The problem with school superintendents

Oakland Supt. Tony Smith resigns Oakland Supt. Tony Smith resigns

What do urban school districts need to see in their leaders? Here to explain is Katherine Schultz, a professor and dean of the School of Education at Mills College in Oakland. She is the author of the 2009 book, “Rethinking Classroom Participation: Listening to Silent Voices.”

By Katherine Schultz

Tony Smith announced his resignation as superintendent of the Oakland Unified School District early this month, news that stunned much of the education community in the Bay Area. Although not without his share of controversy, Tony has done a remarkable job in his five-year tenure as superintendent. He possesses a rare combination of charisma, kindness, and an ability to articulate a powerful vision along with an enthusiasm for listening and learning from others. In a district known for its critique and discord, it is notable that, at this critical moment of leadership transition, there is almost uniform consensus that the next superintendent be someone who can carry forward and implement the bold vision of community schools that Tony and his team have crafted.  This moment of transition in Oakland has profound implications for those of us who care deeply about our city’s public schools and it has important and far-reaching implications for other cities around the country.

In recent years, two trends have characterized the urban school district superintendency.  First, urban superintendents rarely stay in their positions for more than a few years. Smith was a rare exception to this, especially in Oakland where few superintendents have lasted more than two years.  Second, there is a tendency for new superintendents to start anew, with their own bold vision, in order to make their mark. This is nearly always a mistake; this strategy inevitably slows the momentum of progress and the consequent discontinuity often causes disruption in the lives of children, teachers and families.

Oakland needs a new superintendent who will continue the work begun by Smith and his administration. And we need more than that. We need a superintendent who is able to communicate this vision to the wider community, including parents and funders, with the same force and passion that Tony possessed, and we need someone with a deep understanding of teaching and teachers’ central role in successfully implementing this vision. At a time where teachers are increasingly blamed for the failure of urban schools, the next superintendent of Oakland should have a lived knowledge of classroom life and a deep respect for teachers.

The recent move toward hiring CEOs as superintendents to manage large, complex and often distressed fiscal systems and bureaucracies has meant diminished attention to the knowledge of teaching and learning required for this work. To implement the vision Smith has built with the district and community, and to maintain the district’s positive and substantive gains, the next superintendent must have respect and a deep commitment to teachers’ work and a complex understanding of what teaching entails. This vision should include more than knowledge of which tests to use to assess students’ success with the Common Core Curriculum and which evaluation programs to purchase that are developed outside of the district.

The knowledge the next superintendent possesses should be borne from classroom experience in urban schools, it should be honed by successful collaborative work across the various education sectors, and it should be bolstered by a serious understanding of current research and practice. The incoming superintendent needs to do more than commission or read reports on Teacher Quality that are based on current metrics. She or he must work with the schools to develop metrics that reflect their current gaps and needs while displaying their progress towards excellence.

Like many of our nation’s schools, Oakland is plagued by intractable poverty, persistent violence, and diminishing resources. The next superintendent will not be able to address these root causes alone. Yet, with the roadmap laid out by Smith, and with the support of the community, including the teachers and administrators who will implement the plans, the incoming superintendent can transform our schools and make Oakland a model for the nation. A starting place for addressing poverty and violence is to increase educational opportunities for all students. The concept of community schools that reframes learning as connected to the health and well-being of the community begins to build the necessary foundation for change.

Knowledge of teaching and learning is not found solely in books nor is it acquired after just two years in the classroom. Talk to successful teachers who have spent 10 or 20 years in a classroom and you will find a deep understanding of children, communities, curriculum, and knowledge of how to engage the most recalcitrant student in learning that connects to their lives and opens up opportunities. This is not to say that the next superintendent of Oakland must have taught for some minimum number of years.  We need in this person both a respect for that knowledge and the willingness to think outside of conventional solutions to address the educational futures of children in our most impoverished school districts—certainly among the most important challenges we face as a country. Our next superintendent must also bring a commitment and ability to work as a partner with the teacher’s unions and understand the importance of building pathways for teacher development and leadership. We need a superintendent who can navigate the deep divide between traditional public and charter schools while opening up a dialogue about the meaning of “public” schools. Our urban districts are failing and we have the knowledge to address that failure through imagination, knowledge and experience. How we select and support our next leaders will make the difference.

 

 

 

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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