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Management in Practice

How Superintendents Can Restore Public Trust in Schools

During the pandemic, school superintendents have faced a succession of fraught, high-stakes decisions; at the same time, they have found themselves at the center of the scorched-earth debates on school curricula. Despite the huge challenges, Caitlin Sullivan ’13, co-founder of Leading Now, sees superintendents as uniquely positioned to cross lines of difference and find common ground.

Parents at a rally against critical race theory in schools

Parents at a rally in Leesburg, Virginia, in June 2021.

Photo: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

Q: You work with superintendents around the country. What are they coping with after these last exceptionally challenging years?

There’s no way to overstate the toll of the pandemic on communities. On top of the tremendous loss of life and hardship, because of the shift to remote learning, parents had a front-row seat to what their kids were or were not learning every day. In some ways I think it pulled back the curtain on an existing reality.

While there have been gains in recent decades, we have not been making good on the guarantee of providing meaningful support for all students to reach or exceed a common standard, particularly for students of color, students in underserved communities, and otherwise marginalized students. That has been true for a long time; still, the past two-plus years have been an extraordinarily difficult time to be a student or a parent of school-aged children.

It has also been a totally depleting time for superintendents. They have always been public figures. They are the intersection of our school systems’ internal and external stakeholders. In many cases, superintendents had the burden of making the final call on whether teachers were going to be back in person or not, or whether students were going to be masked or unmasked. Suddenly superintendents were responsible for navigating a new risk calculus based on continually changing public health information. It increased the complexity and raised the stakes of the decisions they were making every day.

That was coupled with the culture wars manifesting in public schools—school boards becoming even more politicized and a wave of state legislation related to divisive concepts, including a firestorm around critical race theory. While it’s evolving differently in different parts of the country, with issues like social-emotional learning, parents’ bills of rights, gender identity and sexuality, and banned books, the political intensity around education heading into this year’s midterm election cycle is likely to only ramp up.

This is all happening as the average tenure of a superintendent is around three years. It’s even lower for urban superintendents. Think about the superintendents who landed in their seats in 2019. They had a few months in their positions before the pandemic. Then they were faced with the political complexity of our national narrative funneling into their districts. That’s truly a trial by fire. And for most new superintendents, it’s their first-time being externally facing leaders.

Q: Why are superintendents such an important piece of the educational system?

The superintendent is the highest-leverage influencer in a school system. To use business parlance, superintendents are the CEOs of their school districts. They are the champions for the priorities, progress, and direction of their district.

But the atmosphere they are operating in has become politically supercharged. Every choice can seem like it will have high-stakes consequences. It’s hard for superintendents to figure out which words will help and which words are going to spark a third rail. They have been doing their utmost to meet the moment as leaders. But through the pandemic and the political complexity, understandably, many have felt knocked back on their heels, unsure what to say, or how to say it, or to whom.

Q: Given all those challenges, why would anyone want the job?

That’s why I love working with superintendents. When you ask them why they do it, overwhelmingly, they say their own life trajectory was changed when a teacher took an interest in them or a coach saw something in them that they didn’t see in themselves. Many are in their roles to help make their own exceptional education experiences into the systematic reality for all students. To really deliver equitable opportunities.

Q: You mention both the short average tenure of superintendents and the fact that it’s often a first externally facing leadership role. What’s the common career path for superintendents and how does that shape their experience of the role?

Most of them have been teachers for, if not a majority of their career, at least for a number of years. They usually grow into system leadership through roles like assistant principal, principal, and district administrative positions.

That path of leadership doesn’t typically include responsibilities that require building trust and relationships with external stakeholders. Often, it’s not until leaders become superintendents that they are asked to really use those skills. There’s little opportunity to develop them with a safety net.

Because school districts are so different, there is a significant spectrum of what the role involves. In large districts, superintendents may oversee billion-dollar budgets and distribute leadership across their team, where they’ll have deputies in domains like HR, curriculum and instruction, operations, communications, and technology. If the district is small enough, all of those functions may fall to the superintendent.

