Monday, September 29, 2008



Crises create heroes. Clearly, the time has come to abandon the notion that “Superhero” leaders are the solution to all of our ills. Change can only occur with the buy-in of those involved in creating and carrying it out.

"There are no extraordinary men... just extraordinary circumstances that ordinary men are forced to deal with." Admiral William Frederick (Bull) Halsey Jr.

by Susan Tave Zelman, Ph.D. Superintendent of Public Instruction Ohio Department of Education Columbus, OH and Christopher T. Cross Chairman, Cross & Joftus, LLC Danville, CA from the Winter 2008 / Volume 4, No. 4 JOURNAL OF SCHOLARSHIP & PRACTICE of the AMERICAN ASSOCIATION OF SCHOOL ADMINISTRATORS

January 2008 marked the sixth anniversary of No Child Left Behind, the landmark reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, and the consequences of its accountability provisions are becoming clearer with each passing week. In California, 99 school districts are in the final stages of program improvement; nationally as many as 2,000 schools have reached that same milestone, meaning that drastic action is required to turn these schools and districts from failures to meeting the needs of every group of students. Clearly, the time has come to abandon the notion that “Superhero” leaders are the solution to all of our ills. In district after district, state after state, we have seen competition bidding up salaries to hire a leader who has a proven track record, while at the same time districts and states have failed to invest in the systems that are needed for any leader, superhero or not, to succeed. One urban leader known to us both found a district with no real personnel system, no system to track books and supplies, a primitive maintenance system and so many curricula being used that calling it a system would be farcical. And this was after that same district had gone through a succession of superhero leaders in the last decade, none of whom had tamed the bureaucratic beast. In our view, what must happen if we want to move from the era of superheroes to an era where high performance is a given and not an exception, we must invest in complete and interlocking systems to support reform.

In our view, the education system must be organized around four goals:

  • clear expectations for students
  • the capacity to teach well
  • holding both individuals and systems accountable for results
  • becoming a high performing, adaptable organization focused on continuous improvement.

To achieve these goals, a variety of subsystems must be developed – each part of a highly complex, interrelated organization. (See Figure 1.)

Each system is essential to achieving the goal of graduating students who are high performing and capable of handling both the world of work in a competitive global economy and successful completion of programs of postsecondary education. We see these critical systems within education as interdependent relationships among the instructional system, and the human, fiscal, and community resources that surround it– with all subsystems holding everyone accountable for the achievement and improvement of student learning. These subsystems can interlock and align at the federal, state, school district, and school building levels, creating coherence throughout the entire public education system.


Figure 1. Complex, interrelated organization with subsystems (Ohio Department of Education).

Instructional Management

The heart of education is the instructional system and at its core, the standards, curriculum, and assessments that must be developed to guide teaching. Regrettably, we are still emerging from a fragmented, splintered educational system where the quality of instruction and the content taught and tested can vary from state to state, district to district, and even from school to school within the same district.

In many states, where you live is what you get. When we have a public education system where, quite literally, people with enough money move to a community where their children will get the best education, we create incredible gaps in achievement among students throughout the nation – especially minority and low-income students. What is taught in classrooms should be built upon clear expectations of what we expect our students to know and be able to do at every grade level and in each subject. This standards-based instructional system simply says that we must align what we expect of our students with how we teach and what we test. When other components of the broad educational system also feed into this instructional system, we can build educators’ capacity to teach well by providing them with the resources they need to help all students achieve.

Human Resources

The human resource system truly involves the career life of our educators –superintendents, principals and teachers. Without a system to hire the best teachers, evaluate them on an ongoing basis, provide rigorous, focused training, and dismiss those who can not make the grade, no instructional system – indeed, no educational system – can succeed. Studies have demonstrated that many districts, especially the larger ones, are not operating effective recruitment and induction programs. Job offers are often not made until late summer, principals may not get to select their own staff, and induction is a seeming luxury that often gets eliminated. While we talk a great deal about what we want students to know and be able to do at various points in school, we rarely talk about what teachers need to know and be able to do to teach students displaying a variety of characteristics. The human resource system must provide a coherent set of policies and programs for educators from recruitment to retirement, so that the educators have the knowledge, skills, and professional development they need to do help all students learn. Teachers must be able to climb a career ladder so the best and brightest can become mentors to less-experienced educators. Administrators must manage shared planning times, as well as opportunities for coaching from fellow teachers and higher education faculty. The human resource system for educators must also reward teachers for climbing that career ladder.

