Chiefs for Change, a bipartisan network of state and district education chiefs, today released The State of the Superintendency: Insights on how to navigate K-12 leadership in a challenging and politicized education space. The brief contains reflections from six former education system leaders who recently stepped down as well as an expert in school board governance.
“The K-12 superintendency is more complex and demanding than ever before,” according to the brief. “Superintendents need to be skilled in educational leadership. They must also be highly knowledgeable in areas such as strategic planning, financial literacy, and community and government relations. In addition, they must have the ability to skillfully navigate and respond to charged political environments, the 24-hour news cycle, rapid changes in technology, large-scale crises—like the Covid pandemic—and the far-reaching implications of an increasingly connected world.”
In the first part of the brief, the following former K-12 chiefs explained how issues impacting students and schools changed during their tenures and offered their perspectives on leadership in the current climate:
- Katy Anthes, Former Commissioner, Colorado Department of Education.
- Sharon Contreras, Former Superintendent, Guilford County Schools.
- Chad Gestson, Former Superintendent, Phoenix Union High School District.
- Monica Goldson, Former CEO, Prince George’s County Public Schools.
- Michael Hinojosa, Former Superintendent, Dallas Independent School District.
- Barbara Jenkins, Former Superintendent, Orange County Public Schools.
With decades of combined experience, the former chiefs recognize that the job has become harder in ways they didn’t foresee at the start of their careers. Still, they remain optimistic that systems can offer a high-quality education for all children. The former chiefs discussed how to, among other things:
- Partner with community organizations to meet students’ wide-ranging needs, so school systems are not expected to, on their own, serve as the social safety net.
- Build and maintain relationships with families and community members.
- Establish open lines of communication to share information, answer questions, and seek and receive input.
- Engage and productively work with people who hold differing views.
- Develop a CEO skill set focused on strategic planning, financial literacy, community and government relations, and effectively leading a high-performing team.
- Care for personal health and remain grounded in core values and beliefs.
The second part of the brief is an interview with A.J. Crabill, an expert in school board governance. Many chiefs, including some interviewed for the brief, cite working with boards and other elected officials as a challenging aspect of the job. Chiefs for Change turned to Crabill for his thoughts on how to foster productive relationships between superintendents and their boards to create highly effective K-12 systems. Crabill said it is important for superintendents to be evaluated based on their board’s adopted goals for student outcomes.
“Superintendents should call for their evaluation to be at least 50 percent focused on student outcomes—on what students know or are able to do in accordance with the board’s adopted student outcome goals,” Crabill said. “This expectation should be included in the superintendent’s contract. It is a critical step in insulating superintendents from having to chase local politics and in helping them stay focused on the main reason for which school systems exist: to improve student outcomes.”
In the interview, Crabill shared his thoughts on a range of topics—from how superintendents and school board members should respond during unruly school board meetings to how superintendents can work with boards to keep a school district’s core work focused on the mission of educating children.
“What matters most is that superintendents be deeply invested in creating school systems that have their strength of alignment in improving student outcomes, rather than their strength of alignment with attending to adult inputs,” Crabill explained. “Superintendents must be obsessed with improving the quality of instruction that students are experiencing every day. It’s not an either/or. You have to do both. The question is: Which is leading, and which is following? It has to be that student outcomes are leading and adult inputs are following.”
Chiefs for Change provides a robust network for K-12 leaders and operates the Future Chiefs program, which identifies talented emerging leaders and helps them prepare to lead school districts and state education departments. The brief supports efforts to build the pipeline of bold, student-focused superintendents. Chiefs for Change also hopes the brief will encourage school boards to think critically about their role and commitment to focusing on student outcomes.
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