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Askwith Education Forum

Askwith Essentials - Driving Change: The Challenges Superintendents Face in Urban Schools

The Askwith Forum gathered three experienced leaders of urban districts for a dialogue on the role of a superintendent in such dynamic systems as urban school districts and on how superintendents can spark radical change.

Urban school districts are complicated organizations — power, knowledge, and other resources are not distributed as rationally as an org chart or policy memo might imply. It’s up to superintendents to set a vision for improvement and enlist the support of a district’s myriad stakeholders, from the central office to parents to the classroom, to see through lasting change.

And it’s a tough row, too. In 2014, the Council of Great City Schools found that the tenure of the average urban superintendent’s lasts a shade over three years, which is often considered the bare minimum amount of time needed for reforms to begin to take root. However, longevity is increasing — the share of superintendents who have led their districts for at least five years has grown over the last decade.

Speaker Syllabus

Kaya Henderson, former chancellor, District of Columbia Public Schools; Dean’s Distinguished Visiting Fellow, HGSE

  • Last summer, after a five-year span at the helm of DCPS, Henderson stepped away, praised by many for helping improve the city’s high school graduation rate from 53 to 65 percent, but criticized for wanting to charter DCPS schools rather than granting existing schools more autonomy.

Tom Boasberg, superintendent, Denver Public Schools

  • Boasberg has led DPS since 2009, helping the district triple its number of students taking Advanced Placement courses and improve graduation rates by 25 percentage points to 67 percent.

Tommy Chang, superintendent, Boston Public Schools

  • Chang, who began his term in the summer of 2015, has been praised for his instructional leadership, but criticized by some for his handling of racism allegations at Boston Latin School last year.
  • Chang recently announced a $1 million initiative for schools to better support the district’s nearly 3,000 homeless students.


  • Andres A. Alonso, Ed.M.’99, Ed.D.’06, professor of practice, HGSE, co-chair, Public Education Leadership Project

Askwith Education Forum

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