did this? So it could be “are we impacting the culture, are we supporting districts, are we increasing membership?” All those metrics will be put next to any program that’s put into place.

Were networks of this sort available during your own superintendency? What do they provide that was lacking then?

I would have become evangelical about AASA. The idea began years ago. IBM used to believe deeply in doing this kind of work for technology for school districts. They held the National Conference out in Atlanta and they provided support and follow-up. And the networking was there and the content was there. But it was rare. AASA had its conferences. I used to go to ASCD, AERA. But if you look at any of them, and even ourselves. There’s threads, but not necessarily the same kind of strong connections between them.

I would have been jumping out of my skin in excitement at the opportunity to sit over time with a smaller group of superintendents focused on something like personalized learning. The networking, the sharing of ideas in candid ways, nobody’s reporting back to the community or board, but allowing me to have great collegial conversations and to learn from my colleagues and from thought leaders.