Feature

The Context of Superintendent Entry

A veteran educator’s discourse on using the transition period to your advantage by James H. Lytle

The new executive director of AASA, Dan Domenech, was the highly successful superintendent of the Fairfax County, Va., schools for seven years. But probably few readers realize he had the distinction of being the chancellor of the New York City Public Schools for one day.

As he was celebrating his appointment to the position and planning how he would approach this enormous challenge, he received a call from the then-mayor telling him how things were going to work. Domenech was quick to respond that if that was how the mayor expected things to work, then they’d picked the wrong chancellor. That night the New York City Board of Education met to annul the appointment.

LytlePalmer.jpgJames "Torch" Lytle (right), former superintendent in Trenton, N.J., with Trenton Mayor Doug Palmer.

Few of us can anticipate or have experienced such abrupt entry and exit scenarios, but the story may have more to tell than superintendents publicly acknowledge.

One of my colleagues was appointed superintendent of a small urban district in New Jersey and shortly afterward was invited for lunch by the president of the board of education. He quietly informed the superintendent how he expected personnel appointments to work. She responded that that wasn’t how she operated.

The incoming superintendent then retained the serv-ices of an outside auditor to review the school district’s expenditure history. With support from a local newspaper, the superintendent was able to take on the culture of favoritism in the district and lead a cleanup. But her reward was predictable — the board refused to renew her contract at the end of her second year.

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The incoming superintendent then retained the serv-ices of an outside auditor to review the school district’s expenditure history. With support from a local newspaper, the superintendent was able to take on the culture of favoritism in the district and lead a cleanup. But her reward was predictable — the board refused to renew her contract at the end of her second year.

Learning Context
These two stories may seem extreme, but my point is that the current rhetoric about accountability, making adequate yearly progress and focusing on quality classroom instruction obfuscates the core challenge in becoming a superintendent: How do you use the entry and transition process to learn what the real challenges and issues are in a school district? Can entry be used as a time for personal and community learning and for signaling how leadership will be exercised in your administration? How can this time be used to build relational trust, the component of leadership that Tony Bryk and Barbara Schneider, co-authors of Trust in Schools: A Core Resource for Improvement, have found to be the strongest predictor of long-term school success?

We seem to take a stance on school leadership in the United States that sets up superintendents for failure. The new Education Policy Leadership Standards, adopted in 2008 by the National Policy Board on Leadership Stand-ards, cover sweeping territory, including the need to understand the context. In this standard, context means advocating for children and families, influencing policy and anticipating emerging trends and initiatives.

Similarly, in a highly influential recent book, School Leadership that Works, researchers at the Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning identify 21 responsibilities that correlate at significant levels with student academic achievement. Examples would include fostering shared beliefs, protecting teachers from issues that would detract from teaching time or focus, establishing a set of standard operating procedures to ensure order, and being knowledgeable about curriculum, instruction and assessment practices.

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In sharp contrast, England’s National College for School Leadership, summarizing current research on effective school leadership in England, Canada and the United States determined that the first priority for new principals (heads) needs to be learning and understanding the organization one is to lead and the context in which it operates. Leaders need to be “contextually literate,” that is, able to read organizational culture, history and micropolitics. Then come the core tasks of leadership: building vision and setting direction, understanding and developing people, redesigning the organization, and managing teaching and learning.

The key point is that the approach to school leadership being promulgated in the United States doesn’t take into account the challenges leaders face during entry and transition — namely, learning the context. Yet learning the context has everything to do with whether leaders succeed or fail in the long term.

When you’ve been selected as the new superintendent, it’s easy to believe that a board has chosen you because of your attributes, prior accomplishments or vision and that you are expected to bring these characteristics to bear on this organization. And it’s likely all sorts of crises will require your immediate attention. But that doesn’t absolve you of thoroughly learning this new situation (even if you’re being promoted from within your current district).

Entry Planning
So how does one avoid getting caught in the traps that await new leaders? One helpful resource for planning how to begin a new school leadership job is “The Entry Plan Approach” (a monograph available at www.entrybook.com) by Barry Jentz, a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. I’ve recommended it to a number of my students, and their experiences have been extremely positive.

Jentz’s basic design includes five steps:

1. Designing an entry plan;

2. Seeking feedback;

3. Getting the word out;

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4. Holding interviews and making site visits; and

5. Convening sense-making meetings.

Jentz suggests new administrators resist the convention of “hitting the ground running” and instead “hit the ground learning. … Entry requires building relationships with stakeholders and develop(ing) a process for learning, rather than reflexively focusing on tasks.” When using this approach, a new administrator can establish authority “not by prejudging what needs to be changed immediately, but by taking charge of the process — by demonstrating a clear understanding of how to start.”

One approach is to conduct a series of stakeholder interviews beginning immediately after appointment by the board. For new superintendents, this might mean talking to school board members, central-office administrators, teachers, parents, students, community organizations and elected officials. In taking time to do the interviews and in listening carefully to their responses, you are building trust and communicating concern and respect for clients, employees and bosses — as well as modeling an approach to leadership that sets expectations for others.

As the process evolves, you can share what you’re learning with the school board, the media and stakeholder groups, validating what is being learned and engaging the community in the process.

