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The Problem With Seeking an 'Innovative' Schools Chief

I spent last week out in Clark County, Nevada, where the community is in the midst of a tumultuous superintendent search. The Clark County school system is the nation's fifth largest, with more than 300,000 students, and the tensions framing the search are familiar when it comes to filling any of these big jobs. Should the board seek an insider or an outsider? "Continuity" or "change"? A leader who will "break some china" or one with a more consensus-driven style? While these questions are all reasonable enough, I fear they also lead us to focus on the wrong things.

In interviews with all of the superintendent candidates--insider or outsider, china-breaker or not--big-district boards ask some version of, "What do we need to do differently?" Every candidate is expected to come equipped with some bold ideas and new initiatives. Most times, it's these "innovative" ideas that will frame how the board and community judge the leaders. This is how candidates sell themselves as dynamic and visionary.

The result is that our healthy desire for energetic leadership gets channeled into an unhealthy tendency to glom onto the enthusiasms of the moment. Given that those enthusiasms wax and wane, every change of leadership can send a school system careening in a new direction. This undermines coherence and means that doing something "different" comes to be seen as, ipso facto, good. As I noted two decades ago, in Spinning Wheels, a dismal consequence is that some district is invariably embracing reform A and rejecting B as stale and misguided . . . just as another is latching onto reform B as shiny and new, and discarding A as tired and ineffective.

Along the way, a simple truth is too often lost. We forget that success, in any organization, is mostly a matter of precision, discipline, and focus. Scholars of nonprofits, for-profits, and public agencies will tell you that exciting ideas are only as good as their execution. Because we get distracted from that realization, we get lost chasing the next innovative program, fabulous fad, or "great" leader.

All this rushing and turmoil actually leaves systems worse off, shifting attention from disciplined execution to fevered imaginings about what an innovative leader can do. Along the way, the most important questions get lost amidst the noise. What, precisely, isn't working? Why? How can it be made better? What will this change cost or require? Having answers to these kinds of practical questions is the real measure of a leader. (For great tips on how to approach this, a terrific resource is Tony Bryk et al.'s Learning to Improve: How America's Schools Can Get Better at Getting Better.)

For those board members and civic leaders weighing their options in Clark County, and in other communities like Houston and Los Angeles, here's a modest suggestion. Don't ask who's "innovative" or is showing up with "innovative" ideas and don't look for a "change agent." There's nothing wrong with any of that, it's just that it's an unhelpful distraction. It doesn't matter if an idea is new or old, novel or familiar. What matters is how they're going to do what they're talking about. Ask about that.

A candidate talks grandly about teacher evaluation, accountability, professional learning, personalized learning, or social and emotional learning? Swell. But how exactly are they going to do this? Where are the problems they see? How will they measure progress in tackling those? Don't focus on what they're going to do, focus on how they're going to do it. I know it's not sexy, but it's smart.

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