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Diane Halpin, DirectorChange the way we serve learns with Autism!

Pathway to School District Superintendent
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"The passion of rescue reveals the highest dynamic of the human soul."
                                                                            - Kurt Hahn

ypical Pathway to School District Superintendent

The vast majority of public school superintendents advance to the leadership position through a similar internal progression of assignments from teacher, principal, department head, central office administrator and then on to superintendent positions. Although they have been exposed to challenges in a prior school leadership or district level assignment, they have not experienced the significant and sole accountability of leading significant change in a complex organization. They must learn this quickly as they take responsibility for the role of superintendent.

In addition, the typical model for leadership learned in the internal progression is mostly predicated on the classroom, i.e., that of leader and followers with little or no power. The experiential development of these superintendents is that of hierarchical authority in a system of distributed power. As these leaders advance through the system, they learn quickly how to navigate the various mine fields and power struggles shared by bargaining labor groups, school boards, state departments and community groups. Often, this means the leader will focus more on management of the organization in order to be successful with all constituents. This is not strong and effective leadership that is required to bring public schools to higher levels of performance.

In addition superintendents today are a well educated population with many advanced degrees, often with doctorates from university education departments. These degrees make them experts in the area of education and not necessarily in organizational development, adaptive leadership, or leading complex organizations. As is present in many educational institutions, recognition is placed on the academic achievement not in the alignment of skills necessary to be successful in their role as superintendent. A strong knowledge base in education, or a knowledge based leader, is preferred in the current marketplace to a skilled adaptive leader capable of creating long term changes and improvements.

As superintendents continue to use technical solutions, they find themselves in an untenable position. Stakeholders might be temporarily satisfied, however, they are somewhat aware that the current state of the school organization is not ready for the future. Inevitably, this leads to a dissatisfaction with the superintendent as leader and increases the likelihood of superintendent turnover. What superintendents may believe is doing their job is only preventing the organization from responding and preparing for the future changes.

The knowledge based leader is one that utilizes technical fixes to resolve the issues confronting the organization. The challenge for a knowledge based leader is that many of the issues they face as a leader are systemic and adaptive in nature. Each time they use a technical fix for an adaptive issue, it creates greater barriers for the organization to take the necessary actions towards the envisioned future. What happens is that each of these fixes re-centers the organization back to a state of equilibrium. This satisfies the different stakeholders for a short time and does nothing to progress towards the long range vision of the organization.

Yet, we know that public school systems can improve substantially in as little as six years of sustained leadership (McKinsey, 2010).

Consistent turnover in the position of superintendent role along with the elevated stress and discontent of the current role places public education in a precarious position for adapting to the future needs of students and communities. Districts are finding that the superintendents are not rushing back into the position as they were before. Even though the position offers attractive public sector compensation, passion for something important and local celebrity it is not enough to continue to attract talented leaders into the profession.

The decline in the number of talented candidates is placing increased pressure and challenges on search firms to attract superintendents to vacant positions. Broad Foundation has recognized this issue earlier this decade and began a program to develop non-education people for the superintendency. They seek former CEOs and Military leaders to train and prepare candidates for the position. To date, the track record for Broad Fellows is significant as it relates to urban school district success, improvements and increased retention rates. Unfortunately, Broad Foundation produces a limited number of prepared leaders annually due to strict selection criteria and a limited pool of applicants.

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