The Revolving Door of the Superintendency:  A Case Study on Resetting the Course of a School District

March 5, 2017

The Revolving Door of the Superintendency:  A Case Study on Resetting the Course of a School District

When Mission, Vision, and Values Count More than Resources, Requirements, and Results

Dear Colleague,

"A leader's role is to raise people's aspirations for what they can become and to release their energies so they will try to get there." -- David Gergen

 

Introduction

 

   I am a collector. . . I collect things.  But the things are not “collectables,” and this is not a hobby.

 

   I collect articles, research, and information that relate to effective school and schooling practices.

 

   Every day, I get about 15 to 20 e-mails from different organizations—including the federal government—that highlight new policy and practice reports, newly published research, and different thought-leaders’ perspectives on more effective approaches for our schools.

 

   After deciding which reports, research, or perspectives have the greatest potential impact for my work, I then read, analyze, and decide which pieces actually will impact my work.

 

   The analysis is critical. . . because some pieces either (a) do not conform to the existing research on effective student, staff, school, or system practices; or (b) they used poor research approaches themselves—rendering their results and conclusions null and void.

 

   The analysis is also critical. . . because some “good” research and practice simply cannot be transferred and applied to the specific people in some of the specific places where I work.

 

   Ultimately, I have to determine how to integrate the best new and relevant practices and perspectives into my work. 

 

   * Some new practices “add value” to, or supplement, what I am doing. 

 

   * Others supplant current practices, requiring me to “retire” past, now-obsolete practices. 

 

   * Still others require additional field-testing to determine whether they can make a viable contribution to my work.

 

   In the end, though, the success of any (new) school and schooling practice is more about the (shared) leadership decisions that support its implementation. . . rather than the management decisions that go into its selection.

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The Revolving Door of the Superintendency

 

"Rowing harder doesn't help if the boat is headed in the wrong direction." -- Kenichi Ohmae

 

   According to AASA, The School Superintendents Association, the average tenure of a school superintendent in this country is about six years.  In contrast, The Council of the Great City Schools notes that the average tenure of a school superintendent in one of the 50 largest urban school systems in the U.S. is about 3.2 years.

 

   Personally, I have consulted with districts, who have literally had a superintendent “revolving door”. . . having had three or four superintendents, acting superintendents, and new superintendents in a four or five year period of time

 

   Typically, when this happens:

 

   * The School Board has fired the Superintendent because it changed its composition (through the election process), changed its direction or functioning (e.g., from macro- to micro-management), or hired the wrong person;

 

   * The Superintendent was unprepared for or was mismatched with the leadership needs of the system, misrepresented his or her actual managerial style or approach (only to run afoul of the School Board, community, or staff), or was using the district as a stepping stone to the “next best district”; or

 

   * There are compelling (if not toxic) elements or dynamics within the district that the Superintendent can’t overcome, or that undermine the Superintendent’s ability to succeed.

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   Regardless of the reasons (although they are important to discern), a number of negative outcomes often result from a series of superintendents in a short period time.  These include:

 

   * Student outcomes suffer . . . which may require the next superintendent to focus his/her strategic, organizational, and managerial goals on short-term student “fixes,” rather than long-term essential needs

 

   * Staff may be resistant and/or less committed to the next superintendent’s “call to action”. . . not because they disagree with the call, but because they do not trust or believe that the superintendent will stay to see the call through

 

   * Administrators and Schools may not receive the resources, attention, and/or interventions they need, because the new superintendent (a) needs three to ten months to develop relationships and learn, first-hand, about these needs; and (b) begins his/her tenure (typically on July 1) after the district’s strategic plan, budget, and personnel placements have been set by the former (“lame duck”) superintendent

 

   * The District—as an organization—is just tired. . . tired of the “starts and stops,” the changes in leadership styles and strategic directions, the disruptions in progress and the unfamiliarity with deficiencies, the shifts in the “balance of power” and the political games played to “get the new superintendent’s ear”. . .

