09/18/2014 02:34 pm ET Updated Nov 18, 2014

Superintendent Leadership: Does It Really Matter?

For the past decade, I have led a nonprofit organization that recruits, prepares and supports urban superintendents and other public school district leaders dedicated to improving outcomes for all children. So when I heard that a new study suggests that superintendents don't have much impact on student performance, it caught my attention.

"We just don't see a whole lot of difference in student achievement that correlates with who the superintendent happens to be," Matthew Chingos, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-author of the report, recently told NPR.

Of course, headlines and social media posts were quick to assume that system leaders don't really matter. Before packing up The Broad Center, however, my colleagues and I spent some time examining the report and talking with Chingos.

There is woefully little independent, reliable research on the role and impact of superintendents. Just as it is hard to quantify how much influence a governor has on the state's economy, so, too, is it difficult to parse out a superintendent's unique effect on student learning. And while my organization collects and assesses reams of data on our alumni who serve as public school system leaders, our sample size is relatively small.

Here's what the Brookings report tells us:

• Based on changes in Florida and North Carolina school district leadership over a 10-year period, the study found very little impact on student test results that can be attributed to those superintendents.

• According to the analysis, teachers, schools and districts had far greater impact than did superintendents.

But here's what the report does not tell us:

• Could superintendents matter more than these findings suggest?

Yes, and they should.

Strong superintendents, like strong leaders of other large public entities, do not operate in silos. Nor should they. To be successful, district leaders need to work well in an educational ecosystem that includes state and federal policymakers, local school boards and other officials, district employees, students and their families, as well as taxpayers and the broader community, to create the conditions that allow young people to learn and thrive.

In fact, the results found in this study -- and our observations of urban system leadership over the past dozen years suggest several opportunities for improving the impact of school district leaders:

We need to better prepare superintendents.
School system leaders are charged with running complex organizations and have to make hundreds of decisions each day -- decisions that, in urban districts, often affect hundreds of facilities, thousands of employees, tens of thousands of students and annual budgets upwards of $1 billion. But what happens when millions of dollars in state funds are unexpectedly cut from the budget? When a new policy mandate requires a complete shift in teachers' instructional practice? When a crisis occurs at one of the schools? Few district leaders have had the benefit of training and experience in the broad range of financial, personnel, instructional, facilities and management issues required for success in the role. We need to do more to support leaders who step up to take on these demanding jobs so they can help make a difference for students.

Superintendents must be willing to take bold action to ensure that their schools and their educators have the support they need to propel student learning.
Change is hard. But if school system leaders only do what's always been done, they are not likely to produce any more than they've already achieved. If superintendents simply manage the status quo or make incremental improvements -- in essence, follow rather than lead the system -- it makes sense that their relative impact would not be distinct. At The Broad Center, we're inspired by efforts like those undertaken by Valeria Silva, who overhauled St. Paul, Minnesota's approach to educating English-language learners, who make up 45 percent of the district's student population; Dan King, who spearheaded the effort in Texas' Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD to reverse the district's dropout crisis by raising expectations for all students; and Robert Runcie, who transformed Broward County, Florida's student disciplinary policies by trading cops for counselors to put an end to disproportionately harsh disciplinary consequences for black and Latino students.

Superintendents, school boards, educators and communities need to do a better job of working together.
Leadership matters, but even the most successful superintendents do not produce results singlehandedly. Instead, the strongest leaders engage a broad range of people who can, and should, make a difference in the education of students -- harnessing the collective impact of various groups, including those examined in the Brookings study. When Robert Avossa became superintendent of Atlanta's Fulton County Schools, he quickly added 50,000 miles to his car's odometer learning what parents, educators and local leaders wanted from their schools. The district responded, not only in developing initiatives that address those concerns but creating a culture of trust and continued conversation that helps the central office identify the best ways to serve their students and communities. While Fulton County's SAT scores have never been higher and access to college-prep courses has never been greater, Avossa knows that by working together, much more can be accomplished for their students and their community. As he says, "culture matters."

Right now, too many school systems around the country are outdated, inefficient bureaucracies that exacerbate inequities, get in the way of educators' abilities to do great work and are tremendously difficult to improve. The Brookings study underscores just that. But I remain optimistic about the potential for great superintendents, in partnership with great school boards and great educators, to make public education systems more effective, more efficient and more equitable so that every student receives a world-class education.