Saturday, March 30, 2019

School Superintendents: Vital or Irrelevant?

School Superintendents: Vital or Irrelevant?

Springfield's superintendent has received yet another award from the Missouri Association of School Administrators (MASA). It's always nice to be recognized by your peers. Come to think of it, we haven't seen much of the superintendent during the big school bond push, which will be decided Tuesday. So, it was nice to see him receive some recognition.

Dr. Jungmann has brought a lot of change to Springfield Public Schools over the past few years. The award mentions some of the initiatives that Dr. J brought to the district: IGNiTE, LAUNCH, EXPLORE, GO CAPS, GO CSD. 

A lot of acronyms and a lot of change. How the change affected students, teachers and employees in the district seems to be an area overlooked by our school board, which I'm sure has also won awards from their peer association.

Awards are great, but besides extending the superintendent's contract and issuing closed session evaluations, does the school board really do an in-depth evaluation of the superintendent?

While teachers have been evaluated ad nauseam under the reform microscope for lo these many years, to my knowledge there has been only one sizable study regarding how superintendents affect student achievement.

A 2014 Brookings Institute study entitled "School Superintendents: Vital or Irrelevant?" yielded some interesting data that reinforced what many teachers and school employees have known for years.

Foundation: Teachers, Student Characteristics, Schools & Districts

The nine-year study concluded that the superintendent effect on student achievement, positive or negative, was "orders of magnitude smaller than that associated with any other major component of the education system." Major components outweighing superintendents would be teachers, student characteristics, schools and districts. These components would be the foundation for any school district's performance.

After four years of disruptive "innovation" at Springfield R-12, there are more than a few people who might be wishing Springfield were lucky enough to have a small magnitude superintendent about now. You know, one that looks after basic operations, hires enough staff, supports paying them a decent wage, oversees a lean administrative staff whose main job is support rather than compliance.

Of course, you can't lay all the blame for a district's downward trend on a superintendent. But if you happen to end up with one (and accompanying CFO) who arrives with a boat load of educational hubris and the singular intent to implement a bold vision that nobody really asked for, well, you may see the district's foundation start to wobble.
  • Graduation rates off 2.3% from last year.
  • SPS district below the state average in English and Math proficiency.
  • Superintendent's Pilot School in third year (open classrooms, 1-1 tech, co-teaching, teachers re-applying for their own jobs, etc) combined for lowest scores of all 37 SPS elementary schools, only 9.4% proficiency score in Math.
While chalking up awards is wonderful for those receiving them, and world class branding provides some nice logos, acronyms and catch phrases, it appears that change for the sake of change can lead to some disastrous results. When graduation rates fall, when the superintendent's model school has the lowest comparative performance in the district, when student disciplinary issues are up, when teacher attrition is up, something is amiss. Let's not act surprised.

What If It Doesn't Work?

Early in Dr. J's tenure, I remember talking with a cabinet level administrator who had been around for several years and was heavily involved with all the new "deployments". As teacher union rep, it was part of my job to point out concerns from teachers, who were starting to leave the district in droves. They'd been advised to "Grow or Go", and a lot of them were choosing to grow somewhere else or go into early retirement.

"What if it doesn't work?" I asked.
"What do you mean?
"What if all this disruption is just disruption, and institutional chaos makes it harder for everyone to do their job? Things weren't really that bad here." I said.
He smiled and leaned back.
"It's going to work. I believe in what [the superintendent] is doing. He's a good guy,"
"I don't doubt that," I said. "But what if it doesn't work?"

The cabinet member left the district within the year. His replacement lasted one year and abruptly departed. The entire Human Resources Department left, save one employee. What little institutional memory remained was absorbed by a leadership dynamic characterized by rapid change, unforeseen consequences, and group think.

I submit for your consideration that despite all the awards, contract extensions and excellent branding, the district is in decline. New buildings will make it prettier, but it won't change the culture. Employee morale is in the tank. And it's going to take a long time to even attain previous levels of district performance, both in basic operations and in academic achievement.

Opinion: Superintendents Are Not the Answer

We need relief from the innovators, for God's sake. Superintendents and the migrant administrative class should not be inflicting their over-excited versions of education reform on students and school employees while simultaneously controlling everything a school board hears and sees.

Superintendents should not bring home 7 or 8 times what a teacher makes. Ever. They simply aren't worth that much. Public schools should not seek to parrot corporate structures that reward CEOs far beyond their worth, while marginalizing front line employees.

The idea of a teacher led school is worth studying but is unlikely to be promoted within the current admin-heavy structure.  Perhaps requiring all administrators to achieve tenure as teachers would be a good first step.

Further, administrators shouldn't be in the business of grooming an additional layer of administrative employees at the expense of classroom teachers. These positions, almost always blessed with titles like "Learning Specialist" inevitably morph into an administrative vanity project that effectively drains money from the classroom. I've seen this so many times, but top administrators can't seem to get along without this added insulation.

A Bit of Local District History

Remember the recession of 2008? Springfield had a different superintendent with an entirely different vision. Plan, Do, Study, Act was the slogan on bulletin boards everywhere. Continuous Quality Improvement. Seems almost quaint now. 

School funding took a serious hit with the recession, but rather than cut teaching positions, that particular superintendent and BOE actually eliminated an entire swath of mid-level "Instructional Specialist" positions and saved the district over two million dollars.

Remember what happened next? Nothing. 

In fact, graduation rates and attendance increased a bit in following years. SPS remained above average by state test standards. The instructional specialists were moved back to the classroom and charged with, wait for it, providing instruction to students!

Fast forward five or six years and a new visionary superintendent comes to town and quickly moves to re-establish a middle layer of administrative nothingness. This after beginning his tenure with a 55% increase over his predecessor's ending salary. 
"The recession is over! Praise the Lord!"

To be fair, Springfield's superintendent was surprisingly generous in his comments about teachers as a response to the recent airing of the district's low MAP scores - although the timing and context is perhaps a bit telling.

"It's only becoming more difficult as expectations rise and more things are piled on the backs of educators on an annual basis," he told the News-Leader. He failed to acknowledge that his own attempts to innovate (IGNiTE et al) dumped an extraordinary weight of disruptive chaos on SPS teachers and employees.

Where Not to Look for Solutions

If our schools are screwed up, and some of them surely are, where do we look for solutions? Do we look for another innovative miracle worker superintendent to possibly lead us down another expensive rabbit hole? A school board blessed with leadership experts who seem more adept at following?

Do we cast our fate to a state agency pushing standardized tests and time-wasting teacher evals while performing a political high wire act with a governor whose majority party is, ahem, inherently hostile to public schools and would just as soon privatize the whole thing and turn them into Christian Madrassas, or something? More choices please!

No, our schools are not going to be improved by state or federal policy changes anytime soon, though adequate funding would be nice. The superintendent study actually revealed how we improve our schools. We do it through advocating for teachers, students and community. Not the Good Morning Springfield community, where superintendents and board members live. We're talking about the community of Springfield parents, students, teachers, custodians, school secretaries, school nurses, counselors, the people who interact with each other daily in our schools. That, and maybe vote out some worthless state legislators.

By now, all of us - even the school board - should be starting to recognize what doesn't work.

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