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Districts Need to Change What They Look for in Superintendents, Expert Says

Districts Need to Change What They Look for in Superintendents, Expert Says

According to educator and author Frederick Hess, in his time studying urban school districts he has found it to be typical of superintendents to try and implement too much policy reform without much success, leaving behind a mess of layered and ineffective policy. He encourages districts to change the way they hire superintendents to find the best leader for the job.

"New superintendents routinely propose agendas that are full to bursting. After all, communities want to see that things are going to get better, and it’s extraordinarily difficult for a superintendent to credibly move district achievement in just one or two years. Therefore, there’s a huge temptation to demonstrate energy by launching a raft of visible new initiatives. The worst way is to just put nose to grindstone," Hess said in a post for

His post on the matter was inspired by the recent resignation of Dallas' superintendent Mike Miles, who Hess said defined a superintendent who took on more reform than he could chew early on in his tenure.

A number of years ago, I studied 57 urban school districts across the U.S. and found that they had launched an average of 13 major reforms in a three-year period—or three to four every year. Meanwhile, old programs rarely go away. Leaders would rather champion the new and exciting than mount the fights required to shutter the old. So superintendents layer their new reforms atop what has come before. The result is marked by layer upon layer of sediment, with educators squashed under it all.

As a result, he said, veteran teachers who have seen reforms come and go become wary of adapting to and whole-heartedly accepting new reforms for fear they won't amount to anything and instead be a big waste of time.

Hess encourages districts to define goals and direction before its dives into its search for a new superintendent.

"Before talking about what it wants in a new superintendent, the school board needs to decide what’s worth retaining and what changes are called for. That understanding should steer the search."

During the hiring process, he urges districts to ensure the superintendent candidate will stick to this defined agenda and make sure to hold them accountable for stripping away what has been decided to be outdated and ineffective prior policy.

"In Dallas, as in so many communities, the best bet may not be a big personality with lots of brash plans, but rather a superintendent ready to build upon what’s working, put an end to what isn’t, and reassure educators that their hard work is paying off."

Read Hess' full post here and comment your thoughts below.

Article by Nicole Gorman, Education World Contributor


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