Reforms need time and leadership, and the board has the power to sustain both

by Christopher Maricle, Policy & Programs Officer

A recent education week article reports that the average tenure of superintendents across the country has dropped slightly to an average of 3.2 years for large urban districts. Is this a trend that we should be concerned about? There are three separate but related facts that would suggest the answer might be ‘yes.’ Or at least ‘maybe.’

Fact # 1: While everyone would like quick fixes for K-12 education, and as much as legislators might like to believe that they can legislate their way to student achievement, most reasonable folks in the K-12 education world know that systemic reform takes time. By not waiting long enough for reforms that might have been effective to take hold, schools and districts sometimes invested a considerable amount of time and resources, sometimes without much return on the investment.

Fact # 2: Since some research has shown a correlation between superintendent tenure and student achievement, it’s not irrational to conclude that long-term reforms are at risk when superintendents service is too short. There’s plenty of evidence and research around the impact that leadership turnover has on schools and districts. The education week article makes reference to a similar story regarding the very high turnover of school principals and their impact on student learning. CSBA board member training programs have long maintained that one of the most important decisions boards make is selecting and working effectively with the superintendent. Serving as superintendent of a large urban district is demanding, often characterized by long hours and high stress levels. The superintendent is an essential player on the district governance team. While the superintendent is not an elected member of the board, as a professional educator hired by the board, s/he plays a unique and critical role in setting the direction for the district. When that leadership changes, it can have a destabilizing effect on the school system.

Fact # 3: Research has demonstrated that in districts successful in raising student achievement, effective boards establish productive relationships with the superintendent and other key leaders in the district. Establishing relationships also takes time, time alone is not the key ingredient. What requires time is conversations. The Brown Act makes it difficult for boards and superintendents to have these conversations because they have to be held at board meetings. This is a  great challenge of course, because boards and superintendents already have a lot of district business to discuss at meetings. It makes it difficult to set aside time for what some perceive as a “soft” conversation.  There is nothing soft about these governance conversations. In fact, regularly scheduling time specifically devoted to maintaining a high quality and productive relationship between the board and the superintendent is a core governance activity directly related to superintendent tenure and therefore directly related to raising student achievement.

Simply put, there seem to be three related characteristics of districts that are successful in raising student achievement. 1) a sustained reform effort; 2) consistent leadership to see the reform effort through; and 3) a governance focus on the quality of the superintendent-board relationship. The ability of the board and the superintendent to maintain a productive partnership is just as important as any goal or strategy the board might embrace for reform. Convening these conversations is the domain and responsibility of the board. It is these kinds of conversations board members were elected to have – important, and sometimes difficult, conversations in public.


Christopher Maricle is a Policy & Programs Officer with the California School Boards Association.

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