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Harvard EdCast: The Superintendency and Culture Wars

How extreme politicalization is affecting the work of district leaders
Jennifer Cheatham and Carl Cohn

Jennifer Cheatham and Carl Cohn

The upcoming election has the potential to greatly shift the landscape for many district leaders around the nation. In fact, the work of superintendents has never been more challenging, say Senior Lecturer Jennifer Cheatham and Claremont Graduate University Professor Carl Cohn, given the ongoing polarization today. That divide is impacting superintendents' day-to-day work, making it incredibly hard to focus on key things like teaching and learning, equity, or even relationship building. 

“There've always been challenges working with the typical political characters, board members, unions, the stress of the job, support communities through crises,” Cheatam says. “These are not necessarily new for them. They're just amplified putting even more pressure and stress on superintendents and resulting probably in even more personal sacrifice.”

In this episode of the Harvard EdCast, Cohn and Cheatham examine the current state of the superintendency and share ideas on how to manage in fraught times. 

TRANSCRIPT

Jill Anderson: I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast.

Jen Cheatham and Carl Cohn know it's a challenging time to be a superintendent as many school districts around the country are caught at the center of extreme political partisanship. They have a long history of working as and also educating school leaders. They've never quite seen such a polarizing time in our schools. Carl calls the superintendency an impossible position given the current state of politics. As more superintendents are left grappling with controversies, they have little time to focus on equity, student learning, teaching, or building relationships. Not surprisingly, superintendent turnover is at an all-time high. I asked Carl and Jen to fill me in on the current state of the superintendency.

Carl Cohn: Well, for the first time in a long time, superintendents are very focused with regard to the politics of education. And I met this past week with superintendents down in Southwestern Riverside County where the pastor of a church is fielding candidates for the school board against the incumbent school board members in those areas. And the allegations are everything from illegal shutdowns of schools during the pandemic to all kinds of sexual deviance taught in the school curriculum to the big boogeyman of critical race theory. And just the phrase that this particular pastor has coined is, "Public schools are the devil's playground." Now, you can imagine that coming from a Sunday pulpit to a group of people. And so not only do I believe that it's the devil's playground, but I'm going to field the right kind of new school board candidates to stop this dead in its tracks.

And so what you have is an extraordinary amount of anxiety with regard to November 8th. One of the school systems, they're hopeful that their progressive incumbents will be reelected, but this pastor has field a slate of four candidates for a five person school board. And so the outcome really is uncertain. One of the things I said to the superintendent, "If your board flips and these new school board members backed by this pastor come on, what happens to equity and reducing inequality?" And she said, "Those will be the first things to go." So we're at an extraordinary point in America, and I think we're seeing this at the local level in many parts of the country. And it's ironic that here in California, the bluest of blue states, you have these purple and red counties where this type of thing has taken hold.

Jen Cheatham: Carl's depiction is disturbing. What we need in school systems across the country is stability in leadership right now. We need to maintain our focus on teaching and learning and what it takes to reduce inequality in our communities. It's not only that the kind of local politics has become a huge distraction, but superintendents are leaving their jobs for a variety of reasons. I mean, the turnover in the superintendency has always been problematic, especially in urban school systems that serve primarily students of color and students from families in poverty. But the statistics on turnover are alarming right now. When we held the convening back in June, and I'm sure there are probably some updated statistics, there was a 2021 report that said that the turnover was at about 25% during that year when 15% is typical, right? This is across the country, all 14,000 school districts and superintendents in that number.

In urban school districts, again, serving primarily students of color, it was higher. There was one group that had studied the 500 largest school districts in the United States since March 2020, and it was 37%, I think, at that point. And there was a representative at our convening from the Council of Great City Schools, who said that about half of the superintendents representing the 100 largest districts had not been in the job before 2020. So not only are we seeing a lot of turnover, but we're seeing a lot of new superintendents in these roles who may be ill-equipped to deal with the kind of political scenario that Carl just laid out for us.

