We currently live in the age of the Education Leader Schmoozers. Local school district school boards are star struck by educational leaders who are expert at using the latest educational jargon to bamboozle local school boards into hiring them to lead their school districts. School Boards fail to do due diligence in establishing clear criteria in the hiring of district superintendents. Minimally, school district school boards should expect that their leaders focus on the academic achievement for all students. This would require that school boards hire superintendents who are able to clearly identify measurable student academic achievement goals; acquire detailed curricula and assessments; and demand the use of well-researched professional practices for teachers, principals, and district administrators. School Boards need superintendents who understand and can identify and implement change that will drive the improvement of professional practices that lead to the improvement of student outcomes. Unfortunately, we are often left with schmoozers who can vocalize a plethora of educational jargon but are unable to move systems toward real improvement. These leaders are extremely susceptible to and even generate the fog of education.
A local school boards should ensure that the superintendent build data systems that track and clearly report both student and professional practices outcomes. These outcomes should be open, transparent, and easy to interpret. They should demonstrate not only improvement but also growth over time. The data systems should also inform equity as well as the degree to which all students achieve grade-level learning targets aligned with future success in college and career. Since most superintendents are averse to a real system view of school district student outcomes and professional practices, data system vendor acquiesces to this preference and generally do not provide comprehensive system-level data visualizations and inquiry protocols.
Of course, not all superintendents are masters of the schmooze. I had the good fortune of working with a master superintendent by the name of John Conyers who led Community Consolidated School District in Palatine Illinois in the early 2000’s. John clearly understood what the community wanted: academic achievement for all students. He built and most importantly implemented a district strategic plan that focused first on the improvement of professional practices throughout the system. For example, we focused on the development of thinking maps at all levels to drive improvement. We carefully monitored implementation and worked to continuously improve this practice. We understood that the improvement of student outcomes is directly linked to the improvement of aligned professional practices.
I supported John and Bob Ewy in helping to build and use data systems that were comprehensive, open, transparent, and easily interpretable by stakeholders. John created a District Advisory Committee (DAC) that complemented the work of the school board but also was a tremendous opportunity to engage a wide spectrum of the community in real and meaningful accountability. With a strong focus on both professional practices and student outcomes, we were able to drive continuous improvement within the system for many years. We were the first to apply for and win the coveted Malcom Baldrige National Quality Award in 2003.
At the school level, I had the opportunity to work with David Silver who led a high performing school of mostly economically disadvantaged Latino elementary students at a school called Think College Now in the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD). David worked closely with his teacher teams to actively engage in the continuous improvement of formative assessment practices on a daily basis. He would meet with teacher teams to review student work from the previous day using well-conceived and standards-aligned rubrics to gauge student performance, diagnose student learning needs, and plan interventions that would be used the next day to improve student outcomes. Needless to say, David’s school was one of the highest performing schools in OUSD.
Another example of a brilliant superintendent is Deborah l. Wortham of East Ramapo Central School District in Spring Valley New York. Deborah supported a drive for student self-efficacy within her school district. However, she was not satisfied with leaving this important task to the district staff or consultants to carry forward. She planned and implemented live presentations via the communication system of the school district with every classroom every day for 10 to 15 minutes with creative and affirming messages that promoted a growth mindset within her students. I have never seen a superintendent who was so popular and impactful with her students. Students would run from the hills and fields around schools surrounding Deborah’s car when she would pull up to a school in order to be close to her and possibly get some advice from this rock star of a superintendent.
Deborah is unique as a superintendent as she has deep knowledge of fundamental teaching practices that get results for students. She worked with Performance Fact, Inc. to integrate a few quality professional practices into her strategic plan as well. However, she was not able to effectively implement the Explicit Teaching Model well because of several common pitfalls. First of all, she brokered the professional development work to several vendors while at the same time tried to initiate a new math curriculum with teachers. She also fell into the trap of treating her principals like infants who could only read one page of the Cliff Notes version of the Explicit Teaching practice. Without an effective implementation, monitoring, and evaluation of the new practice, it was doomed to failure. Student results demonstrated this failure. She definitely got within the red zone of success but was unable to bring the ball across the goal line. But one must give Deborah credit for trying.
