Superintendents of Learning

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Superintendents rock!

I’ve never started a column like this before, certainly not one about school administrators – the people with whom youth workers frequently butt heads over money, building space, bus schedules and even permission slips. But at a forum hosted by the American Association of School Administrators, I recently spent two days with 25 of the most enthusiastic public leaders I’ve ever met.

I was one of several “experts” convened to talk to superintendents about expanding learning opportunities. I was prepared to be sympathetic if they came across as tired and cynical, given the burdens of No Child Left Behind.

Surprisingly, I found myself among a group of leaders who, while having far more resources than those of us in the youth field, share many of our passions and frustrations.

“One of our problems is that we are overcome by standards and accountability data,” one effusive “supe” said early in the forum. “Requirements have been piled on in a way that has beaten the passion and love right out of us.”

Eyes lowered and heads nodded. I thought about a Margaret Wheatley quote: “We don’t have to start with power, only with passion.” I lowered my eyes as well. It’s truly sad when people with power get the passion beaten out of them.

But their passion returned over the course of our discussions. These top education leaders watched videos of students falling asleep in classrooms and coming alive in youth programs. They told stories about how their teachers look forward to their after-school classes, because that is where they feel most able to be inspired teachers. I have rarely been with a group of big-system executives who were so open to learning and eager to think outside the box, while staying dead-on accurate about the need to perform well inside the box.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not suggesting that the amount of trust-building, resource-sharing and regulation-shifting that is required to “blur the lines” between schools and youth work at the local level isn’t sometimes daunting. Groups like Communities in Schools and the Coalition of Community Schools have made great strides in building the science of constructive line-blurring.

I am suggesting that the field of youth work needs to start thinking about superintendents as allies, not as obstructionists.

Business as usual won’t generate the changes needed to ensure success for America’s students. It’s not just that schools can’t do it all. It’s that schools shouldn’t try. The “supes” know this. “We need to examine the belief system upon which we’re currently running schools” one work group concluded.

The superintendents talked about what it might mean to become “superintendents of learning”: orchestrators of a larger, true community-school effort to meet the needs of all students; to increase academic achievement and promote youth development; and to re-energize students, staff and managers with a more responsive system. They identified actions needed to make this change.

Reframe the challenge: Shift from thinking system reform to thinking child development. Position schools as the central (but not only) resource for learning, charged with identifying and connecting with others in the community.

Re-envision the structures: Strengthen the connections for learning in and out of school. Work with the range of actors who are invested in making learning happen, such as libraries, museums, community organizations and workplaces.

Redefine the goals: Work with the community to create common, measurable expectations of what students really need to know and be able to do. Challenge the current No Child Left Behind accountability measures. Define success in ways that are real for parents, communities and employers.

Recalibrate the environment: Define the characteristics of the environments needed to support learning for all students, wherever they are.

Rethink leadership: Invite others (such as mayors and business leaders) to take leadership, not supporting, roles. Understand their points of view. Learn to be transformers, not “copers”; conveners, not contractors; risk-takers, not reactors.

Changing the conversation to be about children rather than schools requires a redefinition of leadership on the part of school administrators. But it also requires us to change.

Let’s drop the passionate underdog persona. The doors are opening. Let’s not wait to be invited in individually. We need to document and be conversant about our collective power.

Skeptics will read this list as a recipe to expand superintendents’ powers. I see it as a commitment to explore ways to expand responsibilities and share resources.

For the foreseeable future, superintendents are likely to remain responsible for managing resources and results, given the fact that they run the biggest normative system focused on children. I was comforted to be with leaders who were willing to change the way they do business, not because they were hungry for more power, but because they were looking to regain the passion that brought them to the business in the first place.