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What Kind of Leader Should Superintendents Be?

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"If superintendents don't understand what they're asking their teachers and principals to do, their students will not make as much progress," said superintendent of Pass Christian School District Beth John, making the point that superintendents need to understand curriculum and instruction.

That might seem rather obvious to folks outside the field of education, but it's actually a rather bold statement, made by a bold superintendent.

John said it during a webinar exploring how her school district in Mississippi has moved forward as much as it has in the past decade or so; she said it because she knows that quite a large proportion of the 15,000 superintendents out there consider themselves to be managers rather than instructional leaders.

She, on the other hand, thinks of herself as the leader of instruction and as the supporter of the other instructional leaders in the district. The key instructional leaders, of course, are the principals and teachers of the schools -- but they're not the only ones. John talks about the need for everyone from the business manager to the transportation director to lead in ways that improve instruction and the climate and culture of the schools.

One question, of course, is why anyone should listen to John when there are plenty of leadership gurus who advocate that superintendents can simply apply generic "leadership" skills to running a district.

The answer is that during her time in the district, which included a stint as its curriculum director, Pass Christian has moved forward in ways that are clearly helpful to its children, particularly its African American children and those who come from low-income homes. Two-thirds of Pass Christian's students meet the qualifications for free and reduced-price meals; one-third are African American. And it is in one of the poorest states in the country, where what the Annie E. Casey Foundation calls the "life chances" of African American children are among the bleakest for any American children.

More than a decade ago, Pass Christian's white children graduated from high school at about the rate of white children in the state, but its African American children and its children from low-income families graduated at much lower rates. Today, white, African American, and low-income students all graduate from Pass Christian at about 86 percent -- higher than the state graduation rate. Its schools are considered among the top in the state, and the improvement came about during one of the most devastating events any community can withstand -- Hurricane Katrina, which wiped out much of the town.

So Pass Christian has moved forward as a district, which means that it is appropriate to ask what has helped the district move forward during that time?

John and others say that one thing is an intense focus on instruction, beginning with the superintendent. That means that years ago, before required to by the state, Pass Christian began studying and dissecting the Common Core state standards to see how their instruction should change. That has required many meetings of teachers, by grade and subject area to align instruction and make sure that each teacher understood what students had learned the previous year and would be expected to know the subsequent year so that their instruction could be focused on the right things at the right time.

This kind of consultation is, of course, a never-ending process, and every month teachers in Pass Christian meet across grade levels to make sure they are aligning instruction -- which is in addition to the daily and weekly meetings of grade levels and departments within the schools.

"If we operate in isolation as a school, or even as a central office," said John, "then we fail in our goal, and that goal is student growth."

To see John talk about this for herself, and to see part of her leadership team -- the principals of the schools in Pass Christian -- talk about curriculum, instruction, data, and the need to work together as a team, you can view the playback here. Eventually there will be a little more polished and edited version of the webinar that you can see, but this demonstrates the passion and thoughtfulness that Pass Christian educators bring to the huge task of helping all their students succeed.