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   Critically, the new superintendent must quickly evaluate the underlying reasons and impact of the “revolving leadership door” in his or her district.  If the district is in organizational crisis, immediate steps to stabilize the situation must occur.  If the district is stable, more time to develop relationship and to learn about the system, schools, staff, and students is possible.

 

   In the end, it comes down to strategic leadership. . . . knowing who to involve, what to prioritize, when to act, where to focus, and how to build momentum that leads to success.

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A Case Study on Resetting the Course of a School District

 

"Management has a lot to do with answers. Leadership is a function of questions. And the first question for a leader always is: 'Who do we intend to be?' Not 'What are we going to do?’” -- Max DePree

 

   During the past year, I have been consulting with a district on the West Coast that has experienced a revolving superintendency door.  At the beginning of the current school year (i.e., last July 1st), it hired another new superintendent who actually is from, lives in, and previously taught in, the district.  As a native son, the “good news” is that he knows and understands the history, demographics, and complexities of his community, and (to some degree) the district (even though he has worked outside the district for a while). 

 

   The “challenging news” is that he had to re-enter the district in a new and administratively higher role, he has numerous organizational challenges to address (declining enrollment, a community with a weak economic base, an open-enrollment county), and he still has the “revolving door” issues—discussed above—to navigate.

 

   In a December 19, 2015 blog (CLICK HERE), I discussed The Ultimate Organizational Strategies for School Success.  Described within a “voyage” or “journey” metaphor, the strategies were summarized in the following Seven C’s:

 

   * Charting the Course

   * Collecting the Supplies

   * Cruising with Purpose

   * Checking Coordinates

   * Correcting for Drift

   * Containing Crises

   * Celebrating the Voyage

 

   While the new “West Coast Superintendent” clearly had to multi-task within all seven of these C’s, he also had to strategically decide how to enlist the sustained commitment and collaborative efforts of his “crew”. . . that is, all of his instructional and support, certified and non-certified, staff.  This was an essential task as the “revolving door” had left many of his colleagues bruised, bitter, and skeptical.

 

   He began this process by focusing first on “customer service”. . . rededicating his district to creating a positive, supportive atmosphere for parents, guardians, and caretakers that included personal interactions (especially at the School Office level) that were consistently friendly, respectful, timely, and solution-focused. 

 

   Critically, he “walked the walk” as he engaged his staff using the same approaches.

 

   He then made a crucial decision.  He decided that the district needed to rededicate itself to a common mission, vision, and set of values.  While he knew that this was “Strategic Planning 101,” and that this might further fan the flames of skepticism (because this is where most new superintendents start), he also knew how to accomplish this process.

 

   In short, he had to personally oversee this process, and engage with every one of his staff. 

 

   Significantly, I know that he did this, as he and I met with every grade level, at every school. . . with every non-certified paraprofessional, secretary, maintenance, and other support staff person in every nook and cranny of the district . . . in small groups over a short period of time. 

 

   Moreover, this followed . . . a month before. . . a keynote address that I gave to the entire certified and non-certified staff (including bus drivers) that emphasized the importance of focusing on students’ social, emotional, and behavioral status as an essential pathway to their academic and later life success.

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A Brief Research-to-Practice Aside

 

"It's not what the vision is, it's what the vision does." -- Peter Senge

 

   On December 13, 2016, the RAND Corporation published School Leadership Interventions Under the Every Student Succeeds Act:  Evidence Review. 

 

   With a goal of promoting effective school leadership as a strategy for district and school success, the Report provided “a synthesis of the evidence about the effectiveness of school leadership interventions, identifie(d) activities that should be allowable under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), and offer(ed) guidance to educators and policymakers on the use of research-based practices in school leadership.”

 

   In general, the research summarized in the Report demonstrated that different facets of school leadership can have important effects on student achievement.  This is especially important given ESSA’s emphasis on giving states and districts more self-determination and flexibility in using federalElementary and Secondary Education Act funds to facilitate stronger student outcomes.

