Q&A With Broad Superintendents Academy On Learning & Leadership

On Thursday I’m visiting with the participants in the Broad Superintendents Academy–the best preparation for aspiring system heads.  For more than a decade the Academy has identified “transformational leaders with a proven track record of success and prepares them to lead large urban school districts, state departments of education and high-growth public charter systems.”  Over the past ten years, Broad grads have held  95 superintendent roles and 148 senior executive positions in large urban school districts.
Learning must be personalized for everyone, no matter what age.  That’s why Academy Managing Director Christina Heitz and I have structured a fun interactive session with this year’s class. Flipped classroom style, she pushed a lot of the content out to the class in advance including a video interview with me–following is a summary.
1. What is your vision for the future of student learning?
It’s not classroom learning, it’s a customized playlist of experiences for every student every day combined with hands-on often team-based community-connected experiences– School of One powered Expeditionary Learning (see recent feature on a new NYC EL school).
2. What do you think are the biggest levers for change in order to achieve that vision?  

  • Leveraging teacher leadership: Many teachers, students and parents have adopted personal digital learning on their own. Leaders must start by listening and learning from what’s already happening and finding ways to leverage it.
  • New schools. It’s particularly important to start new competency-based blended secondary schools that create a picture of the future (see 3 part series on NGLC grantee schools).
  • Aggregated demand. Because the toolset is maturing quickly, it’s important to stay flexible (i.e., no long term contracts) and look for ways to combine purchasing power with other entities.

3. If you became a superintendent again tomorrow, what are some personalized learning strategies that you would deploy?
My book, Getting Smart, outlines three primary benefits of digital learning: customization, motivation and equalization. To start reaping these benefits, I’d start by helping every school introduce:

  • Adaptive instruction: new tools like Dreambox, i-Ready, Mangahigh, and ST Math combine engaging game-based instruction with the power of adaptive assessment.  These are so good, they should be incorporated into every elementary student week.
  • High access environments: every school should be phasing in high access environments. Schools should provide an equity layer sufficient to support online state testing. Students should be encouraged to bring their own mobile devices.
  • See the DLN Blended Learning Implementation Guide (we’ll issue version 2.0 in a month–questions, comments, suggestions welcome).

4. How would you convince your board to take on this level of innovation?
It’s clear that the only option for Improving Urban Education is a Digital Portfolio Approach–supporting struggling schools, opening new schools, closing failing schools, and adding a layer of digital opportunity. I would suggest avoiding any district where there isn’t (or not likely to be) support for that agenda.
5. What are the most important decisions made as CEO that you felt you needed to make yourself?
Leadership selection is the most important set of decisions. Superintendents need the ability to shape their own management team and (with few exceptions) should retain the final say on hiring school leaders.
With the board chair, a superintendent should manage the board agenda that guides how policy decisions are made.  (The Common Core and shift to digital learning make it a great time to sunset district policies and create a 24-30 month policy development calendar.)
The only other decisions that I didn’t delegate to my team were bond and levy recommendations–the big ticket items where I took a lot of advice but wanted to retain the ability to make important but unpopular decisions.
6. As a superintendent, what were the most important things you did during the first 3-6 months on the job?
My 90 day plan went out the window with the day one strike. The good news is that, by walking the picket line and holding town hall meetings at night, I met everyone in town with an opinion in the first seven days. That turned out to be incredibly valuable.  Without the “benefit” of a strike, I’d suggest visiting every classroom and every current/potential community partner in the first few months.
For 90 days, I covered the walls of the central office with butcher block paper and posted sticky note reactions (from me and others) about what appears to be working and what needed to improve about every school and department. The level of candor and transparency was a positive shock to the system.
In my first few days I noticed that everyone was afraid of a certain principal–he was a tyrant and mistreating teachers. I told him a couple times that his behavior was unacceptable. On the third incident, I called him into my office and said, “You’re a jerk, you’re fired.” It cost the district about $150,000 but it was worth it. You need a few early symbolic acts that let folks know what you stand for.
I visited every faith congregation that would have me, joined Rotary and the board of Chamber of Commerce and the Boys and Girls Club. Once you get the basic strategy headed in the right direction, the work of community building is the most important job.
7. Tell us about a major failure and what lessons you learned.
There’s a long list to choose from:

  • From a failed bond: you can’t overreach and under campaign; you either need to give the community what they want or help them discover a better solution.
  • From hiring the wrong person: admit it fast; make a change.
  • From two business failures: there’s a short window and clock is ticking; don’t be afraid to cut your losses and move on when it’s clear that it won’t work.
  • From bad investments: don’t make the same mistake more than twice.

8. What was one of the most contentious decisions you made?  What were the results?  
In my first two years, we went from being the most expensive administrative district in the state to the lowest cost. The cuts were combined with a push for more autonomy and more accountability (Rudy Crew was doing the same in Tacoma, John Stanford has a similar agenda in Seattle).  I (we) overestimated the ability of school leaders (who had been treated as ‘building managers’) to handle creation of a coherent school model around a common intellectual mission. I don’t regret moving fast but wish I had better matched resources and needs.
The new schools we created, Internet Academy and an academic middle school, were controversial but quickly successful examples of a portfolio approach.  New schools are a sticky initiative for leaders and donors.
DreamBox, Curriculum Associates, MIND Research and Digital Learning Now! are Getting Smart advocacy partners.

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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