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Can Soup End The Achievement Plateau?
Soup = supe = superintendent.
The School District of Philadelphia is hiring a new supe (superintendent). The process has taken months, culminating recently with three finalists getting interviewed by panels of parents, principals, and teachers. I got to be one of the handful of principals to interview the district’s next leader.
I took two pages of notes on each of the three finalists, scribbling their responses and jotting my analysis. Each made bold promises on what they would accomplish if given the job: improve early literacy, respect and value teachers, end the staffing crisis and bring the best teachers to the most struggling schools. The first two candidates seemed more than qualified, and none of their responses blew my hair back. And I don’t use product with a strong hold.
So when I arrived for the third and final candidate, Tony Watlington, I wasn’t expecting much. A few minutes into Watlington’s interview, though, I wrote in my notebook, “This is the dude.”
He referenced instruction as our “core business,” a phrase I thought only I used. He repeatedly said, “Do not for me without me,” referring to his desire to involve all stakeholders in decisions that will affect them. And he had a calm, measured response to each question. That affect will be critical in Philadelphia, a town whose local media is as unforgiving to underperforming athletes as it is to underperforming leaders.
Most importantly, Watlington was the only candidate to specifically talk about building trust within an organization — something desperately needed.
After the interviews, though, I started to wonder about the impact a supe can really have. School districts like Philadelphia are massive organizations with tens of thousands of employees. Philadelphia has had dozens of superintendents over its long history — and it, like many other large, urban districts led by really bright superintendents — continues to struggle.
So can superintendents really make a difference?
I did a lot of digging on this question and came across a 2014 report from the Brookings Institution called, School Superintendents: Vital or Irrelevant. Brookings is often considered the most prestigious and neutral of the many think tanks, so I had to dig in.
Their answer? Irrelevant. According to the Brookings report, superintendents account for less than 1% of the variance in student achievement. That’s not much.
The report also notes that superintendent tenures are notoriously short — three to five years just isn’t long enough to sustain significant changes in such large organizations. They write, “In the end, it is the system that promotes or hinders student achievement. Superintendents are largely indistinguishable.”
Ouch. I want to believe that’s not true. I want to believe that the leader of an organization can change the system. It’s true in other industries, so it must be true in education, right? Perhaps the report, which focused on a decade of data from districts in North Carolina and Florida, is too narrow in its scope. Maybe the effects of a great superintendent take years to fully realize.
Or maybe the big implication here is that the short tenure of most supes means they shouldn’t try to drastically change every aspect of programming. Maybe they move the ball a few yards, perhaps get a first down. But revamp the offense or even score a touchdown? Unlikely.
After the panel interviewed ended, I walked over, shook Watlington’s hand and told him I hope he gets the job. What I wanted to say was, “Remember that the wheels came off the Wentz Wagon in Philadelphia after just a few years. Let’s hope the Watlington Wagon can travel much further.”
Thanks for reading. Have a great week.
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