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Beware of Superintendents Who Push for Too Much Reform

Last week, The Dallas Morning News invited me to weigh in on what's in store for Dallas after the resignation of hard-charging superintendent Mike Miles. Especially since I figure plenty of readers may not follow Dallas news, and given that there are big implications for plenty of other communities, I thought it worth addressing here.

Last month, when Miles resigned as Dallas superintendent after three years, the board named former supe Michael Hinojosa as interim chief. This marks DISD's fourth leadership change in 11 years—a rate that's actually pretty typical for America's urban school systems, and that illuminates why it can be so hard for districts to make sustained progress.

Early in his tenure, Miles launched the reform program Destination 2020. Key elements included a new principal evaluation system, a pay-for-performance teacher evaluation system, a Leadership Development Fellows Academy for principals, an Accelerating Campus Excellence plan that seeks to attract educators to "struggling" schools, and an emphasis on dramatically boosting the number of students earning career certifications.

New superintendents routinely propose agendas that are full to bursting. After all, communities want to see that things are going to get better, and it's extraordinarily difficult for a superintendent to credibly move district achievement in just one or two years. Therefore, there's a huge temptation to demonstrate energy by launching a raft of visible new initiatives. The worst way is to just put nose to grindstone.

As a result, local educators get deluged with new proposals. A number of years ago, I studied 57 urban school districts across the U.S. and found that they had launched an average of 13 major reforms in a three-year period—or three to four every year. Meanwhile, old programs rarely go away. Leaders would rather champion the new and exciting than mount the fights required to shutter the old. So superintendents layer their new reforms atop what has come before. The result is marked by layer upon layer of sediment, with educators squashed under it all.

Veteran educators learn to live by the admonition "this too shall pass." Fresh-faced, novice teachers may throw themselves into the latest reform. But once teachers have been around a little while, they've surfed so many reform waves that they learn to close their doors, wait things out, and cynically trust that the latest wave will soon dissipate too.

This matters because schooling is the most human of enterprises. The mark of great schools is not this reading program or that staffing model, but educators who approach these things with verve, expertise, clarity, and commitment. In successful schools, educators are invested in the program, have time to get good at it, and cooperate to make it work. Herky-jerky leadership stops any of that from happening.

What does all this mean for a district wrestling with a leadership transition?

First, when districts hunt for a new leader, it's easy to get caught up in hunting for a new leader who is "dynamic." That's a method for hiring new leaders with little interest in building upon what came before. Before talking about what it wants in a new superintendent, the school board needs to decide what's worth retaining and what changes are called for. That understanding should steer the search.

Second, seek a superintendent willing to unflinchingly and publicly commit to holding fast to that agenda. This commitment to continuity should be baked into the interview process, the contract, and how the new hire will be evaluated.

Third, removing the old and the distracting is a big part of focused leadership. The school board needs to reach some consensus on some of the things that need to go, ask potential new hires if they're up to that charge, and then hold them responsible for stripping out the outdated or ineffective. 

Some things are working in Dallas. Under Miles, the district achieved all-time highs in graduation rates, the number of students getting college credit on Advanced Placement exams, and the number of student receiving career credentials. Other things are not working. Student performance on the Texas STAAR exams didn't budge during Miles's tenure—and showed some disconcerting declines last year. The answer, though, is not yet another dizzying change in direction. 

In Dallas, as in so many communities, the best bet may not be a big personality with lots of brash plans, but rather a superintendent ready to build upon what's working, put an end to what isn't, and reassure educators that their hard work is paying off.

A version of this post previously ran in The Dallas Morning News.

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