THE BLOG
10/02/2014 01:38 pm ET Updated Jun 19, 2015

The Mantra of a Broad Prize Winner Is About Teachers

If you are employed by the Gwinnett County School District, you are either a teacher or you work to support teachers.

That, at least, is the mantra promulgated by the superintendent, J. Alvin Wilbanks. I have heard the same thing from enough other Gwinnett County educators -- principals and central office administrators -- to know that he isn't the only one saying it.

Wilbanks also says that if you work for the school district and can't articulate what you do to support teachers, then you are working in the wrong place. That goes for bus drivers, cafeteria workers, business managers, principals, curriculum directors, and even the superintendent himself. He makes it clear that his job is to support teachers in the classroom.

People outside education might think that an obvious point. To people outside the field, teachers are the core of schools; it is certainly easy for students and parents to think of them as powerful and all-important.

But many teachers around the country will recognize that as an unusual attitude for a superintendent to have. Superintendents are more likely to sit atop a hierarchy and make decisions that they expect to be carried out throughout the bureaucracy, with principals as middle managers and teachers as implementers -- implementers of new curricula, new assessments, new technologies, new whatever.

In this classic scenario, a superintendent sweeps in with a "vision" that he spends a few years trying to force through a balky bureaucracy, after which he (superintendents are still mostly male) moves to a new district without having actually affected student achievement one whit.

That may be why a new report from the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution asked the question, "School Superintendents: Vital or Irrelevant?" After studying scads of data from North Carolina and Florida, the authors (Matthew Chingos, Grover Whitehurst, and Katharine Lindquist) conclude that most superintendents are irrelevant.

The final paragraph of the report says:

Superintendents associated with substantive improvements in district performance are quite rare, likely to be playing a part in an ensemble performance that doesn't depend uniquely on them, and difficult to identify reliably using the best empirical strategies presently available. In the end, it is the system that promotes or hinders student achievement. Superintendents are largely indistinguishable creatures of that system.

I suspect that the authors are mostly right, but I come back to Georgia's Gwinnett County, which has undergone huge demographic shifts in the past couple of decades, with the student population both growing in absolute numbers and growing considerably more diverse both ethnically and economically. It now has more than 174,000 students in 134 schools, making it one of the larger districts in the country comparable to, for example, Fairfax County in Virgina.

Wilbanks, who became superintendent in 1996 after a stint as assistant superintendent, has presided over both the growth and improvement in student achievement and graduation rates. Could it be that a long-time superintendent can create the "ensemble performance" that promotes student achievement by putting the support of teaching and learning at the center?

I don't want to get ahead of the evidence, but it seems a good question to ask now that Gwinnett has won the Broad Prize for Urban Education for the second time (this year sharing the prize with Florida's Orange County).