A former high school principal, David Brazer is Associate Professor (Teaching) and Faculty Director of Teaching Leadership Programs at Stanford University; former superintendent of the Arlington (VA) public schools, Robert Smith is Associate Professor of Educational Leadership at George Mason University. They co-authored Striving for Equity (2016).
The contemporary education reform climate seems to value flash over substance, grand ideology over hard work, and narrow quantitative impact over steady progress in nurturing environments. Lost in all this noise is the steady effort of school board members, superintendents, principals, teachers, students, and parents striving to make the most out of school-age years, from pre-school through high school graduation. The gross exaggerations of “the schools are failing” or “this will revolutionize education” are exposed by the deliberate, effective approaches to improving student achievement of 13 superintendents who tell their stories in Striving for Equity: District Leadership for Narrowing Opportunity and Achievement Gaps (Harvard Education Press, 2016). They pursued results rather than headlines.
Instead of chasing a “best practices” holy grail, these superintendents worked with their communities—both within and around their inner-ring suburban school districts—over long periods of time, following a series of steps that adhered to their commitment to equity and reflected their practical experiences as education leaders. They began by helping parents, teachers, and board members understand that inequities were embedded in their districts’ student outcomes. Most of them were ahead of their time, recognizing opportunity and achievement gaps long before these terms were widely used. Publicizing the data demonstrating achievement differences between the majority population and students with disabilities, in poverty, speaking languages other than English, or identifying as non-white helped these superintendents rally their communities to their gap-closing agendas.
Many of the tactics superintendents employed were pedestrian in nature—funding pre-school, unifying elementary curricula, and keeping their boards educated on the nature of the problem and district progress. Other actions were more complicated, such as providing professional development so that teachers were better equipped to implement curricular changes and reach changing student populations. Additionally, these superintendents also took substantial risks when they focused their professional staffs on understanding unintended bias and institutionalized racism, dismantled entrance requirements for their districts’ most challenging courses, or addressed poverty by taking programs into housing projects or working with health insurance companies to provide coverage for impoverished students. There were no magic bullets or secret sauces, just sensible policies and procedures that focused their agendas to narrow opportunity and achievement gaps for all of their districts’ students.
We identified this group of dedicated superintendents based on their membership on the Governing Board of the Minority Student Achievement Network (MSAN). MSAN, as the name suggests, is committed to success for students who stand outside the majority population on at least one dimension. All of the superintendents valued MSAN for its ability to bring together colleagues and their students from across the country to share ideas and stimulate each other’s thinking about how to address the persistent gaps that dog public education. They attribute many of their good ideas to stimulation that came from MSAN meetings, but no one believed that MSAN provided specific tactics to be implemented. Instead, sharing successes and setbacks and learning from peers, superintendents tended to focus on the principles undergirding shared initiatives rather than trying to replicate particular recipes or procedures. This approach led to innovations adapted and tailored to their specific school districts.
The common experiences of these superintendents highlight central challenges of the job for those who seek to have schools and school systems live up to their equalization potential in US society. The superintendents continually balanced competing demands on resources, shifting politics, and the need to demonstrate progress so that they could remain in their posts long enough to see the effects of their carefully crafted changes and programs. Not all of them stayed more than four or five years, but those who did were able to demonstrate important transformations in their school districts that were making a difference for students long marginalized in their systems. Their examples point to two important factors that are uncommon in public school districts today: 1) longevity in the superintendent role supports long-term improvement, and 2) meaningful reform is multi-faceted, requiring strategy, time, and resources to take hold.
Each of the 13 superintendents pointed with pride to major accomplishments that narrowed achievement gaps in their school districts. None, however, could claim to have closed any of the gaps they identified. Any educator who has tried at any level to help a child succeed will understand that moving the needle on achievement is a thorny, baffling process with many stumbling blocks. Long after the fad or reform du jour has passed from the scene, superintendents, teachers, principals, and other educators dedicated to equitable student outcomes will be chipping away at the gaps in their schools and districts, eventually eliminating minority status as a predictor of student achievement. These superintendents lead the way to that more promising future.