Jill Anderson: I mean, it sounds like given the upcoming election, we might see a lot more superintendents, unfortunately, either without jobs or stepping away.

Carl Cohn: What makes all of this different, I had an extraordinary career where in 10 years of the superintendency, I worked with a grand total of six school board members. I have a mentee up in Santa Clara County, and she's got one full on MAGA candidate running up there. The difference between one outlier board member in the past versus one MAGA school board member is dramatic. That MAGA board member can be so disruptive to an organization that, again, in terms of turnout at board meetings, taking you away from the teaching and learning agenda to talk full time about these culture war issues, that contributes greatly to superintendent tenure and whether or not a person feels like I can stay on and do some good work here. So it's dramatic what's happening out there.

Jill Anderson: Do you think that the polarization of the country is the biggest challenge facing superintendents today?

Carl Cohn: Well, in a state like California where you have dramatic declining enrollment, superintendents are going to be facing fiscal challenges that are huge, and overall enrollment in the public schools is declining, so there's going to be those other front burner issues out there. When we sit with the scholars, they seem to be saying that it's communities that are under undergoing significant demographic change that are most likely to be the places where this kind of culture warrior phenomena is taking place. And certainly in California where you have what we used to call suburban districts that now are majority minority districts, this tends to be the types of places where this is happening, where 10, 15 years ago, this was a majority white school system, and today it's a majority minority school system, You can link all of this to this great replacement theories, all of these conspiracy type things where folks believe we used to have influence, we used to be the main players here, and now we're being replaced by others. And others can mean a whole lot of things starting with people of color. So extraordinary phenomena.

Jen Cheatham: I'm seeing something similar, Carl. I work with mainly large urban school district superintendents through the public education leadership project. And I would say that my experience with them is more about amplification of long standing challenges in the superintendency. There've always been challenges working with the typical political characters, board members, unions, the stress of the job, support communities through crises. These are not necessarily new for them. They're just amplified putting even more pressure and stress on superintendents and resulting probably in even more personal sacrifice. And it does seem to be that these communities that are going through major demographic changes, like more suburban communities are kind of the communities surrounding urban areas are incredibly fractured politically. And because these are the communities where they aren't used to dealing with the kind of political stress that urban areas face, they just seem kind of unprepared to handle what's happening right now.

Jill Anderson: How does this impact superintendents specifically when you have someone showing up or a group of activists showing up and fighting for certain things within a school and just getting behind certain ideology, pushing back against curriculum or anything really like what books you're reading in the classroom, that type of thing?

Carl Cohn: Takes an extraordinary amount of time to address those kinds of issues. I think of an incredibly talented superintendent that I know in California who's the next Jen Cheatham. She can stand up and deliver professional development to teachers and principals. But with this kind of thing on the horizon, that strength, stop what you're doing, stop this extraordinary focus on modeling what ought to actually go on in classrooms and spend your time preparing for media inquiries, following up on every allegation under the sun, and then preparing for a board meeting.

Do we need additional security from both local law enforcement and the county sheriffs just to conduct a local school board meeting? And then concern about are the people going to become so disruptive that you have to shut down the meeting? Those kinds of things are time consuming and you take your eye off the ball, which should be student learning and all of those attendant issues. One of the things that some superintendents have brought up to me, which I think is interesting, sort of a silver lining, the threat of the culture warrior in some communities has brought superintendents closer to their teacher unions and labor partners.

Jen Cheatham: I mean, I would love to talk about silver linings. There's so many problems to discuss here, but the opportunity for superintendents to bring people to together around a more kind of affirmative vision of what's possible. There certainly are opportunities and skilled superintendents who are taking advantage of that opportunity even amidst some of the chaos that we're describing. But I like your comment, Carl, about it taking time, not just time out of the day to respond to phone calls, to make yourself available, to plan intimately around every possibility of what might happen at that evening's board meeting, but time over months and years of building relationships and especially relationships across difference. It seems like there's never been a more important time for that particular skill set in the superintendency, the work of not just coalition building, but like individual relationship building within the school system and across entities, right, in one's community.