While there are special cases of quality district leadership, there are many examples of poor leadership that only contributes to the fog of education. School Boards often are led by local residents who do not have a strong grasp of what it takes from a professional practices perspective to promote student academic achievement. They are often left with the task of finding a Messiah Superintendent who will lead them out of the wilderness of poor student performance by tapping into the plethora of educational fads and jargon that constitute the fog of K-12 education.
One sad example of this phenomena was the effort by the Oklahoma City (OKC) School Board in hiring a “hot shot” superintendent by the name of Rob Neu who was a successful superintendent from the suburbs of Seattle, Washington. In securing his employment, the Board agreed to let the superintendent commute to and from his Seattle Ranch on weekends. This pathology was an artifact of a local school board that became infatuated with a “super-star” superintendent who was more expert at the schmooze and educational jargon than on actually implementing the improvement of professional practices resulting in much-needed improved student outcomes.
The OKC board at least had the wisdom to demand that their new vagabond superintendent lead a strategic planning initiative within the district and even agreed to support the implementation of the plan which is a rarity. Fortunately, Rob hired a strong administrative staff including an Assistant Superintendent of Instruction who were very qualified and were able to move forward successfully on the implementation of the strategic plan. They did the heavy lift while Rob continued to build his ego, spout educational platitudes, and generally schmooze his way through the job. He ingratiated himself with the state board by picking a gratuitous fight with the state board. Eventually the Board tired of all of the drama and fired Rob giving his job to the more qualified and humble Assistant Superintendent of Instruction.
Superintendents and district administrative staff in general do not possess the high-level teaching skills that in any way would inspire or enhance the abilities of the teaching corps within their system. Deborah L. Wortham is the exception. Lacking these fundamental skills, district leadership will often broker the services of a wide variety of vendors to inadequately lead the implementation of any number of educational fads du jour. Most of the time this support is done through infrequent large group professional development with very little penetration into the classroom. All of the brokering and planning may get the district within the red zone but rarely into the end zone. When working with the Chester School District, I had the opportunity to engage teacher teams in the development of quality benchmark assessments in reading and math. The Superintendent though was in a rush for immediate results and elected to purchase and implement canned benchmark assessments from a vendor. Of course, the implementation did not go well and student outcomes remained very low.
Without the credibility to be able to effectively model quality instruction within the classroom, the district leaders and administrative staff must resort to political efforts to mollify the teaching staff. This well recognized but unstated stand-off will result in a devil’s pact where the district administration pursues a wide variety of extraneous initiatives with only a light touch on teacher practices with the illusion that the district administration is leading the teacher corps.
Of course, there are superintendents and district administrator who do not have to forever play the schmooze game. Administrators in Redwood City School District wanted to improve their early reading performance by beginning with screening and monitoring assessment for grades K-3 called the Dynamic Indicators of Early Literacy System. (DIBELS). Unfortunately, the DIBELS system had a very poor reputation among the teaching staff in Redwood City due to a previous botched implementation which is so common in K-12 Education. Even with resistance though, the administrative staff used an Explicit Teaching practice to model administration, scoring, and interpretation of the assessment with the teaching corps and then continuously support teachers in more fruitful implementation of this screening and monitoring system for early reading success.
Most superintendents derive from the pool of educators who were recruited and trained in woefully deficient colleges of education. We can’t really blame them for not being truly experts in the essential practices of teaching and learning. However, one might expect that they would be able to lead a strategic planning process that held all professionals within the school district accountable to real measurable student outcomes especially for children of color, economically disadvantaged students, English Learners, and Students with Disability. Most six-figure salaried superintendents are unwilling to expose themselves to the risk of real accountability for student outcomes and consistent and comprehensive high-quality professional practices. Instead they are able to select ornaments from the Christmas Tree of Education and then bamboozle local board about the “importance” of ornaments like personalized learning, a computer for every student, social-emotional learning, and so on. They conveniently forget that parents and students first and foremost want to be academically prepared for success in college and career.
