A New Approach to Developing Educational Leaders

Anyone thinking about building the pipeline of educational system heads has a new opportunity set. The explosion of anywhere/anytime learning resources suggests it’s time to rethink the institutional time-bound cohort model of leadership development (as discussed in the ” Learning Design Opportunity of our Time “).
Ph.D. programs include some valuable classes and a research experience, but it is a big time commitment and leaves some big gaps in preparation. Requiring a Ph.D. for the superintendency leaves out nontraditional candidates.
As a nontraditional (i.e., unprepared) superintendent, I found the leadership agenda to be very similar to private enterprise and nonprofit management but the context — the people, politics, and economics — were entirely different. I felt well prepared as a leader and unprepared on the context. Traditional preparation often leads to the opposite problem.
Like any good learning design exercise, let’s start with a job requirements definition. Being a superintendent is several full time jobs. I think about roles and deliverables in four categories:

  1. System improvement strategies: A well considered point of view about how schools and system improve–specifically differences between portfolio strategy and an enterprise approach.
  2. Building community support: Political boot camp, campaign management, community organizing, social media, media relations, and developing partnerships.
  3. Managing an agenda: Outcomes-based approach to goals. program management, team building, and working with a board.
  4. Maintaining your perspective, health, and marriage: Learning to thrive under incredible demands, protecting your family from the onslaught.

This represents a high bar. Sections one and three require deep content knowledge and problem solving skills; sections two and four require political savvy and strong relational and social-emotional skills.
Compared to traditional institutional training, the new opportunity is to help prospective superintendents craft individual development pathways with rich experiences that leverage but are not limited by cohort activities.
If I was designing a superintendent preparation program, I would focus on seven design principles:

  1. Individualized: With flexible tools and well-trained advisors make the program work for lifelong educators and nontraditional candidates building on individual development plans like those supported by Bloomboard.
  2. Experience-based: Focus on creating formative experiences relevant to individual learning plans.
  3. Efficient: Enough but not too much, fast or extended as each candidate requires.
  4. Leveraged content: Organize existing content into an easy to use semantic web.
  5. Dynamic groups: Use a social learning platform to power dynamic groups, teams, and a personal learning network.
  6. Reflection: Build in lots of opportunities for feedback, reflection, and self awareness.
  7. Brand: Coach candidates on the development of their voice, portfolio, and brand.

This framework could work for an assistant principal that needed a quick tune up before serving as a superintendent, a teacher that wanted three formative experiences over six years to feel adequately prepared, or a corporate executive considering mid-career impact opportunities.
There is no job that has a bigger chance to impact how a community thinks about itself, its children, and its future than being a public school superintendent. People interested in a big impact should have access to great learning experiences.
Bloomboard is a portfolio company of Learn Capital where Tom Vander Ark is a partner. This blog first appeared on EdWeek.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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1 Comment

Jody Watson

As a teacher and leader in training (I guess leaders are always in training), I looked at your post and found many interesting points. I too would love to be able to participate in a superintendent program that was based on need vs. based on requirement. I believe that it is essential to change the ways that we have always done things if there is a better way. Your post definitely outlines some better methods in making that happen. My question would be to you is how will that happen? Will it be higher education pushing down, or candidates pushing up for the change.
I took this article and based a scenario for teacher professional development on it. I believe that this is something that is attainable and perhaps with success other programs could look at implementing it in their programs and schools.
Thanks for the post.

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