Carl Cohn: I've coached a couple of new superintendents who came in during the pandemic, and it's just extraordinary the things that you weren't able to do. One of the staples of my time as superintendent was this hokey thing called Cookies with Carl. And any employee could come and eat cookies and talk about what's going on. If you came in during the pandemic, you may have gone for two years without fundamental in person contact with people, which is a huge disadvantage in terms of establishing relationships. And so I think it's absolutely important that people know that coming in during the pandemic, you didn't get to do all of the people building skills that a superintendent normally would get to do, and you lose something by not being able to do that.

Jen Cheatham: Such a good point, Carl. Not only those events that you would typically do like the Cookies with Carl, but regular school visitations, being out at community events. These are the places where we build shared understanding with one another, relationship. And there's a lot of problem solving that happens informally in those spaces, right?

Carl Cohn: Yeah.

Jill Anderson: I want to talk a little bit about the issue of equity in this. And how is it that when you're a leader and you want to bring some equity focused work or plan for equity within your school, but you're in a community where things are tense, where demographics are changing, how do you do it?

Carl Cohn: In my work with superintendents, I'm suggesting that you'd move forward on equity and reducing inequality without a lot of fanfare in this climate. I'm saying don't rent a plane with a banner that says, "We're all about equity." Go ahead, do it. And one of the examples I cite is back in Long Beach, we wanted to make a big impact on early literacy. So we had each teacher sit with a youngster at the end of the third grade with something called a benchmark book, and that teacher scored that youngster on whether or not they were at grade level at the end of third grade. And if they weren't, we provided them with six weeks of free summer enrichment on literacy. But we didn't call it Carl Cohn's equity initiative. We didn't pass a resolution at the school board that would trigger people. We just did it.

And so my advice today has been dial back the resolutions. And I have to admit, some people don't like that. I encountered a school board member who said, "No, I want to flush out all these racists." And my reaction was, there's a lot of problem with "flushing out all these racists," especially if your new superintendent is the first female, first African American superintendent, flushing out all the racists may not be a good idea. The other thing, I hate to bring this up in this climate, flushing out these folks. Are they armed? Are they dangerous? Are they the kinds of people that are going to have some sort of unlawful reaction to what you're doing? So I'm very concerned about this particular climate and inviting folks who may be in fact be armed and dangerous to come out to school board meetings or whatever.

Jen Cheatham: Carl, it's a really good point. I have not heard, like I'm hearing today about the feeling of being unsafe at work. That is a reality for school leaders everywhere. I share much of Carl's opinion on this, but I do think it depends on context, right? You have to know your community really well and your community's values and their charge of you as a leader, and look for cues about how to navigate the political environment accordingly. There are some communities that will demand rightly so that you are explicit about your equity agenda. I do think it matters where it is that you're leading, but having the political acumen to know how to protect equity work, allow it to grow. This is kind of a next level of political skill. We are not saying to not do equity driven work, we must do it. But Carl taught me long ago, can we put old wine in new bottles, Jen? Do you remember giving me that advice, Carl?

Carl Cohn: I remember that. I spent a lot of time with Jen. What she does is incredibly smart in terms of how you put this work front and center, how you call it out, but acknowledgement that you've got to be practical and smart going forward.

Jill Anderson: You're not saying to operate in secret when you want to do equity work in your school, right?

Jen Cheatham: No, not at all. I think we're just inviting people to be politically astute. Being political for some people feels like a bad word, but by definition for us, it means knowing how to get things done on behalf of kids. And so we are saying unapologetically that superintendents need to be leading for equity, right? They need to be working forcefully on reducing inequality in schools, in school systems, but we also need superintendents to stay in it for the long haul. And that requires making choices. It means making decisions about the language that we use. It means making decisions about when to shine the spotlight on issues and how and when to allow equity focused work to grow and take root in more protected spaces out of the political spotlight. These are choices because we need to make sure that the work takes hold and that we stay in it for the long haul.