The ability of superintendents and district leaders to schmooze and redirect focus within school districts is truly amazing. When I worked for the Stupski Foundation, we would often work with “leader” superintendents who were armed with the latest educational aphorisms. In Paterson, New Jersey, for example the superintendent struggled with the slogan that would most solidify his status within the community with the just-in-time slogan “The Children are Waiting.” Of course, with his total lack of expertise in teaching and learning, his inability to lead and implement strategic plans, and his bargain with the devil partnership with both the Unions and political class, he was unable to drive real change within the school district.
Another key tool in the trick bag of schmoozer superintendents is the ability to bamboozle local school boards with special case examples of success even while systemic indicators of success were weak or even were moving in the wrong direction. Stan Rose, the superintendent of Santa Clara Unified School District, would regularly use this trick to persuade the school board that the English Learner program was a success by parading several students and their families into school board meetings celebrating their academic success while in reality only 4% of English Learners meet or exceed state standards in Mathematics. The substitution of special case successes for true systemic change has additional collateral “benefits” in that it makes the local school boards and the community feel good at the expense of facing the realities of the big picture performance of students.
With their gift of gab, superintendents keep their local School Board members enthralled and distracted from the main mission of student academic achievement and they also engage vendors and consultants through the brokering of services and the feathering of their own nests. It is not enough that they already receive exorbitant contracts with large severance packages and extra goodies but they can easily extract favors and money from contractors doing business with the school districts. John Deasy, a former Stupski alumnus and former superintendent of Los Angeles School District, was caught with his hand in the cookie jar by making inappropriate contacts with Apple before a bid to purchase computers for every student in LAUSD. Unfortunately for the students, the iPads came without keyboards! John also did a promotional video for Apple! Superintendents often have a soft spot in their hearts for bright, new, shiny, expensive objects!
Barbara Byrd Bennett, also a Stupski alumnus and former superintendent of Cleveland and Chicago, is now federal inmate No. 48517-424 in Alderson federal prison for her role in scheming to collect bribes from the Camelot Company who was awarded a $67 million contract to set up schools in the Chicago Public Schools.
It is a challenge to improve academic achievement within a school district especially when the school district has a large percentage of economically disadvantaged students, English Learners, Students with disability, and students of color. It requires district leadership with strong knowledge of quality curricula and the integrated professional practices required to implement those practices. Leaders also need to know how to effectively implement and evaluate initiatives that will improve practices that result in improved student outcomes. Given the generally low caliber of the teaching staff who are protected by very strong union contracts, it is certainly a challenge for any superintendent to rally the troops to improve both curricula and practices. It is easier for superintendents to keep their local school boards happy with special case successes and the cherry picking of data to support academic success within the system.
Superintendents primarily live in a political world and look at their role within school districts through this lens as Bolman and Deal have taught us in their book, Reframing Organizations. Being quintessential social beings, they like to organize themselves into an elite club that can engage in continuous preening and self-congratulation. The club is necessary as superintendent longevity within school districts is generally only a few years before local school districts can catch on their cons. There are even formal organizations of superintendent support. I worked as a data analyst for the Stupski Foundation that maintained a stable of retired superintendents from across the nation. Larry Stupski, the former CEO of Schwab Corporation, engaged with the superintendents of low performing school districts with high percentages of students of color. Larry’s theory of action was to use a gift of $100,000 to the school district as a teaser to ensure his ability to place one of his retired superintendents on the executive team of the school district. This very clever strategy provided Larry with leverage to influence policy within the school district. The ploy worked very well. However, the infusion of retired superintendents on to executive committees for the most part only amplified the schmooze and the creation of more useless educational platitudes.