“At their best, superintendents can seize the opportunity to cross lines of difference and restore public trust in the institutions that they lead.”

Whether it’s large or small, the superintendent tends to be the district’s chief PR person. They may be managing their social-media platforms to proactively pump out positive stories of impact in student learning in their districts. They’re going to the local Rotary Club meeting to amplify those messages with influential community members who might not be directly tied to schools but absolutely have sway with neighbors who might be voting on a referendum or a bond to build a new high school.

And much like a CEO, because superintendents don’t have a natural day-to-day set of collision points with other folks who are in their role, it can feel really lonely and isolating.

Part of what we do at Leading Now is provide a forum where superintendents can let their guards down and really grapple with what is going on. We’ve found creating connection time—making an opportunity for these leaders to swap stories with each other—helps them know they are not fighting this fight in an isolated way but are part of a tapestry of leadership in these public institutions.

Q: You co-founded Leading Now last year specifically to work with superintendents. What led you to this?

Even before I attended SOM, my heart was in leadership development and human capital for K-12 school systems, all informed by my experience teaching middle school. After SOM, I worked at the Achievement Network for eight years on the content and instruction side of leadership in school systems.

About a year ago, Mora Segal, who had just wrapped up a decade as CEO at the Achievement Network, called me with a nascent project idea: superintendents were in need of responsive support to meet the moment and stay in seat. What did they need most? We teamed up with some wonderful colleagues at TNTP to pilot a cohort of 12 diverse system leaders and figure it out. Through that pilot we decided to focus on strategic communications and public engagement because we believe that superintendents are uniquely positioned to defuse tension that has built to an all-time high. At their best, superintendents can seize the opportunity to cross lines of difference and restore public trust in the institutions that they lead.

We created Leading Now to be a nonpartisan, common-ground organization trying to help superintendents identify and build on areas of agreement that parents and other stakeholders already support and believe in. We’re not trying to advocate or press for extremes. We are trying to help refocus the conversation on student learning. We’re funded through philanthropic dollars, so our programs are free for superintendents.

Q: What do the programs look like?

We bring superintendents together to learn from each other. Because there’s no technical fix or single answer for most of these issues, the peer connectivity and ethos of “the answers are in the room” is crucial. In that sense, it has a Broad-esque design and philosophy, which is appropriate since The Broad Center at Yale SOM has been one of our anchor partners. We’ve worked with 56 superintendents from around the country, including one learning cohort of 10 superintendents who were all Broad alumni.

We also see it as our responsibility to bring the best research, policy, and poll testing to practitioners. There’s a lot of good stuff out there, but superintendents, understandably, have been in crisis mode for a long time and don’t have time to access the latest and greatest. We make these frameworks, best practices, and talking points more accessible to them and give them time to process and practice them so they feel more prepared for authentic public engagement.

“If parents say, ‘I’m really concerned about that my child is learning critical race theory,’ leaning into transparency in a radical way can help dial down the intensity and the vitriol.”

We’re not saying, “Say this everywhere in the country and it’ll work for you.” That wouldn’t work. But there are certainly insights that galvanize common ground and shared values. There are messages that 80% of parents across the country largely agree with. Because superintendents are operating in such a high-scrutiny environment, starting with research-based guidance provides some solid ground to stand on. From there it’s possible to then engage with detractors and dissenters in more personal, productive ways.

Q: Could you give an example of how superintendents might engage concerned parents?

If parents say, “I’m really concerned that my child is learning critical race theory,” leaning into transparency in a radical way can help dial down the intensity and the vitriol. Open up the space to say, “OK, let’s get concrete and specific. You’re concerned about this book or this lesson; let’s look at it together. And here is the entire syllabus for your fourth grader.”

So much of this really is about building trust and developing relationships over time, so bringing people in and listening to their concerns is one lesson that superintendents who have been able to restore public trust have shared.

Conversely, responding to parents worried about critical race theory by saying, “Everything is fine. We don’t teach critical race theory,” is not a winning formula because you end up litigating technical terms that make people feel dismissed, not understood. .

Q: How about issues with school boards?