Jill Anderson: Do you fear that because of all this political fallout and polarization that maybe equity work will kind of take a back seat for a lot of superintendents?

Jen Cheatham: No question. We're already seeing it. There's a chilling effect, no doubt when superintendents and school board members, principals, teachers are finding themselves under attack. Yeah, I think there's a real risk here. And I think what we want people to do is try to work within their communities to create a more affirmative vision, that larger numbers of people can get behind an affirmative vision of what schools do and can do for children to educate them, but also to keep them healthy and safe and thriving. What parent doesn't want that? We don't think we should be backing away from addressing inequality, but we do need to forge alliances, including alliances across institutions, within our communities, and we have to stay really connected to our communities in the kinds of intimate ways that Carl and I were talking about earlier, being present, being available, being willing to hold space for difficult conversations, not backing away from those conversations either, which is certainly harder to do these days, but essential.

Jill Anderson: You mentioned wanting superintendents to stay in it for the long haul, and I think, we've already talked a lot about the turnover and how it's somewhere around 25%, which is a lot. Do you think the general public understands, or even just parents or people who have a child in the school system, the importance of having a superintendent stay on?
Jen Cheatham:    I don't know, honestly. I think that whether or not they realize it's because in part of superintendent turnover, children, their parents and families, teachers certainly bear the brunt of that change in leadership. And I think there are certainly a subset of people who realize how important that job is and how disruptive it is when there is change in leadership because priorities change, goals change, initiatives change. Relationships are broken. They need to be reformed, which takes time. And I think honestly, that the pandemic probably raised everyone's awareness about the importance of stability in this role where people weren't quite as aware before. The depth and the breadth of the superintendency is hard, I think for many people to fathom. The role is multifaceted. You have to be an outstanding instructional leader, keeping teaching and learning the health and wellness of children at the center of your decision making.

You have to be an excellent managerial leader from thinking about food services and facilities to transportation. It's an enormous part of the job. Budgeting, resource allocation, and it's an extraordinarily political job where you are a civic leader in your community, not only responsible for your own organization, but responsible along with other civic leaders for the health of the community in which you live and lead is an enormous job. And in a time where there seems to be lack of moral leadership, people are often looking to their local leaders, people like school district superintendents for the kind of honest and moral leadership that we need today. We tend to want to trust our local leaders. So the job is just absolutely crucial to not only the health of our communities, but I think the health of our democracy.

Jill Anderson: How are we going to attract more people to superintendent roles if there's so much tension and controversy and political issues happening, that could be a huge turnoff for someone who might be interested in this type of work?

Jen Cheatham: In part, there's a call to action to the larger sector, right? If we believe that stability in leadership is important, if we know that the specific work of the superintendent matters, if we value having women and leaders of color in those roles, especially people who have ties to their local communities, which I think we do, then it's incumbent upon all of us to support them in their roles. That means school board members being better trained, understanding what their role is in guiding, supporting, and sometimes protecting their superintendents. That means other civic leaders doing the same.

I honestly think that more community members in general should understand what the role is and why it's important, and maybe there will be fewer people vilifying superintendents in general with the knowledge that with support, our communities are better capable of thriving in the ways that we want them to thrive. But I don't think there'll ever be a shortage of people who want to do right by their communities, right, who want to lead for equity and reduce inequality in powerful and sustainable ways. There will be people who are stepping up for that job, thankfully, and we all need to do a better job of supporting them.

Jill Anderson: Jennifer Cheatham is senior lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She co-authored Entry Planning for Equity Focused Leaders: Empowering Schools and Communities. Carl Cohn is a professor emeritus at Claremont Graduate University. Both have a long history of leading public schools. Together, they hosted the Convening and Impossible position, the Politics of the Superintendency, sponsored by the Hewlett and WT Grant Foundation. I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast, produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Thanks for listening.

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