It takes a district



No one will listen to, trust, or follow the visionary superintendent who has lofty goals but can’t manage the basic elements of a school system. 


“They don’t teach you about health insurance and bus routes in superintendent school.” I remember making that somewhat sarcastic remark to a mentor 15 years ago after attending my first few board meetings as a brand-new 35-year-old district leader. I had served as a superintendent’s cabinet member and held other system-level positions, and I had studied the profession in a doctoral program, but nobody had ever told me the difference between being “fully insured” and “self-insured” or taught me the intricate art of rethinking bus route tiers. Here I was, though, poring over these topics for hours at a time, even though I’d much rather have been thinking about the things I really cared about: teaching, learning, and ensuring that all students have meaningful opportunities to succeed. 

Of course, I knew that when I became a superintendent I would have to deal with a lot of logistical concerns and management issues that had no obvious connection to the instructional core. But it wasn’t until I was sitting there at my third or fourth board meeting that it fully sunk in just how much of my time would be devoted to hashing out contractual details with union leaders, appeasing angry city officials, figuring out the state’s new rules on financial reporting, scheduling mold inspections, responding to parents’ concerns about changing bus routes, and on and on. 

My mentor superintendent and I had a running joke. In those rare moments when we found ourselves actually talking about classroom instruction, one of us would pause to mark the occasion, declaring, “Hey, teaching and learning!”   

The central office matters 

Most people go into district leadership because they want to help greater numbers of kids get the high-quality education they deserve. When bureaucratic tasks divert them from what they see as their real mission, they feel guilty and frustrated, wishing they could focus on issues that touch more directly on students’ needs. But, as I tell up-and-coming leaders all the time, if you can’t manage, you can’t lead. No one will listen to, trust, or follow the visionary superintendent who has lofty goals but can’t manage the basic elements of a school system. The question is, what can you do to provide both effective management and thoughtful instructional leadership? 

For the last three years (and with support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation), PDK has been working with teams of superintendents and district staff to rethink how school system central offices function. The idea is to get every part of the district (from human resources and finance to curriculum and instruction, principal supervision, and transportation) onto the same page, contributing to the same plan for improving teaching and learning, with the same commitment to equity. 

District offices have a bad reputation for being rigid bureaucracies, obsessed with paperwork and rules that make it harder for local teachers and administrators to do their jobs. (Moreover, districts’ responsibilities have changed so dramatically over the years — from No Child Left Behind to Race to the Top and beyond — that central office leaders have been hard-pressed to keep up.) But to the same extent that a dysfunctional central office can be a drag on educators, a well-organized one can support them. No matter how super-human a superintendent may be, she can’t be the sole source of leadership on improving the curriculum, supporting and supervising principals, teacher development, lesson planning, assessment, and other parts of the instructional core. And if she’s buried in managerial tasks, she may not be able to provide those kinds of leadership at all.  

The superintendents we work with recognize that they can’t go it alone. They know it’s impossible to achieve their goals and implement their visions without help from a capable team in the central office. They need colleagues who won’t just manage their departments efficiently but, just as important, will make decisions that complement and contribute to the district’s larger vision. For instance, it’s not enough for the human resources director to be highly competent at recruiting new teachers; they also need to recruit teachers who share the district’s commitment to equity and will complement a school’s team. 

A few first steps 

The superintendents we work with also recognize that it won’t be easy to create a high-capacity, well-oiled central office. The entire staff will need to understand and embrace a common set of goals and priorities; they’ll need to agree on what it means to provide all students with equitable opportunities to learn, and they’ll need to learn new ways of doing their jobs, focused not just on ensuring compliance to rules and regulations but also on supporting a districtwide agenda for change. But while there aren’t any shortcuts, there are some straightforward strategies that can help superintendents build the sort of district-level team that can contribute to both management and leadership.  

The first and perhaps most obvious step is to clarify the roles and responsibilities of senior staff, particularly with regard to complex crises that will inevitably surface, potentially throwing a wrench into the larger district improvement plan. In many school systems, every part of the district office (human resources, curriculum and instruction, operations, and so on) has its own organizational hierarchy, and that makes good sense as long as each of those silos deals with its own discrete set of issues. But what happens when a problem cuts across those administrative silos?  

Say that a group of parents has filed a credible complaint against a principal for failing to support English language learners (ELL) and students with disabilities. The HR director will report it to the deputy superintendent for administration, the principal’s supervisor will report it to the deputy superintendent for school improvement, and the special ed and ELL directors will report it to the chief academic officer. (Plus, they may want to contact the Board of Education ombudsman or the district counsel.) Three different cabinet members have formal, contractual, and legal responsibilities, as well as insights and information that are essential to dealing with the situation. If there isn’t absolute clarity about the need for every one of these people to take the complaint seriously and bring it to the cabinet’s attention, the issue can easily slip through the cracks, leaving the parents’ concerns unaddressed. The key question to ask is: Who is going to do what, why, and when?  

Superintendents can make real progress by focusing on a few key priorities.  

An equally important step is for the superintendent to be willing and able to share power. This may seem like Leadership 101, but as more people are brought into decision making, the superintendent’s role as a convener of discussions becomes increasingly important. For instance, in one of my first meetings as the new superintendent of Stamford, Conn., I had to lead approximately 20 people in a debate about health insurance. The city administration was present, as was the teachers union, a few board members, human resources representatives, my assistant superintendent for business, legal counsel, and a few others. Not unusual for a new superintendent, I was entering into a long-standing contentious discussion without all of the history or knowledge of the various personalities. What I could have done, but failed to do, was create an agenda, state a clear purpose, and insist on time lines and decision points. But without such parameters, the discussion quickly devolved into a shouting match, full of bad feelings, the casting of aspersions, and the stubborn insistence on fixed positions. I took to heart the lesson that it is the superintendent’s responsibility to create a transparent, goal-oriented process that allows participants to argue with each other in good faith, whether the debate has to do with teaching and learning or a bread-and-butter issue for employees. 

But a superintendent’s most important tool might be calendar management. If system staff are to focus on the work that matters most — improving teaching and learning, promoting equity — then the superintendent must carve out and protect time for doing just that. Every superintendent I know who’s passionate about teaching and learning schedules time in the morning, before they get to the office, to visit schools. While it can be hard to stick to it religiously, spending at least a couple of hours per week in classrooms talking to students and teachers makes your priorities and values known, and it reminds you that your decisions (even seemingly banal managerial decisions) may have serious implications for the people you’ve just met.   

The leaders we work with care passionately about teaching and learning and equity, but they also have to contend with the myriad details of running a complex and politically contentious public organization. Every day brings new dilemmas about board management, budgeting, facilities, transportation, and redistricting, just to name a few. But as University of Washington professor Meredith Honig (a partner in our efforts to support district teams) has explained, superintendents can make real progress by focusing on a few key priorities: defining shared principles and priorities for all parts of the central office; making clear that every member of the cabinet shares a responsibility not just to provide effective management but also to contribute to instructional leadership, and protecting the time those people need to think carefully about the many ways, both direct and indirect, their work bears upon teaching, learning, and equity.  


Citation: Starr, J.P. (2019). Leadership: It takes a district. Phi Delta Kappan, 100 (6), 70-71.

JOSHUA P. STARR (@JoshuaPStarr) is chief executive officer of PDK International, Arlington, Va. 

One Comment

  • Radical Guy

    Why the default assumption that a superintendent is needed at all? Particularly at the ridiculously inflated salaries they are paid. How many teachers could be added by reducing administrative overhead by a third? How many books? How much technology?

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