In many cases school board members are elected and superintendents are appointed by them. So it’s a complex dynamic. On the one hand, the school board is the superintendent’s boss. Like the CEO of a public company, the board can technically oust them at any time. On the other hand, they share responsibility for stewarding the long-term interest of the public institution.

We try to help superintendents create a “same team” dynamic with their boards. But when there is legitimate values or philosophical disagreement, superintendents have found it helpful to take a [Yale SOM strategy expert] Barry Nalebuff approach—that is, find a way to understand what each side deeply values, then negotiate an outcome where all sides emerge with something they really care about. For the superintendents we work with, the thing they ultimately care most about is that all students in their systems feel accepted and valued in classrooms where they’re challenged every day.

Q: How do superintendents balance short-term priorities with longer-term goals?

Everything comes down to outcomes. That doesn’t mean just a high school graduation rate. The outcomes that matter most in a school system are the learning and life trajectory of students.

We spend a lot of time talking about how a superintendent with a three-year contract can deliver changes to reach long-term outcomes. They may be confident a program for second graders could really transform those students’ learning outcomes in high school, but how do you move that forward? How do you quickly advance any change-management agenda? It requires the trust of the school board, the principals, and the teachers, who may not be ready to go as fast.

It’s important to understand the realities of organizational inertia to ultimately have impact. We talk about short-term concessions needed to get to the long-term outcome. Sometimes it’s taking the time to listen to the real concerns parents have. Sometimes it’s slowing down or deprioritizing elements of an initiative that are most contentious with teachers. Again, there’s no single fix; that’s why superintendents sharing their learning with each other is valuable.

As we come out of the pandemic, many of the most successful, innovative, bold superintendents in this country are trying not to get back to normal. They know that that pre-pandemic normal was not actually serving all kids—too many students were getting left out before.

For example, a Louisiana superintendent has been trying to think creatively about how to engage high school students who left school during the pandemic to start working to earn income for their families.

Just saying, “It’s time to quit your job and get back into school eight to two” is not necessarily going to work. He’s trying to follow the lead of these students and what they want for their futures. How can he support them as working adults in the school system? Can the district leverage technology? Do early college credits have a place? He’s seeking new ways to support and believe in these students.

Q: One of the first things Leading Now does with each learning cohort is have each participant talk about their values. Leading Now is nonpartisan. It’s seeking common ground. It’s providing superintendents with tools for effective strategic communication and public engagement. Why make values the place you start?

I think leadership has to start with self, which is why we jump right into the deep end of the pool. As the learning cohort gets to know each other, we have them name a couple things that are most salient to their identity. Their faith and spiritual life, their race, their gender, their socioeconomic status. Then they name a couple of values that feel most central to their core.

By sharing their identity and their values, essentially getting to a point of vulnerability—that builds the trust within the cohort for folks to really put what they’re grappling with on the table in an authentic way.

Whether it’s with Leading Now peers or back in their districts, if superintendents are open about who they are, if their values are activated, that’s a source of strength that can let them be empathetic and compassionate. It lets them extend themselves in ways that cross lines of difference.

Regardless of sector, leadership ultimately comes down to having a clear vision and shepherding resources—people, creativity, and an outcomes orientation—toward that vision. Superintendents are constantly speaking with people who have different roles, different vocabularies, different incentive systems, different time frames. Superintendents have to rely on a huge well of empathy to situationally take on different perspectives and translate across all of those differences. Again, it’s why personally I love working with these leaders. In lots of ways, they embody the concept of integrated, elevated leadership that I found so inspiring as a student at SOM.

I think of how [former dean] Sharon Oster operated as a leader at SOM. She wasn’t seeking credit for what she did. She saw herself as a participating member of an institution that depended on everyone contributing. Honestly, I think that’s what our American democracy needs right now.

Superintendents are in positions to ramp up that sense of interdependence and togetherness. If that doesn’t happen, I fear that rather than our students getting the meaningful support they need to reach or exceed a common standard, we’re going to find ourselves having lost a zero-sum game of haves and have-nots. Our kids deserve better from us. That’s why I believe in this work.