Superintendent wanted, political skills required
(Colo.) It may come as a shock to many in the education community, but the job of a district superintendent is highly political.
A new report out from the Center on Reinventing Public Education draws on interviews and anecdotes going back decades to examine how school superintendents—largely from large urban districts—have navigated the complex waters of modern education with the goal of somehow improving student outcomes.
One of the key takeaways from the paper is that the superintendent cannot do much of anything alone.
“To be influential, a superintendent must take an expansive view of what can be done, who their allies may be, and what they might do together,” the report’s authors said. “The traditional vision of the superintendent as a high priest of instructional method who works only within the community of professional educators is grievously limiting.
“So is the image of the superintendent as a pure administrator, who works within a fixed institutional structure and sticks to their prescribed duties,” they argued. “Even more limiting is the image of the outsider superintendent as ideologue or political careerist who does not know or care about what happens in schools. Superintendents are both educators and politicians.”
The report was written by Paul Hill, a professor of education from the University of Washington Bothell; and Ashley Jochim, a senior research analyst at the Center on Reinventing Public Education.
Although the premise may seem redundant on its face, they said they wrote the paper for those preparing to become a district superintendent, and in hopes of dispelling any myth that an executive who accepts the superintendent’s position can pretend that “this political stuff is not for me.”
To start, they said, are three basic principles that must be embraced:
- A superintendent cannot accomplish a great deal entirely on their own authority. The best use of the clear authorities the superintendent does possess is in bargaining and building coalitions by offering or threatening to take particular actions in exchange for actions to be taken by others.
- A superintendent’s ability to make bargains depends on their professional reputation, which can be enhanced by having clear goals, being resilient, being a trustworthy and reliable ally, and following through.
- In taking any action, a superintendent should consider its consequences for their power—for example, their ability to bargain effectively in the future.
The job, they said, must be visualized as a vehicle for building coalitions—and not just within the school.
The school board is the most obvious focal point.
“Savvy superintendents also work to understand and demonstrate concern over what individual board members care most about, as these issues provide windows into the constituencies that board members are incentivized to serve,” the authors said. “There is no substitute for face-to-face meetings with individual board members.”
Next is the central office. The report notes that some superintendents—such as Alan Bersin in San Diego and Joel Klein in New York—have looked to work around district personnel believing them to be intractable. They said using this tactic is problematic and point out that, typically, the opposition usually comes from only one or two groups.
“Superintendents who want the central office to act in unaccustomed ways—for example, responding to principals instead of telling them what to do, procuring what schools want when they want it, and minimizing demands on principals’ and teachers’ time—need to expect things to occasionally go wrong,” the authors explained. “They must overcome skepticism by being specific about what they expect the central office to do and by putting themselves in a position to learn when things go right.”