When I was transitioning from being superintendent in Stamford, Conn., to being superintendent in Montgomery County, Md., I knew that while the title was the same, the jobs were very different. Not only was Stamford a tenth of the size of my new district but the work I had led there for six years had been defined clearly from the start: The priority was to build a system to improve teaching and learning, with particular attention to issues of equity. While difficult, this was a reasonably straightforward assignment. I had to strengthen the curriculum, develop common assessments, offer professional development, engage the community, establish a new accountability system, negotiate contracts, and align budgets to the needs of the system. For school district leaders, those are familiar tasks, and they’ve been codified in numerous publications. In fact, some of the playbook that we followed in Stamford was based on work that had occurred in Montgomery County, as chronicled in the book Leading for Equity (Harvard Education Press, 2009).
But when I moved to MCPS, the focus of my work wasn’t at all clear. Given the size of the district — more than 200 schools, 22,000 employees, and roughly 150,000 students and counting (enrollment was growing by 2,500 every year) — there was no way that I could, or should, get involved in day-to-day managerial decisions. Plus, MCPS already had skilled administrators throughout the system and was widely considered to be one of the best large districts in the country, with a national reputation for its efforts to address the achievement gap. It was a well-oiled machine, having been led by a single, highly regarded superintendent for a dozen years. Other than trying to keep everything running smoothly, what was there for a new superintendent to do?
Theorists of organizational change often warn (using a line attributed to Peter Drucker) that “Culture eats strategy for lunch.” In school systems, too, culture tends to be described with both reverence and fear, seen as an omnipresent and all-powerful force that can either drive change or stifle it. When reform initiatives go well, credit goes to the culture of the district, the school, the teachers, or the community; when initiatives go badly, a dysfunctional culture is to blame. Culture can be hard to define, enormously complex, and often intractable, but nothing matters more to the success of a school system — and nobody is in a better position to strengthen a school system’s culture than its superintendent. Thus, I knew when moving to MCPS that the culture of the district would have to be one of my chief concerns.
As part of my entry into MCPS, I embarked on a listening and learning tour. Not only did I need to get to know the district, but my board members had told me that they didn’t want major changes right away and that I should take time to become familiar with the community and the internal workings of the system. Further, my top two deputies and the entire executive team had remained in place so I also needed to learn how these long-term partners worked together, how they got along (or didn’t) with others in the district, and what they saw as the district’s most critical challenges (or more important, what they didn’t see, or didn’t say). Based on what I learned, I published a transition report about six months after I started. One of the most important assignments that I could take on, I argued in the report, was to make sure that the district culture was mature, professional, fully consistent with our stated values and goals, and strong enough to allow for healthy debate about our priorities and practices.
I had found that while employees and the community rightfully took pride in their accomplishments, they also wanted to see the school system expand its goals to include not just academic achievement but also social and emotional learning. I also heard from many people that the district could do much more to meet the needs of its most vulnerable students and families. And I heard from parents and community members that they wanted to be engaged in the schools in a deeper way than in the past, which would require administrators to see them as partners, not passive bystanders to district decision making.
But would the work of the past dozen years, which had featured a relentless, top-down focus on goal setting and metrics, enable the system to organize itself to meet these challenges? We had the technical expertise; the question was whether our culture would allow us to shift the ways in which we did business. (See www.montgomeryschoolsmd.org/uploadedFiles/departments/superintendent-starr/transitionalplan/SuperintendentsTransitionTeamReport.pdf)
Compared to writing a new curriculum or designing a professional development program, there’s nothing straightforward about coming up with a plan to address the culture of a school district. As I often pointed out to building- and system-level leaders, “You can’t change culture by memo.” How, then, does one persuade an entire community of stakeholders (many of whom pride themselves on the well-deserved reputation of their schools) that it’s time to start doing things differently?
