The Complex Role of the Urban School Superintendent

Schools of today, and especially large urban schools, are scorching hot topics!  So are discussions of the urban school superintendent’s role. An interesting interview and article on NPR entitled The Short Shelf Life Of Urban School Superintendents [1] clarified different points of view regarding their role.  I will briefly identify them and link them to a systems and thermostat approach to management.

Superintendent as Reformer

Deasy, former superintendent of LAUSD, spoke of reform-minded superintendents as wanting “to shake things up quickly.” Regarding how much time it takes to turn around a struggling district, Hornbeck, superintendent of the Philadelphia schools in the 1990s, suggested four years:

“The first year … is hiring and getting a team in place. The second year provides baseline test scores and time spent developing a plan. The third year is for putting that plan in place, and the fourth year provides scores that should be expected to show improvement.”

In the big picture, such reformer points of view may be shortsighted.

Limitations of “shaking things up.”  Urban school reform as shaking things up is flawed. I explain this in a “mathaphor” as the 19 + 1 = 18 effect. Example: If school quality is 19, add a new demand (+1), school quality goes down to 18.  The explanation: Ever-increasing demands on teachers leave them less able to address their students’ learning needs or to collaborate with colleagues. So, school quality goes down. Then, desperate new policies are mandated every year-–too quickly for teachers and schools to keep up. It’s a cycle of increasing negative outcomes. Over three years, the process looks like 19 + 1 = 18 … 17 …16.

Limitations of district test scores. District test scores are a weak indicator of real success. Experienced teachers have comprehensive goals for their students–including learning, performance, and appreciation—of their subject matter. Otherwise stated, this means students’ cognitive, psychomotor and affective development (CAP)– their head, hands and heart (HHH). In contrast, emphasis on district wide test scores can reduce the meaning of learning to the student’s ability to:

  • select the best answer among five choices (cognitive/head),
  • bubble in circles (psychomotor/hands).

Superintendent as Laissez-Faire Manager

Many superintendents simply trust the expertise of their administrators and  teachers. In busy urban schools, where educators are overburdened with nonstop demands, this is a very appropriate approach. Matt Wunder, the CEO of Da Vinci Charter schools, discussing teacher evaluation and building good school programs said: “I just hire good teachers and then get out of their way.” [2]

Superintendent as a Systemic Change Manager 

Drummond proposes “Perhaps what a superintendent can do is create an environment (stable leadership, adequate resources, freedom from labor strife) that will allow the people who actually make a difference — teachers and principals — to do their jobs. That is, if they’re given enough time.”  Before building on Drummond’s “systems’ views,” I want to clarify that the important factor is not time, but the superintendent’s assumptions or paradigm. In other words, if we still assume that the sun revolves around the earth (an old paradigm in astronomy), no amount of time will result in improved understanding and results.

A Systems Paradigm and Thermostat Metaphor for Instruction/Management

The old paradigm assumes that learners (i.e., students, staff) are empty vessels to fill, that the leader (i.e., teacher, principal, superintendent) is the sole agent.  In reaction, an emerging not-fully-specified new paradigm understands that learners are active agents in their learning, and the leader’s role is unclear or laissez-faire.

A systems paradigm subsumes the old and new paradigms and clarifies dual agency: The leader is agent of the design, delivery and adjustment of the policy/agenda/subject matter; and the learner is agent of pickup and mastery. Thus, adjustability is the key to effectiveness. The old paradigm empty vessel metaphor, perhaps the reformer, is thus replaced with a thermostat metaphor—a more useful visual for a superintendent. Fig. 7.5 from my book[3] illustrates.


The thermostat metaphor is also valuable as it illuminates three modes for the school leader (superintendent, principal, teacher)

  • OFF: School is not in session– Open the windows and let in refreshing ideas and consider new policy;
  • ON: Manual: School is in session and resources are being distributed–Close the windows to avoid excess heat or cold entering and losing resources;
  • ON: Auto: Resources delivered, let people do their work– Watch that the environment remains in the optimal range (cf:, 67 – 72 degrees) and adjust on need.



[1] Retrieved 10/21/14 from:

[2] Gabriele, S. (2014). New Hope for Schools.

[3] Ibid.


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