The school systems in Dallas, Fort Worth and Highland Park all have brand-new leaders. The average big city superintendent lasts about 3.5 years. So what effect does a superintendent’s longevity have on student achievement? A researcher says his findings surprised him.
A Brookings Institution study surprised many in the education world last fall. It's called School Superintendents: Vital or Irrelevant? and it looked at every superintendent who worked in Virginia and North Carolina for a decade.
The study found a leader’s longevity had almost no impact on student achievement.
“Whether the superintendent had served for two years or four years or five years simply did not make a difference in student achievement,” says Grover Whitehurst, one of the paper’s co-authors and director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution.
To Whitehurst, that last “student achievement” part is important.
Years of experience might improve how well a superintendent handles the school board or budgets or buses. But not achievement. At least when measured by test scores.
That’s so opposite to the way superintendents think and act.
“First place, it takes you three to four years just to get a program in. Secondly, it takes another three or four years just to see results,” says Linus Wright, who was a Dallas superintendent for 10 years. He also served in the Education Department under President Ronald Reagan.
“You’re looking at seven to 10 years before you can turn a district around to be effective and implement and do things you need to do and bring people along with you," Wright said.
Whitehurst says superintendents around the country disagreed with his research, but he stands by it.
“We find superintendents overall have an amazingly small impact on student achievement compared to principals, teachers and even districts themselves," Whitehurst says.
In a way, Dallas ISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa is not surprised.
“You know, I don’t teach a single kid in the classroom,” he said.
Hinojosa spent six years running Dallas ISD and was rehired last month. He knows teachers have the most direct, consistent contact with kids.
“But I do impact other things - any superintendent positively or negatively impacts other things that affect how long people stay and deliver,” Hinojosa says.
Those other things, according to Whitehurst, include not just teachers and policy, but a whole group of folks like trustees and city leaders, who help direct needed resources to a school district.
“Rather than the superintendent as the Lone Ranger who comes in and takes care of the bad guys and saves the damsel in distress and rides off into the sunset, it’s the ensemble rather than individual performance that seems to be the key to change," Whitehurst says.
Whitehurst likes current education reformers -- considered controversial by some -- for assembling those ensembles of change. They include Education Secretary Arne Duncan, ousted D.C.Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, and even Dallas’ Mike Miles, who left in June.
Whitehurst says some big city districts needed shaking up. Reformers do that, but then they wear out their welcome.
Karen Rue shares that ensemble philosophy. But the longtime Northwest ISD superintendent is no radical reformer.
“The single right person has arrived and now all we need to do is let them get to work,” Rue says, mimicking a view she rejects. “That’s not how life works. That’s not how organizations work. It’s not how communities work.”
Rue says she’s a consensus builder. That’s how Hinojosa sees himself.
After Miles' turbulent time in Dallas, many in Dallas ISD, including board members, say Hinojosa lends a sense of calm and stability. Whitehurst believes that’s beneficial, but says that he has no study to prove it.
“Yes, that’s a standard answer we researchers like to give: 'We need yet another study.' But the results of this one I think were surprising to a lot of people, including to me," Whitehurst says.
What makes the biggest difference? Put great teachers in front of kids, Whitehurst says.
KERA is exploring the challenges of leading a large urban school district. For several months in 2015, both Fort Worth and Dallas ISDs were looking for new superintendents. Learn more from educators, experts and parents about what it takes to run a large school system. Explore the series here.