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   Specific to my West Coast Superintendent and his decision to rededicate his district to agreeing on a common mission, vision, and set of values, the RAND Report concluded:

 

“. . .  research identifies conditions that can be influenced by principals and are associated with student success: developing and communicating a vision; establishing a culture of high expectations for students and staff; monitoring and supporting instruction; evaluating teachers; hiring, developing, and retaining school staff; maintaining student discipline; managing the school budget; and engaging with the community. . .

 

Several meta-analyses identified leadership actions associated with improved student achievement, including supporting the development and use of curriculum, instruction, and assessments; building a shared culture of achievement; establishing goals and expectations; resourcing strategically; planning, coordinating, and evaluating teaching and curricula; promoting and participating in teacher learning and development; and cultivating an orderly and supportive environment.”

 

   Thus, among these different conditions and actions, the Superintendent believed that:

 

   * “Developing and communicating a (shared) vision” for the district through its staff and schools and staff would . . .

 

   * Establish “a culture of high expectations for students and staff” that would build “a shared culture of achievement,” and that

 

   * This would then increase everyone’s commitment to the district’s school and schooling initiatives and practices, such that student success could be maximized.

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Generating the District’s Mission and Vision

 

"A vision is not just a picture of what could be; it is an appeal to our better selves, a call to become something more." -- Rosabeth Moss Kanter

 

   As noted earlier, the Superintendent decided that the best way to generate the initial drafts of the district’s new mission and vision statements was to meet with every staff member in the district in small groups.  Once in those groups, the Superintendent led a guided group discussion using a semi-structured set of questions that he and I generated ahead of time.

 

   While the building principals (who were present for every group discussion in their school) recorded the recommendations generated by each group on chart paper, I integrated the information into progressive drafts (as we went from group to group and school to school) of the district’s new vision and values statements, respectively.

 

   After describing the goals and objectives at each small group meeting, the Superintendent then expressed his comfort with the District’s existing Mission statement.  While open to discussion and change, it turned out that virtually all of the staff collectively liked the Mission statement and supported the Superintendent’s inclination to keep it.

 

   Thus, the District’s Mission Statement remained:

 

   Inspire . . . Believe . . . Achieve

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   Relative to the Vision and Values statements, respectively, we then asked each group to suggest ideas, wording, and descriptions that captured what they wanted their District and its staff to reflect, represent, accomplish, and be.  It was these descriptions that I crafted into separate draft statements.

 

   After all of the small-group school meetings, the draft results were presented to a District Leadership Team that had been previously chosen, and that had met prior to (and had given input into) the school meetings.  This Team had representatives from every school in the district, as well as non-certified staff representatives, and they took the draft results and finalized them on behalf of their colleagues.

 

   This finalization was accomplished in a single two-hour meeting where different Leadership Team groups reviewed, discussed, edited, and agreed on different pieces of the vision, and then value, statements. 

 

   As part of this process, all of the suggestions from the small group school meetings were posted on the walls of the room—and everyone was given time to complete a “gallery walk” to make sure that no important contribution was missed.

 

   Eventually, all of the recommendations of the different Leadership Team groups were considered, and the entire Team separately considered first the entire Vision, and then the entire Values, statements . . . eventually reaching a consensus on both.

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   Relative to the Mission Statement, the result was the following:

 

INSPIRE:  All staff in the West Coast School District embrace, include, and serve all students from across our Community—creating a culture of excellence; challenging them to be successful, continuous learners, academically, socially and emotionally.

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BELIEVE:  Using student-centered curriculum and engaging instruction, enhanced with cutting-edge technology, we provide positive and safe classrooms that focus on the whole child.

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ACHIEVE:  With students, parents, and community as equal partners, we are dedicated to preparing confident, healthy, respectful, and responsible students who can succeed and be productive tomorrow, next year, in high school, and in their post-graduation college and/or work careers.