Fiscal Resources

Often neglected in any movement to bring about coherence in the educational system is our system of raising and spending the dollars required to support schools. While there is some financial transparency within educational systems, what is not transparent is how much of an impact that money makes on student performance. For example, we can track how much money is spent on professional development, but we do not know if it is getting results. Financial decisions to purchase textbooks may be based on getting the best deal, rather than finding the right books. What return on investment are we getting? Is it improving student learning? Are we getting the most bang for our buck? That is the kind of transparency our educational systems need. To effectively and efficiently fund schools, the fiscal system must feed back into the instructional and accountability systems. The fiscal system must ensure that funding is aligned to a plan, based on data, focused on clear goals, grounded in research-based practices, and provides effective job-embedded professional development.

Community Resources

The least tapped system for most schools is right at its doorstep – the community. Traditionally, school districts have been reluctant to open the schoolhouse doors to the community, unless it involves fundraising, ticket sales, or scholarships. Our public education system has yet to create a coherent, systemic way to engage the community in student achievement and school improvement. This system of community resources involves parents and families, business and industry, local community organizations, state and local health and human service agencies, and the media.

When schools are open to the community, they can set up relationships with parents and families that bring them into the real academic and social problems encountered by their children and involve them in making the changes that must occur to improve schools. The system of community services can be complete when schools connect directly with the health and human services agencies at the state and local levels – to provide the behavioral and mental health services that children and their families need. When community resources are linked to all other systems, great economic and academic results can take place, both for students and surrounding communities.


It is hard to imagine a system that did not benchmark its achievement and progress to measurable outcomes. Even our superheroes are tested against external criteria. Without a system, then we will continue to assault the ears and brains of parents, taxpayers, and policymakers with a cacophony of seemingly incoherent messages We believe three touchstones are key – good targets, symmetry, and fairness. Good targets require the identification of valued knowledge, skills, and abilities that anchor the instructional core. These targets include performance expectations that are attainable with effort but require students, schools, and districts to stretch to meet them. Symmetry refers both to students and adults in the system, as well as to local, state, and federal accountability requirements. A sound accountability system holds adults and students responsible for meeting the same goals – thus ensuring that students and educators have incentives to work toward the same outcomes. Fairness has multiple dimensions. The technical qualities of validity and reliability are necessary but insufficient components of fairness. Fairness requires that students and schools are held accountable for performance and that districts, states, and the federal government have an obligation to provide the recourses and support to help them achieve success. High quality educational options must exist for students in persistently low performing schools.

The Need is Now

Crises create heroes. But just as superheroes are always fighting crime, educators spend too much time putting out fires. And often, do not get to the root of the problem that would have prevented the situation in the first place. With long-term, interdependent systems, educators can move from crisis management to instructional leadership. From teachers to superintendents, leaders across the nation can then emerge naturally, not supernaturally.

Change can only occur with the buy-in of those involved in creating and carrying it out.

Even with all of these systems in place, a cultural transformation must occur within with the educational community if real, adaptive change is to happen. The culture of schools at all levels of the educational system reflects the attitudes, values and norms of the larger community. Business leaders, policymakers, and higher education are shaping today’s political climate with a fundamental change in vision: expanding education from a system of universal access for all students to one of universal success for all students.

A systems approach is the first step toward achieving this new vision. There just are not enough superheroes to go around.

Author Biographies: Before becoming the first female state superintendent of public instruction in Ohio, Susan Zelman served as deputy commissioner of the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education from 1994 to 1999. She also served for six years in the Massachusetts Department of Education, and chaired the department of education at Emmanuel College in Boston. Zelman was named one of the 10 most powerful and influential women in Ohio state government by Gannett Newspapers in March 2003. Recently published articles are found in the Ohio PTA News, Principal Navigator, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Columbus Dispatch, and the Cincinnati Enquirer. Christopher T. Cross is chairman of Cross & Joftus, LLC, an education consulting firm. He also serves as a consultant to the Broad Foundation and the C.S. Mott Foundation. He has served as a member of the advisory board for Standard and Poor’s school evaluation service program. Cross is a former assistant secretary of education in the U.S. Department of Education. A recent article titled “In search of victory in service to children” appeared in the Sacramento Bee.

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