In addition to the insertion of retired superintendents on to executive committees, Stupski teams would conduct audits of essential elements of quality teaching and learning within the school district through document reviews and staff interviews. In the Cleveland School District, our audit teams clearly identified a problem with the lack of quality and consistent curricula within the school district. Barbara Byrd Bennett, current federal inmate No. 48517-424, strongly denied the lack of curricula within the system and even the influence of a retired superintendent on the executive team was insufficient to lead much needed reform in quality curricula within the system. Our work within the Cleveland system devolved into the creation and dissemination of educational platitudes such as “Intelligence can be Learned.”
The club of superintendents has created a system that is perfectly designed to maintain them in power at the expense of real systems change that will dispel the fog of education by focusing on the real work of improving curricula, professional practices, and assessments. Superintendents have had to endure the recent era of “No Child Left Behind” where at least there was some recognition of a very serious achievement gap between the performance of Whites and Asians compared with the performance of Black/African Americans, Hispanics, Economically Disadvantaged, English Learners and Students with Disability. The challenge of reducing and eliminating the achievement gap was daunting and truly a huge challenge. Superintendent leadership was unable to overcome the many impediments for meeting this challenge. Federal and State level leadership attempted to apply external pressure on school districts by trading limited federal funding for requirements of the school districts to focus their work on improving opportunities for minority groups. This leverage is now disappearing with the advent of Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).
The state and to some extent the federal government are now complicit in moving away from a push to reduce the achievement gap to giving more autonomy to local school districts to implement change within their systems with very limited accountability. The inept Department of Education even rejected California’s application for funding! You can see why. The state of California developed an Accountability Dashboard that actually obfuscates the achievement gap by creating an academic dashboard element that actually shifts scale score points on the State tests from high performing to low performing students. It also fails to include eleventh grade scores on the academic achievement indicator. The California plan provides state and federal funds to school districts giving autonomy to the local school districts with little or no accountability for student outcomes in the local school district strategic plans. The Superintendent club in California can now breathe a sigh of relief from both state and federal accountability! They can continue to allocate funds as they like maybe even extracting favors from consultants and vendors. They can continue to pursue from among the myriad of educational fads. They can continue to represent special case as systemic performance even when systemic student outcome and professional practices outcomes are very poor.
The problem of the Schmoozer Superintendent is an intractable one. It is part of a larger system that is now almost perfectly aligned to support the advancement of the adults within school systems rather than a focus on student academic achievement. The root cause of the problem rests primarily in the ability of local school boards to select superintendents who are dedicated to the core mission of schools which is the academic achievement of all students. It is imperative that local school boards establish clear criteria for the selection and evaluation of superintendents. These criteria should include a non-negotiable demand that there be measurable student outcome expectations for all students within the system. The criteria should also include the expectation that the work of the school district focus on quality curricula, professional practices, and assessments. The board should expect that there be clear and easily interpretable system-wide improvement and growth data to support achievement of both student outcomes and professional practices. With clear criteria, local school boards can drive system-wide continuous improvement. They will be less likely to be blinded by Messiah superintendent candidates willing to substitute special case performance for system-wide performance.
The states and federal government agencies must end their complicity in supporting the bad behavior of the superintendents that they are supposed to be leading. They should resurrect expectations that school districts develop student goals that are academic focused and measurable. They must hold superintendents and school districts accountable for academic achievement for all students. They must also end the expectation that school districts complete strategic plans that are bureaucratic quagmires. They should expect that school districts and schools are able to develop student-focused plans that clearly align student outcomes with professional practices, curricula, educational strategies, and assessments. They should insist that school districts and schools generate big pictures plans that are truly understandable by all stakeholders. The big picture for the plans should include detailed implementation plans that hold individual professionals within the district accountable. There should also be expectation of strong monitoring and evaluation of the plans that are also public.
The moral purpose of education should be to ensure that all students achieve the academic success that will prepare them for college and career. It is time to transform the K-12 education from a system that is currently designed for the care and feeding of adults to a system that is focused on its students and their academic success. We must dispel the fog of education so that we can gain clarity on our real purpose: student academic achievement.
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