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Reconnecting Superintendents to Instruction

[caption id="attachment_8825" align="alignleft" width="185" caption="Anrig Professor Richard Elmore (Karlyn Morrissette photo)"][/caption] An expert on system-wide school improvement, Anrig Professor Richard Elmore explores the sphere of influence of the superintendency through an active coalition, the Connecticut Superintendents' Network (CSN). Elmore and the Network focus on effective instructional practice as a means of achieving successful student learning; by observing actual classroom settings in schools with particular focuses in mind, they hope to find effective strategies to meet their goals. In this interview, Elmore discusses the superintendency and his research through the CSN. Q: How has the job of a school system superintendent evolved in the past decade? A: The biggest change has occurred with the introduction of performance-based accountability—the direct measurement of student performance, disaggregated by school and by type of student, and the use of that data to make judgments about how well schools perform. There are many problems with such accountability systems, the biggest being the profound change in the work of leading and managing school systems. Many superintendents haven't realized this change, some have acknowledged the change and grapple with how to accept it, and a few have embraced the knowledge necessary to operate in this new environment.

“Bringing the regularities of schooling to consciousness around urgent problems of improving instructional practice is a key part of the process of improvement. Then you have to figure out what to do about it.”
Q: How did the superintendents of Connecticut Superintendents' Network come to be in alliance? How would you address the potential issue of competition between school districts and the superintendents who govern them? A: A small group of superintendents came together to form the Network, partly as a result of an annual meeting they had with their colleagues under the sponsorship of the LAB at Brown University, a national organization dedicated to the promotion of school improvement through school-researchers-community collaboration. The Connecticut Center for School Change also became involved, because they were working on problems of school improvement with some school districts in Connecticut and wanted to expand upon that work. I got involved when the group of superintendents and the center invited me to join them and try to find a deeper, more interesting approach to professional development and intellectual growth for superintendents.

Audio Selections about the Research

(RealPlayer required) Earlier this year, Anrig Professor Richard Elmore spoke with us about his research. Some excerpts from that conversation are included here: An audio resource Richard Elmore on the idea of the Connecticut Superintendents' Network as an instructional practice improvement project (2 minutes) listen An audio resource Elmore on the dimensions of the superintendency (2 minutes) listen An audio resource Elmore discusses the importance of an active curriculum and the problem in high-achieving schools (2 minutes) listen
One of the pleasant surprises of the Network itself is that there really is no competition among the members, and there is a very high degree of collegiality amidst discussing tough and sensitive issues. These people are opening up their practice and school systems in ways that they have never done in the past, in a field in which the norm is very much that you project to your colleagues, your board, and your community that everything is just fine, whether it is or not. It helps that we have fairly strict norms of confidentiality in the group, which builds high levels of trust. There is, however, some competition from outside the group. As the Network has developed, some people have, not surprisingly, heard about it and wanted to join. At this time, we can't take many new members as our clinical model requires us to be in members' districts and schools on some kind of regular basis, and if we had too many members, we wouldn't be able to do that. We are thinking about ways to expand the model to other districts by possibly creating other networks. Q: Could you explain the "unexamined wallpaper" phenomenon and how the network has witnessed its adverse effects on student learning? A: Part of the process of getting better at the work is learning to reflect on the regularities of schooling that everyone accepts as traditional, ranging from how to group children, the use of time in the school day, the conventional way of structuring the job of the teacher, the principal, the superintendent, distribution of funds, etc. Most school systems operate substantially on autopilot—these things get done in routine ways, without much thought about how they affect the quality of instructional practice in the classroom. The routines are safe, comfortable, and often quite destructive to powerful learning in schools. You only see how they get in the way when you look hard at instructional practice and ask what needs to change in order for the practice to improve. The analogy of the unexamined wallpaper is useful: you've lived in this house for fifteen years, and with time, you've grown accustomed to the wallpaper. Then suddenly one evening you look at the walls and you say, "This place is really grim—I can't stand it any more; either the wallpaper goes or I go." Bringing the regularities of schooling to consciousness around urgent problems of improving instructional practice is a key part of the process of improvement. Then you have to figure out what to do about it. That's where thoughtful strategy comes in—and we try to do both.
“We are adamant about demystifying the mythological leadership model of the superintendency and bearing down hard on the fundamentals.”
Q: How and with what standard are student achievements to be gauged when examining the effectiveness of this model? A: We're fairly hard-nosed, at least in the first approximation. We insist, as part of the norms of the group, that we look at the quality of teaching and learning, the level of student work, and overall evidence of student performance in the schools we visit. We also insist that the problem-statement for each site visit be couched in terms of student learning and school performance. We are prepared, for better or for worse, to hold ourselves to a standard of making improvements in those respects, and I think that is as it should be. There has been—and still is—a lot of smoke and mirrors around "leadership" and the superintendency, mostly designed to conceal that the job has been disconnected from the actual work of schools. So we are adamant about demystifying the mythological leadership model of the superintendency and bearing down hard on the fundamentals. The downside of this view, of course, is that this is extremely hard, unpredictable work. Superintendents haven't evaluated themselves in the past on the basis of what gets done in schools and classrooms because it's not obvious how to do it. There are risks in taking the position that we have, and we try to be sympathetic with the problems associated with that risk, but also very hard-nosed about the bottom line. It helps to have people who trust each other and are mutually committed to the same thing. Q: Do you see the CSN model being practiced nationwide in the future? A: I would be gratified if people were to pick up this model and develop it in other settings. I'm sure it could be improved upon with other hands and minds at work. In general, I think there is a real need for powerful professional development opportunities for superintendents of whatever sort, and ours is only one model. The state-of-the-art in professional development for superintendents is pretty appalling—a lot of offsite meetings in which superintendents get together, tell war stories, and line up their next job. I don't think this state of affairs necessarily reflects either the preferences of the superintendents or the needs of the field. What it mostly represents is a failure of imagination and creativity around the design of powerful experiences that allow people to grow in their work and develop a sense that there is a practice associated with the superintendency that is intellectually challenging.

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