ESSA creates opportunities for local leaders

For nearly 20 years, the chief execs of NSBA and AASA (American Association of School Administrators – the Superintendents Association) have shared stages at their respective national conferences to discuss school leadership. This year, NSBA Executive Director Thomas J. Gentzel and his AASA counterpart, Daniel A. Domenech, framed their Saturday exchange in light of the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

Both acknowledged some surprise that the replacement of the former No Child Left Behind Act has moved from Congressional wrangling to implementation planning.

“A year ago, I didn’t think there was a chance that NCLB would be reauthorized,” Domenech said. Gentzel echoed, “You had a Congress that really has not been able to do much of anything. So this was pretty amazing, and represented recognition that what the federal government was doing wasn’t working very well.

“We’ve been pretty straight forward that we represent the people at the local level,” he said. “Innovation really will take place when school boards and superintendents work together to provide the resources and support to do the right thing. We’ve spent too much time teaching reading and writing to the test and ignoring richer curriculum. Local leaders must rise to the challenge to bring education accountability.”

“Innovation happens at the local level when officials see a need, try new things, and learn from what works and what doesn’t work. If we don’t run this at the local level, shame on us,” added Gentzel.

To achieve the maximum potential of the new law, the two national leaders concurred that much will depend on the workings of an effective local leadership team. And that’s a challenge as old as the institution of public education.

“I’ve seen a decline in the amount of time boards and superintendents spend on building a team. Sitting at a table once a month doesn’t make a team,” Gentzel said, calling for development of what he termed “a culture of governance.”

Domenech, who spent 27 years as a superintendent, said understanding roles is critical.

“I understood immediately who I worked for – I worked for the board. But I also knew that my role was to be the expert in residence, the educational thought leader,” he said. “My role was to be the catalyst to bring ideas to the board and to explain why things need to happen – in a respectful manner.”

Gentzel said boards can never be done with team building.

“You have to take time to do that. If boards don’t spend time away from the business of the board, talking to each other, they’ll never learn that different people do things differently. Part of the challenge is to have people recognize that teams just don’t happen. You don’t add water and you have a successful board team,” said the former Pennsylvania School Boards Association chief.

One issue that continues to worry both men is turnover among district leaders.

AASA began tracking superintendent tenure back in 1924, according to Domenech. “It was three years – the same as it is today. And today the tenure of school board members is three years,” he said. “Sustained leadership is very important. When you see a highly functioning district, you will see a superintendent and board members who have been there for a long time.”

“A superintendent needs to devote whatever time is necessary to establish a relationship with every board member. Every board member – even the ones you don’t like – especially the ones you don’t like. Relationship built on respect, even when opinions differ,” he said.

Gentzel concluded, “What you need to have are some clear conversations. When the superintendent is hired, it’s not just about length of service. It’s about consistency expectations that we are in a direction for the next five years.”

Go to top