2011 TC Pressroom
Teachers College, Columbia University
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Superintendents Discuss Need for and Resistance to Change

The banner on the wall next to the lectern summed up the pressure confronting school superintendents in the U.S. and abroad: "What happens tomorrow depends upon today."

The 57th Annual Superintendents Work Conference at TC was an opportunity for more than 50 of them to reflect on how they meet that challenge. The conference attracted participants from across the United States as well as the Superintendent of the American School of Warsaw in Poland.

Thomas Sobol, the Christian A. Johnson Professor of Outstanding Practice, chaired the nine-day conference. Both Sobol and Associate Chairman Gibran Majdalany were pleased by the enthusiastic way the superintendents participated during the seminars and followed-up with discussions, which continued late into the evenings.

Among the participants was Jere I. Hochman, a TC alumnus, who is currently the superintendent of a 22,000 student suburban district in Missouri. "One of the benefits of the conference has been immersing myself in dialogues with superintendents," he said. "It's more than just exchanging ideas. It's intellectually invigorating."

Joyce R. Coppin, Superintendent of the Brooklyn High School District, said she got a lot out of "just knowing and hearing that regardless of the size of the district or the demographics of the district that there are similar problems nationwide."

The Superintendents Work Conference is just one of many leadership programs sponsored by Teachers College. But TC President Arthur Levine told the participants: "No group we're going to see this year is as important. There's no group that has a greater impact than this group."

According to several of the speakers at the conference, few groups have a more challenging role.

Larry Cuban, Professor of Education at Stanford University, said bluntly: "Conflict is the DNA of the superintendency."

To illustrate his point, Cuban asked the group to imagine an ordinary superintendent appointed to his first post. His governing board is likely to ask him to: improve programs and services but reduce the swollen budget; to evaluate the teachers but avoid a teachers' strike; and to raise standards while reversing the decline in student scores.

The new superintendent is left in a quandary, wondering: "What do I focus on first?," Cuban said. These challenges, however, are not new, he said.

"All of these dilemmas have persisted for decades. Dilemmas may be unsolvable but they can be managed," he said. Among his suggestions: superintendents should educate their boards, parents, teachers and the community about the nature of the conflict or dilemma; they should develop clear cause-and-effect models of how to promote change; and they must be determined to "counter the passions of many for short term solutions."

Don't look for consensus when you try to manage conflict, advised another speaker, Joseph T. Plummer, who is executive vice president of McCann, Erikson, one of the largest advertising firms in the world. "In today's world, it's almost impossible to find consensus," he said. "The value in surveys and polls is to look for patterns." Unfortunately, the patterns aren't always supportive of public schools.

A national survey conducted two months ago showed that 55 per cent of the public supports vouchers, he said. "That's another way of saying you don't have confidence in schools," said Plummer.

Seymour Fliegel, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute Center for Educational Innovation, told the superintendents that if they want to change that perception: "You should be agents of change."

"Why should alternative schools always be stated by someone outside the school system," he said. "If I were a superintendent today I would create charter schools but I would call them superintendents' schools," he said.

Fliegel said that charter schools have some freedoms that traditional public schools don't have but need. "Too many superintendents are not in a position to fight for tenure reforms," he said. "Instead, let the charter schools fight that battle. The waivers they get, the rights they get, will eventually become your rights too."

Persuading a district to follow a vision outlined by a superintendent, however, isn't easy, according to another speaker, Susan Moore Johnson. Johnson is a Professor and Academic Dean at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Most districts have teachers who have been at the same school for 15 or 20 years, Johnson said. These teachers have seen superintendents come and go. She said that they respond to new calls for change with a mantra: "this too will pass."

The solution for a superintendent who wants change is to be "smart about how to manage the district," Johnson said. One successful superintendent, for example, made it clear that she couldn't implement change alone and brought in principals, teachers and parents to help. Sometimes members of all three groups were at joint meetings to discuss strategies. "If superintendents don't convey that they need help, they aren't going to get it. "You can't go into a district and say "Guys what do you think?" But it's also clear to me that you can't go in and be prescriptive," she said.

Sobol said there is tremendous pressure on the public schools to do more. "The condition of the public schools is somewhat like that of the former Soviet Union as perestroika and glasnost began: the old structures are cracking up and breaking down, but the new patterns have yet to emerge," Sobol said. "All we know is that public schooling is going to change."

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