I decided that my first priority would be to model the values and behaviors that I wanted to encourage, and I began by spending a lot of time talking with students and teachers. When I started visiting schools, the principal and office staff often had made coffee, laid out a nice spread of food, and had their school plans available for inspection. Word spread quickly, though, that while I always appreciated a nice snack, I was more interested in walking the school with the principal and listening to their vision for improving instruction. I also had the tendency to duck into random classes (rather than the ones that some principals tried to steer me into) and spend time talking to students and teachers. This got me quickly up to speed on what was actually happening in local classrooms and what principals, teachers, and students wanted for their schools, while also sending a clear message that all leaders, no matter how senior, ought to be paying close attention to classroom instruction.
Often, I would take pictures of classrooms where I saw great teaching and learning, and I would tweet those photos out and celebrate the teachers’ work. This struck me as a simple way to show everyone how I was spending my time and what kinds of practices I valued, and I heard from numerous people in the system that teachers were excited to be recognized in this way. Parents, too, started tweeting back to me with pride in their schools and appreciation for the focus on great classroom practices. And I heard from some veteran staff that in their years of service, no superintendent had ever visited their campus. I made it clear that I intended to visit every school in the district and hoped to create a culture where all felt equally valued.
Recognizing people’s accomplishments, even tweeting out examples of great practice, can have a powerful effect on the local culture. So I started to do something similar at the district’s bimonthly meetings for its 500 or so administrators and supervisors. After making a presentation on the budget, a new initiative, or whatever the topic of the day, I would give out a “tweeter of the month” award, recognizing one of the many principals who had joined me in my habit of tweeting out photos and descriptions of excellent classroom instruction. Months later, a principal told me that as soon as I started recognizing leaders in this way, dozens of her colleagues signed up for Twitter accounts — it turned out that school leaders were just as hungry for recognition as classroom teachers.
I also started asking administrators to tell the group about the ways in which they were succeeding in meeting district goals, whether by increasing access to high level courses, implementing a new approach to social-emotional learning, confronting racism, or engaging the community. It was important, I thought, for leaders to share the specific things that they were doing to improve their schools and offices. As my 12th grade creative writing teacher Ms. Freedman always said, “Show, don’t tell” — I didn’t want to tell people to adopt new practices; I wanted them to show each other what they were doing.
However, perhaps the most important thing I did to change the district’s culture was to insist on speaking my truth. I came out very publicly against former Secretary Arne Duncan’s Race To the Top initiative, not because I disagreed with everything in it but because it made no sense to me to implement the Common Core (which I favored) while still beholden to the NCLB accountability mechanisms based on the old state tests. My message to district leaders, teachers, staff, and the community was that I intended to lead in the way that I felt was right for Montgomery County, even if I ran afoul of federal policy positions. And that was the behavior that I hoped to see in every department, office, and school. MCPS had always been a system where people followed orders from the top — shortly after I arrived, in fact, many district leaders assured me that they were good soldiers and would follow my directives. But I didn’t want people to follow my orders. I wanted leaders to speak up on behalf of kids, families, and communities.
Did my efforts to visit classrooms, recognize good work, and speak my truth have an effect on the local culture, or did that culture eat me for lunch? It’s hard to say — student achievement tests are everywhere, but finding good measures of cultural change is difficult.
I suppose one has to have faith in the process and trust that such changes will unfold over the long term. In this sense (but only in this sense!), serving as a school leader is a bit like parenting: I have to trust that if my wife and I model our values and put our beliefs into practice, some of that will rub off on our three kids. Not that I expect my kids, 20 years from now, to look back and say, “Hey Dad, thanks for that time in 2017 when you taught me a valuable lesson about how to live my life.” But they observe, and they listen, and they absorb. And we hope that later on, when they have to make critical decisions of their own, our models will provide good examples for them to follow.
Childress, S., Doyle, D., & Thomas, D. (2009). Leading for Equity: The Pursuit of Excellence in Montgomery County Public Schools. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.
JOSHUA P. STARR (@JoshuaPStarr) is chief executive officer of PDK International, Arlington, Va.
Originally published in April 2017 Phi Delta Kappan 98 (7), 72-73. © 2017 Phi Delta Kappa International. All rights reserved.