Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Myth of the Superstar Superintendent… really?

'Creating a path' from
In 'The Myth of the Superstar Superintendent,' Eric Westervelt makes a case that Superintendents really aren't that important… that they don't have a substantial impact on student achievement.

Sorry, I disagree.

They do, and in many ways. Positive and negative depending on how they conduct business.

I've interviewed over 300 people on the qualities of effective leadership over the last three years at schools across the globe. Here are the things they've prioritized in my conversations, and that I agree on personally in 25 years in education.

1. Budgeting and financial oversight

Districts that don't manage money get themselves in piles of trouble.

We've all seen or heard of districts and / or schools in financial ruin. Think those intense budget woes don't have an effect on learning?

Me too.

Run a multi-million dollar business without effective fiscal leadership / oversight? Ok, good luck with that.


One tenured Principal I interviewed two years ago described it this way:

The best Superintendents I've worked for have been great at helping us focus priorities and achieve goals, not just at my school but across our district.

Principals are in charge of buildings. Oversight of a larger picture is critical I think.

Tough decisions… and important.

2. Dealing with union / labor grievances

Handling grievances improperly can cost districts large amounts of money in litigation, academic development gridlock, and cascade morale problems. Helping principals deal with these in a timely fashion and then investigating the root cause and setting corrective plans in motion has the highest value.

3. Contract negotiations

Negotiating these waters with Unions, often inexperienced boards, and the public can be tricky. Superintendent's play a key role in this function.

Those three seem to be the low hanging fruit, so to speak, when I've interviewed school leaders on the qualities of effective leadership in education.

My head starts to hurt when I think of such things being cast as 'unimportant' or having little to no impact on student achievement.

Here are four more things I've seen and so many folks have mentioned in my travels, and I agree… all pretty important.

The Galactic Senate Chamber from 
1. Establishing, educating, managing, and governing board policy. 

For many school leaders and teachers I've interviewed, this is a 'prime directive' of sorts for Superintendents. Most acknowledged that their Superintendent did this well... or wished they did.

It's common knowledge that dysfunctional boards can cripple a school district. Rogue initiatives, self-directed interests, unprofessionalism in communication that leads to distrust, apathy, and wavering public support for even the best of initiatives within a school district can all result. That anarchy, I'd argue ultimately effects student achievement.

Here are three common problems described to me by Superintendents, Principals, and teachers and many parents regarding school boards. I chose the best quotes from all my interviews toward these points:

Some people approach their board term with an axe to grind. They disagree with everything, and want to change everything. There's no analysis really. They're just angry. 
Some work toward initiatives that will benefit their own children at the expense of any and all others in their path.
Everything, and I mean everything, is an emergency with some boards. It's exhausting. 

Fostering that culture and expectations of the boards purpose, functions, and protocols are are essential.

One Principal I interviewed said this:

The best Superintendents can navigate and educate difficult boards and Board Chairs. They are policy and procedure hounds. They make sure things go smoothly and remain civil. They're great at squelching people who are basically just generating noise. When they can't do that with some board members, they can still run interference so we can do our jobs well. Slowly that person who's so troublesome on the board gains experience or, well, just goes away.

Innovative districts often don't have 'proactive and highly functioning school boards' by accident. The ones that do it consistently have process and policy… rather than simply luck.

Superintendent fodder to educate the board chair and members on board policy? 


Takes skill, too.

2. Firing and Hiring

Public schools often experience complete gridlock when they try to let employees go, even after thorough due process and diligence. Ultimately it costs students a lot of money and growth potential. I've spoken to many who have voiced stories about the worst employees being shuffled and buried in within the school. It can go on for decades. Excellent school leaders are skilled at getting rid of people who do what they do very poorly. 

Hiring, the best of it anyway, centers around creating a vision. Replacing excellent school leaders and teachers with more of the same or better takes skill and some vision. It implies governance of mission and not of personal agenda (hiring friends who might not be suited for the job), or ego. 

Overseeing these two processes well is critical to lasting success in so many important ways.

3. Oversight

It's an 'avoiding bureaucracy' sort of thing.

Principals can control this… or cause it. Who oversees principals when schools internally can be heavily bureaucratic? Who oversees a Curriculum Director?

Change is difficult, often mired by ineffective process. For those working in schools this is known as 'committee hell.' Committees, subcommittees, task forces - whatever you call them - schools can debate even the smallest structural or pedagogical change for years, and sometimes decades. Tenured people often stop volunteering for committees eventually… and then laugh at the younger ones who do who then fall victim to the same cycle. There are three 'oversight' threads here I'm thinking of in this one that are critical for principals and ultimately Superintendents, listed below as items a - c below.

a. 'Committee to Shelf' Initiative Governance

Talk to a person who's been in education for more than two decades and it's likely they can spout off a series of 'latest and greatest initiatives to come down the pike.' Citing most recent examples like No Child Left Behind (NCLB), Race to the Top, and now Common Core makes them easy to remember. For many schools, it all boils down to another initiative that goes in another binder on a shelf somewhere until the next thing comes along. No followup… no purpose that's quantitative or qualitative, just busy work. 

