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Superintendent's Desk: Listen Up!

Superintendent Joshua Starr on why administrators should act less like generals and more like scientists.

September/October 2009

Dr. Starr is superintendent of public schools in Stamford, Conn., a district of 15,000 students.

When i came to Stamford four years ago, there was a lot of work to be done. I’d like to say my efforts have been sequential and that I began with a theory of action and built a clear system around it that everyone understood perfectly. But it wasn’t that easy, and while we have made real progress, I have learned how to become a better leader.

Stamford’s problems are familiar to many school districts: an absolute lack of consistent curriculum, instructional practices, and expectations. While there are 20 schools in Stamford, there were 70 ways of doing business. This resulted in some students doing extremely well and others failing to achieve a minimum standard.

There were no systems in place to develop curriculum, provide professional development, or monitor change and engage people in our changes. Here is how we’ve started our reform, as well as the expectations we need to complete going forward.

My first year was about communicating a message, engaging the community, and building a system to support curriculum and instruction evolution. I experienced success and setbacks. The heart of our effort have been the creation of a core curriculum for every subject area, and the development of a system to provide commensurate pressure and support for the instructional changes we expect.

We have been fortunate to receive a $15.3 million grant from the General Electric Foundation to improve our math and science instruction. This extraordinary investment not only focused our attention on two critical curriculum areas, but also enabled us to build a system of curriculum and instruction implementation, monitoring, and assessment that can be used in other content areas.
Changing Your Style
All superintendents probably agree the “old” model of teaching where teachers impart information to students in a one-way direction is outmoded. What may surprise you is I think administrators need to make the same kind of adjustments.
As classrooms shift from content to knowledge, so must education leadership. Administrators must cross the road from management to leader, engaging others around key questions in an increasingly complex world rich with opportunities.

There are two ways I try to achieve the balance between management and leadership. One is by constantly keeping in mind what I call the “tight/loose” continuum. When going forward with an initiative, I say to my team: This is what we’re going to be tight on, and this is what we’re going to be loose on. For example, we’re going to be tight on communicating to every school that they need to find new ways to engage hard-to-reach families, but we’re going to be loose on the methods by which they do it. This allows for some school flexibility on tactics and strategies, but ensures clarity around the goal.

Question the Status Quo
the other approach i take to finding a balance between management and leadership is by asking a lot of questions. My job is to understand the interests of every constituent group in the system and to ensure that my team has taken these interests into consideration before moving ahead. This means that when a recommendation comes to me, I try to give my feedback in the form of questions: How do you think our teachers will respond? What will the board need to know? Given the reaction of our principals to X, what do you think they need to know in order to support this? By asking questions, it helps me be clear about the desired result.

To be successful in 2025, children will need to navigate a complex world, speak multiple languages, appreciate diverse cultures and perspectives, and make sense out of a myriad of stimuli. I envision that for the 21st century, history and science—along with social sciences and philosophy—could form the foundation for revolution in American public education if we actually chose to teach children the conceptual underpinnings of such domains. These subjects can provide the opportunity to engage children in exploration, disciplined analysis, teamwork, communication, and knowledge creation. Yet our standardized test–based accountability systems stymie deep exploration and development of these skills. 

Education leaders must, as author James Baldwin wrote, “ask questions of the universe and learn to live with those questions.”    

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