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One of my doctoral students, a superintendent in an affluent community north of New York City, used this approach with great success. Not only did he learn a great deal about the community and the district during his round of interviews, he also got terrific feedback from everyone, including school board members, who were pleased to be given such considerable attention. The emergent perception of him as a good listener allowed him to develop the trust he needed to take on several difficult issues.

Another of my students, a recent state superintendent of the year honoree in Michigan, made sure to worship at every church in his small urban community on successive Sundays, giving him the opportunity to interact with the families of his students and the community’s informal power brokers. His outreach helped him lead a healing process following years of contentious relationships between the district and community.

Another doctoral student recently completed an exploratory study comparing first-time and second-time superintendents. One finding was that at the time of entry all first-timers quickly got caught up in operational matters and spent little or no time developing a broad perspective and understanding of their districts. In contrast, all second-time superintendents devoted significant time to gather information and then to consider it — understanding the context and making sense of it before acting.

Classroom Context
In my own career, I’ve approached entry and transition in very different ways in the two superintendencies I’ve held.

During the summer following my appointment as superintendent of a subdistrict in Philadelphia, I reviewed evaluations for our 36 schools and was nonplused to find that more than 20 percent of students in grades 1 through 8 were being retained each year. Knowing that retention does not improve student achievement and increases the likelihood of dropping out, I determined that focusing on retention needed to be an immediate priority. But I had to communicate to principals, teachers and parents that high retention rates were a shared problem.

During September and October I visited two schools each morning, four days a week, and by the end of October had visited more than 800 classrooms. I shared my impressions with principals and district support staff in early November, noting, for example, that the “holiday curriculum” was rampant and that calculators were rarely being used in math classes.

From November through February I conducted a second round of visits, focusing on the grades in which failure rates seemed inordinately high. To find out what it was like to be a student in these grades, ranging from 1st to 8th, I shadowed one group of students selected by the principal on the morning of my visit. In self-contained classrooms, I generally observed the same teacher for two to three hours. In classes in the upper grades, I would observe four to six teachers in succession.

By spending so much time observing in classrooms rather than concentrating on administration, I knew I was violating implicit norms about what superintendents are supposed to do. I was bypassing principals by interpreting what was going on in classrooms in their schools without asking their opinions. But this “violation of expectations” was intentional. I wanted principals (and teachers) to know that student success was my first priority and should be theirs as well. And I wanted them to wonder about what I might be learning through these visits.

What emerged was a set of impressions I shared with principals and other administrators. What I had seen had led me to conclude that a great deal of classroom activity was boring, repetitive, unengaging and vapid, intended primarily to kill time. It seemed clear we were retaining students because of our own failure to engage them.

The ensuing discussions led to a shared recognition that if we were going to provide more engaging schooling, we were going to have to talk more about how we could design organizations, pedagogy, programs and curricula that were responsive to students’ needs — without sacrificing standards — and we were going to have to involve teachers in those discussions.

The Fishbowl
When I was appointed superintendent in Trenton, N.J., I started in late June, which meant I had until September to learn as much about the district as I could before the school year got under way. I did the conventional things — reviewed the budget, read the teachers’ contract, looked at school performance data and drove around the city.

But I also wanted to understand how parts of the district worked — budget development, food services, special education, federal programs, transportation, maintenance and so on. I considered interviewing the heads of each division and thought it might be interesting to invite others to sit in on the meetings. That idea quickly raised a question: Why not use these discussions as an opportunity for anyone in the district or community who was interested to learn along with me?

We decided to use the central-office auditorium as the meeting place and arranged the seats in a semicircle with a small table in the center. Each division director began with a brief presentation, and we talked about strengths and challenges while an audience listened to our discussion. After 45 minutes or an hour, we opened the discussion to questions and comments from anyone in the audience. We publicized the schedule of topics and televised the meetings on our cable channel.

The meetings quickly became a hit. School board members, city council members, community activists, parents, teachers, principals and union leaders attended. Not only was I learning a great deal about the school district, but so was everybody else. Much to my amazement, I began to hear from people who were watching the meetings on television.

The Times of Trenton ran a series of stories on the meetings, culminating in an editorial on what it called “the fishbowl strategy,” which it explained was “designed to let the public observe and comment as the superintendent and senior staff examined the complex workings of the district … a shrewd move on Lytle’s part to let employees and district residents join him as he saw Trenton’s beleaguered district for the first time. … ‘Let’s see what’s here so we can move on together’ seems to be the message.’”

One of my colleagues observed that these “tutoring” sessions accomplished several things for a new superintendent. In an article titled “Creating a Transition Map for a New Superintendency: 7 Powerful Strategies” in the January 2008 issue of the AASA New Superintendents E-Journal, lead author Patrick Sanaghan wrote: “They modeled a learning attitude on his part, informed many people about the complexity of the school district, quickly developed trust in the new leader because he was able to demonstrate competence and collegiality in these sessions, and communicated transparency as a value to relevant stakeholders. The sessions also gave the superintendent a sense of the capabilities of key staff, the concerns of the community, and the challenges and opportunities the district was facing.”

In telling these stories I’m not suggesting that the fishbowl process or the student shadow studies would be appropriate in every community or situation. But I am making the point that taking time to learn the context before starting to act has a great deal to do with how future decisions will be made, perceived, understood and acted upon. And a great deal to do with increasing the prospects for your long-term success.

James “Torch” Lytle, former superintendent in Trenton, N.J., is a practice professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. E-mail: jhlytle@gse.upenn.edu