CAUGHT IN THE CROSSHAIRS
This article is featured in the November 2023 edition of AASA, The School Superintendents Association School Administrator Magazine
As the narrative arc of division rises, superintendents can play the critical role of influencer to bend the arc toward inclusion, compassion, and peace.
Education researcher Kathryn Riley has spent a career studying the role school leaders play in helping students anchor themselves and find their place in the world. Riley authored Leadership of Place: Stories from Schools in the US, UK & South Africa (2013) and Compassionate Leadership for School Belonging (2022). She has observed that divisions restrict young people’s views and perceptions and limit their possibilities. I’ve observed it too. Riley, and others who also study student alienation, argue that division creates insiders and outsiders: those who feel safe and those who don’t.
As more advanced stages of negative partisanship emerge as the 2024 election approaches, superintendents must strengthen their resolve and actuate their positional authority to ensure that schools are the one place that all students feel psychologically safe and included.
The division that has bled onto school campuses is caused by politically ideological differences, a chasm that has left a deep cleft in our national identity. Unlike the gaps we are accustomed to, which systems-thinking educators use to generate creative tension to catalyze progress and innovation, this gap generates emotional tension, which is of little or no utility as a mechanism for forward movement. There are no board policies, education code statutes, or Constitutional assurances that protect kids from the forces of hateful rhetoric, exclusion, and societal mistreatment at the hands of a few. Superintendents, distinguished by place, are finding ourselves caught between contradictory expectations; between the formal conception of the duty-bound superintendent stressing values that prioritize students’ wellbeing and promote their moral and social agency; and the post-truth America conception of superintendent as lengthened shadows of their board majorities. As a result, superintendents are reexamining their roles, specifically as moral agents given the nature of conflictual relationships with their ruling majorities.
Shaped by Place
As a principal for seventeen years prior to district-level work, I served ethnically, racially, and socioeconomically diverse communities. All 'places' that have shaped my leadership behaviors, as all places do to all leaders. As a result of educating children of the Hmong diaspora early in my career, I became bound by context and adopted 'place' as the primary core value of my leadership philosophy. From that point forward, I considered it a moral imperative to fully and unconditionally guarantee my students belonged. The vested benefit of a safe place to grow and become the best version of themselves is a right all students deserve. The place imperative remains central to my philosophy today. It advances student agency and promotes investment on the part of students and their families.
As a superintendent, I have doubled-downed on my investment in place. Place shapes leaders, but leaders can shape place, too.
Reconceptualizing the Superintendency
The collision of parent and student rights has exploded into fragments of emotional shrapnel, hurling its way towards shell-shocked superintendents, and leaving communities politically divided, and sadly, vulnerable students at greater risk of negative outcomes. Not since the 1970s has the role of the superintendent been so politically conflicted. The most conspicuous feature of the position in that era, as Larry Cuban and others noted at the time, was superintendent turnover, as illustrated by the dissatisfaction theory model that pitted superintendent vulnerability at its core. History is repeating itself in the midst of a right-leaning movement to prevent education from taking a perceived ‘left turn’ by politically indoctrinating students with ideals that are in direct opposition to newly elected and/or reinvigorated right-leaning board majorities. Superintendents are bearing the brunt of the power struggle.
Since the November 2022 elections, newly formed board majorities (both left and right) separated unceremoniously from their superintendent up and down the state of California while many other superintendents announced their retirement before they became targets or before the ax fell. Seventeen of the twenty-three school districts in the Southern California county where I serve have changed superintendents at least once since COVID unleashed a firestorm of battleground issues. Not all are the result of new board majorities. In some cases, it’s one or two board members whose agenda targets the superintendent or who simply choose not to support the superintendent, making an already difficult job even more difficult.
Reconceptualizing the superintendency with place at its center is a value-added approach to leading in contemporary times. After all, place, given the amorphic conditions of education during the COVID era, became the focus of school funding and remains relevant given chronic absenteeism and other long post-COVID effects. Place in education has long been about brick and mortar. Now, it’s about choice and circumstance. Nothing about place leadership is new to the seasoned superintendent or most experienced education leaders. It’s simply a refocusing effort to account for changing times and globalization. While superintendents usually possess a working knowledge of the community they serve, particularly if they live or have lived in the community, they don’t always possess 360-degree knowledge of their community. They may understand the issues, but not deeply enough. They may have relationships with its major figures, but not have built coalitions. Place leaders leave no factions of the community behind and believe everyone deserves the right to have their voices heard and be provided the same compassion that is offered to the very students for whose rights some factions of the community may be questioning and objecting to.
Morally committed and hyper aware of the social and cultural milieu, place-consciousness requires trust-building, mediation skills, and the knowledge to seek pedagogical solutions to bridge ideological gaps. Outward, not inward mindsets are critical to a superintendent’s work.
