Teaching is a flat profession. A teacher with 20 years of experience performs the same job as a teacher with two years of experience. Aside from moving into administration there isn’t a career ladder for teachers to climb. School systems may be hesitant to remove the best teachers from classrooms. Consequently, cultivating leadership from the ground up is a difficult task.
Why not cultivate leadership from the top down? Two-thirds of superintendents are hired from outside the district. Nationwide the average tenure for superintendents is just over five years. In urban districts it is under four years. This constant turn-over negatively impacts the continuity of reforms.
When a new superintendent arrives the cabinet, departments, and programs are often restructured. This creates a lot of work for school personnel. It may be done in the name of improving student learning but it is not about student learning; it is about change and reorganization. Given the rate of superintendent turn-over it is a task that is likely to be repeated soon.
Changes in leadership impact teachers. With new superintendents come changes in curriculum, programs, models of instruction and evaluation. In my ten years of teaching I’ve had three superintendents. Where we once focused on expanding access to Advanced Placement classes and participation in Lesson Study we now focus on Guided Language Acquisition Design and Professional Learning Communities. We’ve shifted from broadening all curricula to narrowing some and expanding math and literacy. We’ve replaced teacher designed tests with norm-referenced tests.
Whether these shifts in focus have been positive or negative depends on your perspective. Professional Learning Communities can be a powerful transformative tool. So too can Lesson Study. Japan’s practice of Lesson Study has been well established since the 1960’s. My district tried it for only six years. The constant shifting of focus, energy, and funding that comes with new “outside” leadership means many programs never reach their full potential.
When a new leader takes the helm I question if they were good a teacher. Do they have an appreciation for the complexities of managing classrooms? Will they take these complexities into consideration as they make decisions? If new superintendents are from outside the district these questions may not be answered. I’m less likely to have these concerns if I’ve had the chance to work beside them.
Suppose schools hire two-thirds of their superintendents from inside the district. There would be more opportunity to build a culture around a common vision. Wholesale changes to programs would be less likely. Shifts in focus may be more gradual and more targeted. Their initiatives may realize greater potentials.
I’m not a fan of many top-down reforms but I’d be happy to see schools cultivate leadership from the top.