 

Students. . . Staff. . . Parents. . . and Community together.

We are proud to be the West Coast School District.

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Generating the District’s Values Statement

 

"Vision animates, inspires, transforms purpose into action." - -

 Warren Bennis

 

   It was intriguing to watch the District Leadership Team discuss the Values Statement—knowing that this statement was the most personal part of our discussions.  Indeed, in finalizing the Values Statement, the Team agreed that they needed to hold themselves professionally and personally accountable to their students, colleagues, school/district, and community; while also holding their colleagues similarly accountable.

 

   Significantly, in the small group school discussions leading up to the District Leadership Team meeting, an important evolution occurred as the Superintendent and I moved from school to school.  Early on, the staff at one school wanted the Vision Statement to begin each statement with the words, “We will.”

 

   Later, one school was concerned that the collective “We” would allow some individuals to “opt out” of their personal responsibility. . . so long as the majority of their grade level or school demonstrated the values. 

 

   This school recommended that each statement begin with, “I will.”

 

   Still later, when the Superintendent shared the change from “We will” to “I will” with the remaining schools, the debate continued without a clear consensus.

 

   Ultimately, the Superintendent and I drafted the wording “Individually and Collectively” to represent both important viewpoints.  This wording was strongly supported by the District Leadership Team—all of whom had contributed to the earlier discussions at their individual school and grade levels.

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   Once the District Leadership Team finished its deliberations, they adopted the following Values Statement:

 

Individually and Collectively:

 

* We come to school committed and prepared to do our best—demonstrating high and consistent expectations for ourselves and others.

 

* We recognize and value everyone’s unique talents, skills, abilities, and potential.

 

* We accept responsibility for our own learning and behavior, while supporting the growth and development of others through our actions and words.

 

* We communicate with others in kind, patient, respectful, and inclusive ways.

 

* We value and build caring and compassionate relationships with others—actively listening to understand where others are coming from.

 

* We address challenges using collaborative problem-solving methods that focus on clear and measurable outcomes.

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Summary

 

"Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality." --

Warren Bennis

 

   In the context of strategic leadership and decision-making, there are “many roads to Rome.” 

 

   While the outcomes remain to be seen, the West Coast Superintendent made some critical decisions as to how to address his District’s revolving superintendent door—consciously and directly, in the first year of his tenure. 

 

   For my part—having watched the Superintendent “in action” across many days, schools, questions, and personalities—I have no doubts that his personal and professional efforts to collaboratively engage his staff will be successful.

 

   As an aside. . . As I wrote this Blog, I debated (with myself) whether or not to share this District’s mission, vision, and values statements.  On one hand, I was concerned that other districts might simply “copy” these statements and use them for their own.  On the other hand, I wanted to celebrate the outcomes of the District, and provide a “real” example to my readership.

 

   You can see the result of my debate.

 

   But please understand:  It is not just the words in these statements that are important, it is the process. 

 

   I have worked with thousands of districts over the years. . . often guiding them through this same essential strategic process.  And every time, the results have had important differences.

 

   But the biggest difference has been the staff discussion, debate, agreements, and disagreements. . . that ultimately brought the staff together, and helped them to (re)commit to themselves, their colleagues, their students and schools, and their parents and community.

 

   In the final analysis, it is not the words on the paper. . . it is the sustained collaborative, collegial commitment—in daily action—to what they represent.

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   I hope that this BLOG—with its Case Study and supporting research—have resonated with you.

 

   As always, I look forward to your comments. . . whether on-line or via e-mail (knoffprojectachieve@earthlink.net).

 

   If I and/or my colleagues can help you in any area of the school and schooling process, we are happy to provide a free one-hour consultation conference call to help you clarify your needs and directions on behalf of your students.

 

   As noted, “there are many roads to Rome.”  Critically, though, in education, we all need to be on the road to the next level of success.  Our students cannot wait.  We cannot sit—for too long—off the road at a “rest stop.”

 

Best,

Howie