We are operating in an era when political maneuvering must stand beside educational knowledge and expertise as superintendents are expected to keep the system balanced and at peace while at the same time moving the needle on student achievement. In California, some places are becoming politically polarized and others are not. Some predictably, others surprisingly, which has given rise to fear and anxiety among superintendents that it’s just a matter of time before nationally organized groups gearing up for the 2024 elections rally the troops in their communities too.
Place matters. Some superintendents are changing places as a result of changing dynamics in their school districts as irreconcilable differences between warring factions of fierce ideological debates have touched their community. Others have opted to leave because they have been reduced to pawns on a socio-political chessboard, severely limiting their freedom of movement as the percolating political rhetoric of the times has pushed them to the margins.
Given the unprecedented turnover among superintendents, I have asked many of my colleagues whether or not they plan to broach the topic of increasing politicization in our schools and communities and specifically what is taught in schools or present in their libraries. Most do not intend to poke the bear since it’s not an issue in their community. At least not at this moment. Most, however, are paying closer attention to local, state, and national politics, brushing up on board policies related to civility, controversial topics, instructional material selection and the Miller Test, and summoning their legal team and lobbyist to freshen them up on all matters, legislatively speaking. In other words, they are becoming more place-conscious.
California is among the states that have implemented pedagogical solutions to promote students’ moral and social agency, mandating ethnic studies, textbook and material adoption that discuss LGBTQ+ people’s contributions to history, and annually submitting for state approval a plan for serving the district’s most vulnerable and underserved populations. A dashboard based on state testing, chronic absenteeism, and suspension data annually publishes each school district’s success meeting the state’s annual goals. Failure is met with direct technical assistance from county and state agencies. California also adopted the Local Control Funding Formula ten years ago. The hallmark legislation was designed to fundamentally change how districts are funded and how they are governed, with an emphasis on local control. Two years later, California law required schools to allow transgender students to take part in all programs and to use restrooms and other facilities that are consistent with their gender identity. That law is currently being challenged. It’s easy to understand, then, why California is experiencing a superintendent exodus. Superintendents are caught in the crosshairs of ideological disputes that includes the Governor, Gavin Newsom, sparring on Twitter with a board president in Riverside County who publicly called assassinated San Francisco Councilman Harvey Milk a pedophile upon learning that the slain political figure was referenced in state-approved instructional materials he and his fellow board members were recommended to adopt.
Windows and Mirrors
The irony of today’s volatile education climate rests with the notion that in the post-COVID era, students’ wellbeing has come more to the fore than ever before, as Michael Fullan noted in his 2021 article, The Right Drivers for Whole System Success. Fullan emphasized that wellbeing speaks to students finding school as a place where they feel good about themselves and the person they are becoming and where they have opportunities to develop or strengthen positive values in themselves. Fullan is not alone in calling for a political truce and turning the focus on students. A panel of education and youth development experts convened by the Center on Reinventing Public Education in 2022 called on policymakers and advocates to overcome turf wars and divisions and embrace “big tent” thinking for social and emotional development and wellbeing support. Yet, the current climate in some places is calling on its district and school leaders to marginalize certain students, particularly transgender students.
Much more than a physical entity, schools are a place that act as an emotional response to a student’s world, connected to their sense of self, identity, and worth. Students belong to schools and schools belong to students. Schools should be places through which students see the world (windows) and see themselves in it (mirrors).
Book bans shutter windows and shatter mirrors. While education has historically been physically attached to ‘place’, its meaning has shifted from physical to social since the era of desegregation, choice, and charter schools devalued schools of residence.
Superintendents caught in the crosshairs of a divided community are tasked with the moral and ethical obligation to protect their most vulnerable students, while at the same time not alienating the community that has voted into office the elected officials whose hands their livelihood rest in. It’s no wonder superintendents are calling it quits. Yet, others are embracing this opportunity to lead during turbulent times. Particularly, place-conscious leaders, whose focus on finely tuning their human relations skills in the interest of bridging ideological gaps and understanding the diverse and often divisive groups they serve, while at the same time ensuring the sense of belonging students experience is realized by all students regardless of their profile.
While some superintendents are choosing to avoid controversy, effectively declaring themselves politically agnostic, until the time comes that it no longer avoids them, it may not be in their best interests. Since the beginning of 2022, politicians have introduced 139 bills across 37 states designed to limit educators’ latitude to address racism, inequity, bias, structural injustices, and gender and sexuality issues in school. Thus far, 20 states have enacted related laws or executive orders. Many of these efforts stymie civic learning and discussion of controversial issues, and limit experiential learning about how to engage as local civic actors, stunting democracy.
In a Phi Delta Kappan article, Richard P. McAdams wrote, “Superintendents must be nimble enough to change with the turnover in board priorities, or comfortable with frequent relocations. In either event, bold leadership by a superintendent over the long term is the exception rather than the rule.”
The PDK article was written in 1997. The more things change, the more they stay the same. I suppose it just comes with the territory.