THE SUBTLE SHADES OF THE MODERN SUPERINTENDENCY
Updated: Jun 20
To imply that living with conflict is an inevitable part of the contemporary superintendency is to reduce the construct to a trope, instead of giving it the full attention it deserves. After all, moral ambiguity and interactional contention are driving superintendents from the profession. Rachel S. White, an educational researcher who studies superintendents, recently wrote, "Public school superintendents are having a moment, and for many of them, the moment is neither super nor what they intended." In a January, 2023 article in Kappan, the authors of a national survey asked, What is the human toll of political contentiousness on superintendents? They were struck that 63% of superintendents shared that over the past two years, they (or people close to them) have grown worried about their personal mental health and well-being. Superintendents across district types (62% of rural, 64% of suburban, and 67% of urban superintendents) shared this concern.
Subtle shades of the modern superintendency color the narrative in post-truth America. A malignant gossamer of social, economic, and political forces has been spun around superintendents, who find themselves mired in the grip of an unimaginable beast, grasping for locomotion in the midst of the largest macroeconomic disruption since most entered the profession.
Education has landed on the front lines of a culture war, tasked and expected to redress social concerns amidst its rage. Never mind the endless stream of all-consuming distractions that propel us away from our tasks with dizzying incitement. Superintendents learn early in their tenure that their job is to attend to the most important things. Everything else can wait. It's an axiom of leadership. As William James wrote in The Principles of Psychology, "My experience is what I agree to attend to.” Well, many superintendents are not that agreeable these days when it comes to what they are expected to attend to. We have spent our careers building trust across heterogeneous networks to make schools places that children and adults alike feel like they belong. As Kathryn Riley has written in, Place, Belonging and School Leadership: Researching to Make the Difference, schools are one of the few shared social institutions which can create that sense of belonging or exclusion. Yes, it has to be one or the other.
Senior Claremont Graduate University research fellow and retired superintendent, Dr. Carl Cohn, eloquently opined on the topic in his February, 2023 piece in the AASA magazine, Public Schools as Contested Places, "At a minimum, I think we need a national conversation between superintendent and school board leadership (through both the National School Boards Association and the Consortium of State School Boards Association) about the path forward and what the new norms ought to be about the rules of engagement and the changing role of superintendents in today’s highly polarized political environment of local school board elections. The needs of historically underserved students are too great to ignore or delay this important discussion and debate."
At a recent superintendent retreat I attended, the tenor of the day was all about our survival and wellness, not the needs of historically underserved students. Specifically, the post school-year sentiment revolved around remaining well given the highly polarized political environment we all find ourselves submerged in. A specter haunted the room as conversation after conversation settled on the common ground of the battlefield, recently littered with superintendents pitted between personal and professional values, state and federal law, and, in California, local control debates on the ten-year anniversary of the landmark funding formula in California that was designed to empower communities to localize education. The sentiment echoed a 2023 report in Education Next that identified "candidate care" as a priority for search executives, who have never been busier according to the report. The article, School Superintendents Head for the Exits, identified that exiters are leaving because they simply "can't take it anymore" or they’re in the process of being fired by their school board.
The debate rages on with both sides firmly entrenched and certain they are both doing the right thing. Is it a battle worth fighting? A hill to die on? Or is the safe play political agnosticism?
Living with conflict has taken on new meaning for superintendents and other education leaders. Here in California, the state Department of Education is investigating Temecula Valley Unified, a Riverside County district between Los Angeles and San Diego that has been in the news since a conservative school board majority took control of the district after the November election. They promptly banned CRT and have since voted 3-2 to reject a textbook that included information about assassinated San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk. Board members described Milk as a “pedophile” during their comments. Meanwhile, Governor Gavin Newsom is earning points with progressive Democrats for raging war against the school district, whom he considers the poster child for right-wing culture warriors, according to Jack Pitney, a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College.
On June 13, a couple of weeks after Governor Newsom called the Temecula school board President an ignorant person in a tweet, and a week after the State Department of Education announced it was investigating the District after California Attorney General Rob Bonta announced his Office sought documents related to the board’s decision to reject the aforementioned textbook, the Temecula school board dismissed their superintendent of three years in a 3-1 vote. There's precedence for such action. Florida Governor DeSantis backed thirty conservative school board candidates last November. One new conservative majority in Sarasota promptly ousted their superintendent despite no evidence of performance issues.
The question for superintendents is how to live and thrive given the conflict that swirls around them. The short answer is to treat conflict as the complex phenomena that it is, not the unitary construct it’s portrayed to be in popular leadership culture.
There’s no archetype of today’s district leader. Contingency theorists argue that different circumstances alter the way phenomena like conflict are experienced and addressed. But the audience for this essay are not theorists. Nonetheless, theory informs practice and practice informs theory. Though my message is aimed at superintendents, aspirants, and school board members, I'm writing as a research-practitioner and hope the message makes at least a meager contribution to the work of organization theorists too. It's all about the circumstances.
If it's true that education leaders tend to be trained to avoid rather than confront conflict, as education leadership authority and problem-based learning guru Edwin M. Bridges observed, it's time to train the current and future generation of leaders to embrace it. It's time to champion a counter narrative. Superintendents, aspirants, and school boards need strategies, remedies, and solutions for today's vexing problems. In California, the UCLA Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access published, Educating for a Diverse Democracy in California: The Growing Challenges of Political Conflict and Hostile Behavior, a call to arms for education leaders. The authors tasked educators and school boards to stand up for educational approaches that can strengthen our diverse democracy, not tear it asunder. It's likely political agnostics will not be equal to the task.
I am advocating for a pedagogical solution to bridge the ideological gap. The intersection of secular knowledge and deeply held values and beliefs is where superintendents need to land, in recognition that differentiating between perspective and reality is a powerful tool to expand our own perspective and better understand others. The current contested nature of leading demands superintendents and all leaders develop new sets of knowledge competencies centered around perspective-taking.
We can all gain a better perspective if we're willing to look through someone else's lens.