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Can Superintendents Raise Test Scores?

John Deasy, who was appointed superintendent of the 672,000-student Los Angeles district in January, will be evaluated … on improvement in the graduation rate, student proficiency and attendance. But he also has the opportunity to earn up to $30,000 in bonuses if the district sees an 8 or more percentage point increase in 3rd-grade scores on the state’s reading test, the percentage of students scoring proficient or advanced in 9th-grade algebra, and the four-year-graduation rate….

Jean-Claude Brizard, the chief executive officer of the 409,000-student Chicago schools, will be evaluated on such performance measures as: increasing the percentage of high schoolers who graduate within five years from 55.8 to 60 percent; improving from 27 to 35 percent the share of high schoolers who earn at least a 20 out of 36 on the ACT college entrance exam, and increasing the percentage of students passing the state standardized test for 3rd-grade reading from 57.8 to 70 percent….

Because school boards and mayors assume that measures of good schools can be found  in rising test scores, high school graduation rates, and college admissions, they hire superintendents to be instructional leaders, astute managers, and wily politicians to carry out board mandates and ensure that desired improvements occur. They also push out superintendents–just ask Chicago’s Jean-Claude Brizard who just left days ago after 17 months in office.

So superintendent contracts include clauses on raising test  scores. But can they do so? The literature on the superintendency, with few exceptions, answers  “yes” to the question.  When writers, policy makers, and administrators mention successful school chiefs they point to increasing scores on standardized achievement tests, high percentages of graduates entering college, and National Merit Scholarship finalists (SuperintendentLeadership)

Yet when superintendents are asked how they get scores or graduation rates to go up, the question is often answered with a wink or a shrug of the shoulders. Even among most researchers and administrators who write and grapple with this question of whether superintendents can improve test scores, there is noexplicit model of effectiveness.

How exactly does a school chief who is completely dependent on an elected school board, district office staff that prior superintendents appointed, a cadre of principals in schools whom he or she may see monthly, and teachers who shut their doors once class begins–raise test scores, decrease dropouts, and increase college attendance? Without some model by which a superintendent can be shown to have causal effects, test scores going up or down remain a mystery, a matter of luck that the results occurred during that school chief’s tenure.

Many school chiefs, of course, believe they can improve student achievement. They have in their heads what I call the Rambo or Michelle Rhee model of superintending. Strong leader + clear reform plan + swift reorganization + urgent mandates + crisp incentives and penalties =  desired student outcomes. Think former New York City Chancellor Joel Levin, ex-Miami-Dade Superintendent Rudy Crew, and Alan Bersin in San Diego.

There are, of course, other models that are less heroic and mirror more accurately the complex, entangled world of moving policy to classroom practice through a school board, superintendent, principals, teachers, students, and parents. One model depicts indirect influence where superintendents shape a district culture of improvement, spend time on instructional issues, train principals to run schools, and work closely with teachers in supporting and prodding them to take on new challenges in their classrooms. Think Carl Cohn in Long Beach (CA), Tom Payzant in Boston (MA) and Laura Schwalm in Garden Grove (CA). Such an indirect approach is less mythical, takes a decade or more, and is less dependent upon the superintendent being Superman or Wonder Woman.

Whether school chiefs or their boards have a Rambo model, one of indirect influences, or other models in their minds, some theory exists to explain how they have an impact on student academic performance. Without some explanation for how they influence district office administrators, principals, teachers, and students to perform better than they have, most school chiefs have to figure out their own personal cause-effect model or rely upon chance.

Some superintendents, for example, figure that working 60-70-hour weeks insures that there will be payoff in student improvements. Other superintendents figure that showering the district with reforms will eventually produce some results that might improve student performance. And even other superintendents size up the situation as mysterious; they hope that they will get lucky and the students tested next year will make higher scores than this year’s group. The lack of attention to linkages between superintendent actions and student outcomes prompts those in office to keep their fingers crossed behind their backs.

What is needed are GPS navigation systems imprinted in school board members’ and superintendents’ heads that contains the following:

*A map of the political, managerial, and instructional roles superintendents perform, public schools’ competing purposes, and the constant political responsiveness of school boards to constituencies that inevitably create persistent conflicts.

*a clear cause-effect model of how superintendents influence others to do what has to be done,

*a practical and public definition of what will constitute success for school boards and superintendents.

Such a navigation system and map are steps in the direction of accurately answering the question of whether superintendents can raise test scores.

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Larry Cuban

Larry Cuban is a former high school social studies teacher (14 years), district superintendent (7 years) and university professor (20 years). He has published op-ed pieces, scholarly articles and books on classroom teaching, history of school reform, how policy gets translated into practice, and teacher and student use of technologies in K-12...