The 10 Questions Every Superintendent Needs to Answer

Superintendents can do more to change the way a community thinks about itself, its children, and the future than any other position.  But it’s an enormously difficult and complex challenge—it’s actually four full time jobs including facilitating the leadership of an elected board, leading an improvement agenda, administering a complex organization, and building community. There are (at least) ten questions that every superintendent needs to answer to maximize their contribution.
1. What should graduates know and be able to do?

2. How to build public support?

  • Every superintendent (whether they know it or not) is running a campaign to build support for public education—there may be a near term election involved or just the future of the community at stake.
  • A broad dashboard of indicators (e.g., academic, financial, safety, and satisfaction) should form the basis of a regular report to the community.
  • A campaign strategy must be multifaceted,  formal and informal, and incorporate a lot of listening as well as pushing targeted messages to specific audiences.  In addition to internal school audiences, I found the Chamber of Commerce useful, Rotary necessary, and faith congregations generally skeptical but important.
  • Social media is a must, see 25 Smart #SocialMedia Tips For #EdLeaders and To Tweet Or Not To Tweet: There Really is No Question.

3. What kind of schools does the community want/deserve?

  • This is the question Paul Hill posed in It Takes a City.  This question should animate community outreach.
  • Start by auditing what kinds of schools are available from what zip codes. Do affluent families have more and better options than low income families? Location, transportation, and enrollment policies all impact access.
  • Superintendents should focus on emerging job clusters and with community college leaders, consider ways to give students valuable work-based learning experiences and schools connected to employment pathways.

4. How do schools improve?

  • Superintendents should have a well-developed (research/experience-based) view on how schools improve and how adults learn and develop. They should be fluent in assessment strategies and the use of data to drive improvement.
  • School results (primarily performance and growth) should define their relationship with the central office in a system of differentiated supports (i.e., high performers get autonomy, low performers get prescriptive guidance).
  • High performing schools should be encouraged (and rewarded) for expanding and supporting struggling schools.

5. What’s the innovation agenda?

  • Improvement strategies alone probably won’t close the gaps and make the step-function improvement necessary—it will require an innovation agenda.
  • Finding the right balance between improvement (i.e., consistently high execution) and innovation (i.e., developing/adapting new approaches) is a key role of the superintendent. Working in phases can help make a challenging agenda doable and affordable.
  • Superintendents should remain abreast of the blended learning opportunity set including new tools and school models (see Blended Learning Universe and NGLC Profiles).
  • In a district of any size, new school development should be part of the innovation agenda (see 10 reasons every district should open flex schools).
  • Blended learning strategies and improved student access to technology should be infused into the improvement agenda.

6. How do systems improve?

  • Superintendents should be well versed in district governance options, organizational design and change theory, and alternative improvement strategies.
  • Based on community conversations (and answers to the first five questions), superintendent should decide on a unified systemic approach (what I call an enterprise strategy like Mooresville) or a portfolio strategy where schools and networks develop/adopt different school models (see the  Blended Learning Implementation Guide) and multiple operators are encouraged.
  • A portfolio approach requires a system of managed choice to ensure equitable access to options (see a recent post by Andy Smarick on The Urban School System of the Future).

7. How to develop leadership?

  • Superintendents need a well-developed view of and active role in talent development.
  • Teachers and leadership should benefit from a competency-based sequence of learning opportunities and work experiences.  Like students, they should demonstrate mastery before progressing. See Preparing Teachers for Deeper Learning.
  • Teacher leaders should be identified and utilized to help drive and support improvement and innovation efforts.
  • A community leadership development program can also help build community support.  Our local community program, Advancing Leadership, not only trains emerging community leaders but student leaders.

8. Who makes what decision ?

  • The superintendent should facilitate a productive relationship with the school board with common goals and clear roles.  I’m a fan of John Carver’s Policy Governance model.  The Center for Reform of School Systems is a great resource.  For charter boards, see Charter Board Partners (where I’m a director).
  • Sound governance and a clear strategy allows a superintendent to create goals and role clarity for teachers and leaders (i.e., what am I supposed to accomplish, what latitude do I have and what support can I expect?).

9. How to provide great support services?

  • Teachers and school leaders deserve world-class support services.  Students and families deserve great information services, responsiveness, and links to community services.
  • Districts may want to use a mixture of inside and outside services to meet these demands.  Depending on the answer to #6, there may be mandatory services (like busing) and what is optional services (like office supplies).

10. Who is helping you drive this agenda?

  • Superintendents need to build a talented mission-aligned district management team.
  • An aggressive improvement agenda requires strong project management capacity.  I’ve had good success using teacher on special assignment in this role (and as a leadership development experience).

Building community support (#2) and facilitating sound governance (#8) adds to the superintendents bank account of political capital.  Difficult work can require withdrawals from this account.  When you’re out of political capital, you’re usually looking for work.  A good superintendent is always trying to figure out where to push and how hard.
The innovation opportunity set (#5) is improving rapidly but that creates leadership challenges for superintendents.  The transition to personal digital learning suggests that superintendents should be community conversation leaders–facilitator of temporary agreements that provide goal and role clarity for a year or two.

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

Lynn Gilbert

Hello. Our Rondout Valley high school Parents Association was invited to meet with the lead search consultant in helping to formulate a profile of our next Superintendent. In looking over your web site would you please comment on the questions we could ask and should be aware of during this meeting.
Many thanks
Lynn Gilbert co-chair RVHS PA [email protected]


Tom Vander Ark

Hi Lynn, you'll want to ask them how they think the system should work (especially a small distirct), who decisions will be made, and how parents will be involved. The 10 Questions blog you referenced is a good start:
Ask them how an ideal class and high school would work: what would the experience be for students, teachers, and community members.

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