In big city school districts, the average superintendent only lasts for three years. That means that most barely find out what’s going on before they’re going elsewhere. There are good and capable people who are willing and able to serve as superintendents, but political turmoil, fractious school boards, and other factors make the job virtually impossible in many cities, which might as well install a revolving door in the superintendent’s office.
Yet despite their own experiences and those they know of in other city districts, urban school districts across the U.S. endlessly and even eagerly welcome new superintendents and expect them to trot into town on a great charger and slay all the dragons that the previous twenty-seven knights failed to slay. The result is constant churn at the top, which undermines any momentum toward reform that might otherwise develop. New superintendents frequently discard reforms introduced by their predecessor, so they can replace them with their own reforms. Yet none of the reforms have time to work, and little is learned from one superintendent to the next.
The problem is the system. It vests enormous power in superintendents and school boards, which are the least stable part of the system.
Things do not have to work this way. In England, where I work part time, head teachers (principals) have far greater autonomy and power, and local authority directors (superintendents) have far less. Each school has its own governing board, which hires the head teacher. The national government plays a stronger role in England than it does in the U.S., so local head teachers pay a lot of attention to national policies, but much less to their local leadership.
Why might such a system be beneficial in the U.S., or within states? Mainly, it would reduce the churn. Unlike superintendents, principals in the U.S. spend a long time in their districts, perhaps their entire career. They may move from school to school locally, but they know about and care about their communities.
In England, students can attend any school that has room for them, so there is a competition for the best head teachers, who want to establish a strong reputation for competence and effectiveness in their area. Yet head teachers (like principals in the U.S.) are usually below the radar in city politics. A U.S. system that expands principals’ authority and independence could take schools out of the daily struggles in city politics and press.
Perhaps most importantly, enhancing school autonomy could allow school leaders to make essential choices of programs, materials, software, and so on, perhaps based on evidence of effectiveness (if national or state governments encouraged and incentivized them to do so). Choices of schoolwide programs should be made by principals, teachers, and parents, according to the needs and resources of the local community. Among other things, making such choices at the school level increases the chances that school staff will implement their chosen programs with fidelity, enthusiasm, and care.
One could imagine a structure in which school staffs might select among proven whole-school reform models and then affiliate with like-minded peers in regional or national networks. Local districts might remain responsible for buildings and busses, but the key practices of the school might be based on a common philosophy and identification with high-status networks, each of which provides professional development and materials proven to make a substantial difference in student outcomes.
Evidence-based reform would work better in a system emphasizing greater school autonomy, because the people choosing proven programs are the ones held accountable for their outcomes. Principals and their staffs should have opportunities to choose among proven programs and then implement the heck out of them, affiliating with peers who serve similar communities and hold similar values, rather than being directed by one superintendent after another to do whatever each wants to do.
Principals and teachers, not superintendents, are the permanent source of professionalism, committed to the success of the children in a local area. Effective systems should build on their strengths.