Systems Thinking

From a Rough Cut to a Polished Gem

by Mark T. Bielang

One of the joys of working as a school superintendent is being able to influence the culture of an entire school community. Bringing to the surface strong organizational values, hiring individuals whose values align with the desired direction of the school system and making decisions based on those values can have a dramatic impact on any system. I found this to be true for me as I moved into my first position as a school system leader.

After serving in public education at the secondary level for more than 20 years, and observing different school systems in operation, I was eager to take on the challenges and opportunities of the superintendency. I found myself in a system that was definitely a diamond in the rough.

Some of the dynamics included a school board that was overinvolved in day-to-day decision making; vacancies in three key administrative positions; more than 20 failed millage requests in recent years; and school facilities in desperate need of improvement. To state the obvious, public support and confidence in the school district were at a low point. There was no way to go but up!

Priority Treatment
After spending my first months observing, questioning and listening, I settled on three areas of the system that needed my attention: the leadership team, the board of education and the others who were there to serve students.

Looking at the school system through the lens of a systems-thinking superintendent, I noticed almost immediately that the administrative staff was reluctant to make decisions. The existing culture turned over decision making to a select few individuals who then were subjected to second-guessing by some school board members. People came to me expecting me to make decisions that rightfully belonged to them. There was little coordination or understanding of how the various aspects of the systems interacted.

I soon realized that, to effect change in the operation of the organization, I would have to move the school system down a different road.

First and foremost, it was obvious that the organization needed to be flattened. We created a leadership team, which included the central-office administrators, principals and the directors of athletics, transportation, food service, custodial and maintenance, and technology. We became a team of 17 unique individuals with a variety of perspectives.

At our first Leadership Advance more than a decade ago, we committed to growing as a team through continuous learning and relationship building. To this day, we build time into each of our monthly meetings to fulfill this commitment. For the past eight years, we have embraced the work of Parker Palmer’s Courage to Lead. Our annual, facilitated retreats provide time for us to reflect on the leader that resides within each of us. We recognize we truly “lead who we are.” The time we take for team and personal reflection allows us to understand ourselves better and helps us build those relationships that are vital to the success of our organization.

Refining Governance
Secondly, I felt the board of education needed new skills and insights to become a more effective policymaking body. Board members were struggling to keep up with the myriad daily decisions they felt needed their involvement. What they really needed was an accountability system that ensured creativity and progress without violating the values of the community.

The board recognized the need for change and was open to my suggestion that we explore policy governance. This model made sense to the board as it allowed the members to remain focused on representing the community and setting in place parameters for the superintendent. The board eliminated all of the committees it had created over the years, streamlined its meeting agenda to focus on policy issues and established a policy-monitoring schedule to hold me accountable for district results.

We have found that when a clear distinction exists between what the board of education is responsible for and what has been delegated to the superintendent, system accountability is clarified for everyone.

Finally, the entire system needed to have an invitational, customer-focused orientation where decisions could be made effectively at the most appropriate level. Fortunately, pockets of this behavior already existed in the district and people were willing to apply this systems thinking on a wider scale. Through school improvement teams and curriculum committees, we began to grow the culture that was necessary to improve student achievement. Through the hard work of staff at all levels and across all program areas, we were able to refocus our energies on our students.

The results of our work are obvious. Student test scores have shown continuous improvement. Professional learning communities have taken root in all of our school buildings. Teachers now use student achievement data to determine instructional strategies. The neediest of our students are now performing at levels never before imagined. Advanced Placement and dual-enrollment classes have been added to challenge even more students. A greater level of trust now exists between the community and the schools.

As superintendent, I had to ensure all stakeholders understood all facets of the organization must work in unison. Systems thinking became a part of our everyday mission. Our organization is now functioning together, enhanced by a cohesive leadership team, an effective board of education, a districtwide focus on students and relationships based on trust.

By being an effective team, unified in our vision, we have moved the organization from a diamond in the rough to what is now well on its way to being a finely cut gem.

Mark Bielang is superintendent of the Paw Paw Public Schools in Paw Paw, Mich. E-mail: He is the AASA president-elect.