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Students Need Stable District Leadership

In more than one big city school district, including now Seattle, superintendents who have put smart reforms in place, yielding positive results for students, have been removed too soon.

There is nothing new about the fact that school superintendents come and go. Some retire, and some are recruited into other school districts or opportunities. But let's face it, some are let go.

School board members have the weighty task of determining who is best suited to lead their school districts and for how long. At the same time, we know that longer superintendent tenure has a positive effect on student achievement, according to education research group McREL. District leaders who focus on the right goals, manage change effectively, and stick around long enough to see results, the research says, tend to have higher-performing students.

The problem is that politics and egos can sometimes play a role in how long even the best superintendents are allowed to stay in place. And unfortunately in recent years, in more than one big city school district, including Miami-Dade, Washington, D.C., and now Seattle, superintendents who have put in place smart reforms that are yielding positive results for students have been removed too soon.

In order for students to have the opportunity to dramatically improve, the superintendent, who is singularly responsible for the progress of every student in the district, needs to be in place long enough to get the job done.

I know that during my nearly eleven years serving as superintendent of Boston Public Schools, we would not have been able to produce student gains had it not been for the steadfast support from my bosses, Mayor Tom Menino and his appointed Boston School Committee. Elizabeth Reilinger chaired our School Committee, the members of which served for four year terms and could be reappointed for eight years during my tenure. If there had not been that continuity of leadership and support from the Mayor and School Committee, our multi-year reforms simply would not have had time to take root.

The sad reality is that the average tenure of superintendents in large urban American school districts today is only 3.6 years, according to the Council of Great City Schools seventh survey and report, Urban School Superintendent: Characteristics, Tenure, Salary. But it's interesting to note that the large city school districts that have shown the strongest student gains in the last decade have almost all had, and continue to have, long-serving superintendents. In fact, these superintendents have served twice as long as the national average, according to the Broad Foundation.

If as a society we seriously want to improve student outcomes and reduce unacceptable income and ethnic achievement gaps, it is imperative that superintendents be given the opportunity to yield results, unless, of course, data shows that their strategy to improve student achievement is clearly off course. The office responsible for managing millions of public taxpayer dollars, and overseeing what is often the largest employer in the city, should not have a rotating door. While it swings open every couple years and the next leader starts from scratch, our children stagnate.

It's particularly unfortunate that Maria Goodloe-Johnson is no longer leading Seattle Public Schools. As former superintendent in Charleston, S.C., she demonstrated very impressive student achievement gains. Not surprisingly, she was in demand nationally, and Seattle succeeded in convincing her to move cross-country and take on Washington's largest city system.

And take it on, she did. She produced remarkable student gains in Seattle in the last few years.

Comparing Seattle's student achievement in 2009 to student levels in 2007 when she arrived, Seattle students not only improved in reading and math at nearly every school level, but their growth outpaced three-quarters of other school districts in Washington.

But perhaps most remarkable, under Dr. Goodloe-Johnson's leadership, Seattle raised student achievement faster than dozens of other big city superintendents nationwide for which comparable analyses are available.

In fact, no matter how you slice the data, whether you look at the degree to which students moved up across performance levels for example, below-basic to basic, basic to proficient, or proficient to advanced, the degree to which proficiency rates improved, or the degree to which Seattle rose above performance levels statistically expected of it given its high poverty levels, under Dr. Goodloe-Johnson's leadership, the district bested other large urban districts nationwide.

For example, in 2010, Seattle's elementary and middle school students performed 7 percentage points and 9 percentage points higher, respectively, in math than the state average, representing a trend that occurred during Goodloe-Johnson's tenure, even though Seattle serves far more low-income students.

Those improvements did not happen overnight, nor were they easy. After four years of aggressive reforms that included closing underperforming school and holding staff accountable under a new evaluation system, Dr. Goodloe-Johnson faced growing pushback from the teachers union, community groups and the board.

Successful superintendents have to make decisions that are in the best interest of students. If as a superintendent, you come into office trying to do a little bit of everything, you won't be able to do a few things well. When faced with the need to make dramatic gains in student achievement and reduce chronic achievement gaps, which is squarely the challenge before big city superintendents, you have to leverage those few focused strategies that are likely to make the biggest difference.

In addition, you cannot get significantly better student results without making significant changes in organizational direction. The problem is that as important as it is to involve special interest groups in discussions about policy recommendations you bring to the school board for approval, it becomes impossible to incorporate every single point of view in district goals and strategy, nor is every point of view actually good for students. Some people will inevitably disagree.

The onus, is of course on the superintendent to communicate their rationale for charting a specific course so that the community, the staff and the board can independently judge the logic behind particular goals and strategies and evaluate progress.

Dr. Goodloe-Johnson was willing to make the tough decisions I think were right for Seattle's children to improve. She appropriately asked school district employees to meet school district academic goals and fairly provided them with meaningful professional development resources to help them succeed.

However, in the end, the Seattle school board unfortunately succumbed to pressure from constituents opposed to reforms, publicly resting its decision to ask Dr. Goodloe-Johnson to leave on the fact that a mid-level staffer had committed what was clearly fraud. That employee resigned, as did their direct supervisor, and Dr. Goodloe-Johnson took immediate measures to correct the situation. The question for school board members nationwide is whether a circumstance like this warrants removing a superintendent that stands out nationally for raising student achievement far faster and higher than other big city districts.

Given the political nature of education, situations like this are bound to rise again. But in the interest of students across America who need leaders that are willing to do what's necessary to improve academic achievement, school boards must keep student results and district strategy paramount in decisions about how long to keep superintendents in place.

Tom Payzant is professor of practice, Harvard Graduate School of Education and the former superintendent of Boston Public Schools.