Some of the best Superintendents help create / facilitate frameworks, or logic models outlining future steps and rationale with principals and curriculum directors and make them transparent to faculty, parents, and ultimately students. Otherwise, many of those initiatives are run in isolated pockets… and go on a shelf... or scatter.

b. Managing self-righteousness / self-justification

Ever see a new person climb into a new position and generate copious amounts of work for those around them? Me too.  

Here's part of a conversation from a Superintendent who wished to remain anonymous.

"Prior to my arrival there had been a series of curriculum directors over a short period of time. These people were well intended but headed in different directions and generated incredible, and I mean INCREDIBLE, amounts of work for people. There was no oversight of these initiatives as to their purpose, workload or goals for that matter. By the time I arrived nobody was interested in talking about curriculum anymore. Everything was fractured with no thought on progression from grade level to grade level."

Finding a top level school leader, like a Superintendent, who can corral such things into goals, thoughtful process, and common sense is... critical. 

c. Future thinker... that can implement

From the article I'm questioning:

"A good superintendent empowers leading visionary principals and teacher leaders at the school," she says. But what actually happens too often is that superintendents "squash interesting ideas, so you'd have principals afraid to try something new, afraid to try something innovative."

I believe the best Superintendents are future thinkers… and they can put it in motion. It's not to say that they have to come up with all the ideas themselves. The just can recognize great work, apply common sense, fiscal balance, big picture thinking… and implement the idea.

Simple right?

It takes skill in big systems.

They actively think and drive practices toward creative and engaging learning opportunities for students.

They evaluate current practices and adjust priorities.

Ok, back to the the last job function I see as critical.

4. They encourage innovation

They encourage it, mean it, and meet with people regularly to help ideas move forward.

Discussions on innovation can go in circles year to year with little to no movement. People drop out of committees and task forces, especially when they duplicate efforts over years. Great Superintendents help move road blocks to make things happen. 

5. They delegate and build great leaders within the system

Great Superintendents build cultures where leaders work together and problem solve together. Each person within the system sees themselves as part of a team, part of a district. System choices are made thoughtfully.

I heard many horror stories here of compartmentalization, dissension, micromanagement, and severely penalty based cultures here. Pretty horrific stuff. 

Team building and fostering individual growth and ideas is the goal.

6. People want to work with them

You know… they're nice!

I shudder to put this 6th actually. Every single person I interviewed who worked in schools had either high praise on this one or a series of horror stories.

Being nice goes a long way. One Principal I interviewed two years ago on 'the traits of the best school leaders' said it this way:

Want to work with a bully? Someone who fosters a culture of fear? Someone who lashes out when challenged? How about someone who is extremely temperamental or monstrously egotistical? Didn't think so. People under those leaders get scared and often burned. They shut their doors and hide and ride it out. They stop innovating. That's when things get compartmentalized.

The best Superintendents? They're fair, kind, and have respectful leadership skills. They work with people, not at them. They bring out the best in people. 

In summary

Through the muck. Picture from
In all my interviews, people seem to agree:

Superintendents can drive things into ruin. 

They can be figureheads, ineffective and absent.

They can also be educational leaders who provide ways and means for people to innovate.

These are the basic things people discussed with me in their wishes in Superintendent leaders.

All of them, over time, and in direct and indirect ways can have significant impacts on student achievement. It's not just an analysis of how test scores faired during their tenure. It's about what opportunities they created, who they inspired, and what actually happened.

Hard stuff to measure sometimes. More of a good common sense thing I think.

The key is finding a person who can do these things I've mentioned.

Otherwise... things fall apart, the wheel keeps spinning… and good people burnout. Ultimately, students achieve less when they don't have systems in place which help them reach their potential. Adults too. Who knows what damage that can actually do.

I'll take the superstar, thanks.


  1. Superintendent is importance. It may not be obvious from a first glance, but if you dig deeper you will find it out for yourself.

  2. I love that you have based this upon research and empathy interviews. I believe that you have looked at many different facets of leadership and you have done it by asking the people most affected by that leadership.

    In my role within a large urban school district, I have seen the power of a strong superintendent to move a large system forward. However, I only believe that this works when you have a distributed leadership, where the many layers below the superintendent feel empowered to move the district as well. It doesn't work if every decision has to be pushed back to the executive leadership team in order to change something.

    The real question for me is, "How can we create superstars where there are none?" I do believe that any district team must be collectively a "superstar" and that it isn't enough to have a single person at the helm doing this. We must get to a place where there is a system and a structure of leadership that can do the things you mentioned. If it is left up to a single individual, the whole things falls apart when they leave.

    P.S. This comment is a part of the #C4C15 project. Find out more here:

  3. Many thanks for the comment, Ben. I agree with your points on distributed leadership. It's key... but the Superintendent can help those systems thrive or literally squash the life out of innovation.

    Creating superstars where there are none... that's another post ; )

    Building teams, policies and procedures... including board policy that foster that type of innovation is key... and often the work of a great Superintendent, strong board members, board chair, or... pressure from within teachers groups to work toward this expectations.

    I'll definitely check the link you left as well. Adam