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Do superintendents matter?
Superintendent Tom Boasberg, left, and Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) discuss education policy with Salvador Carrera, host of Educa Radio, a Spanish language radio program for parents with children in the Denver Public School system. - photo by Mercedes White
Tom Boasberg had his work cut out for him.

As the new superintendent of Denver Public Schools, one of the largest urban school districts in the country, he faced the daunting challenge of improving lagging student performance after being appointed in 2010. It wouldnt be easy: 80 percent of students in the district are minorities, 40 percent are English-language learners, and two-thirds qualify for free or reduced lunch.

Recent studies have called into question the impact a superintendent can have on student performance, but it seems Boasberg's efforts have made a difference. Since 2010, Hispanic graduation rates have increased by 80 percent, their dropout rates have fallen by 50 percent, their reading proficiency has increased by 50 percent and math proficiency has increased by 140 percent, according to data from the Colorado Department of Education. The improvements seen in Boasbergs first four years serve as evidence that at least some superintendents can have a significant impact on student performance.

Superintendent impact

Superintendents are often a focus of local education politics, but their role is regularly overlooked in the national debate. Still, the decisions a superintendent makes can affect tens of thousands of students and determine budgets that total over $1 billion, according to Becca Bracy Knight, executive director of the Broad Center, a nonprofit organization that provides training for individuals interested in becoming superintendents.

For example, after considering a range of conventional approaches to improving student performance, Boasberg and his team decided to focus district resources on engaging parents. All the research shows a positive relationship between student performance and parental involvement, Boasberg said.

But how do you engage parents when they dont speak English?

Their solution: a Spanish-language radio show called Educa Radio targeted to parents of school-aged children. The show covers everything from bullying to how to make appointments with teachers, said Salvador Carrera, host of Educa Radio and director of Multicultural Languages and Outreach Services for DPS. It even includes a segment where parents can call in to ask questions.

Educa Radio is an example of a program that wouldnt exist without a superintendents support, according to Carrera. The idea has been around for a while, but Tom was the first Superintendent to say: This is a great idea. This is something we need to do to help parents be more involved. he said. "Tom put the resources together, created the Multicultural Outreach Office, and found a media partner to make Educa Radio possible."

Are superintendents indistinguishable?

A September 2014 study from the Brookings Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, may call into question the Broad Foundation's focus on superintendents. Analyzing the performance of students in Florida and North Carolina, Brookings Institute senior fellow and study co-author Matt Chingos, found that superintendents account for only 0.3 percent of student differences in achievement. Furthermore, the study showed that it is difficult to identify highly effective superintendents. Chingos and his co-authors believe their data makes it clear that at least in the short-term, the impact of teachers, principals and schools is orders of magnitude greater than that associated with superintendents."

Still, Chingos acknowledges that superintendents are responsible for important factors not captured in the study - like finances and school lunch - and that the study did not attempt to answer the important question of whether superintendents have a long-term impact on the effectiveness of district administration. Furthermore, given the number of students in some districts, a 0.3 percent increase in student achievement across the board can be significant.

Bracy Knight challenges the conclusion that superintendents are not important. She also points out the results may be influenced by the difficulty in finding superintendents who can handle the job. 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, she wrote in a September opinion piece for the Huffington Post. Saying superintendents have no impact on schools is like saying the President has no impact on the economy."

Superintendents school

The idea that leaders matter, but that good ones are hard to find, was the reason behind the creation of The Broad Academy, a program Bracy Knight oversees as executive director of the Broad Center. The academy is funded by Eli Broad, a billionaire American entrepreneur and philanthropist. Candidates from inside and outside education are recruited for the program and then trained to work in urban school districts around the country.

Eli Broad hadnt thought much about the importance of superintendents until 2000 when he was asked to be a member of a superintendent search committee for the Los Angeles Unified School District. He started to see how incredibly complex the job was, Knight said. Broad worried that many of the candidates he met for the position at LA Unified didnt have the skills and experience to be successful in the job. Candidates with a background in education didn't have management experience and those with management experience struggled to understand the experiences of teachers, principals and parents. Broad decided that one solution would be to seek out candidates with potential to be great leaders and fill in the gaps in their knowledge.

Tom Boasberg is an example of the kind of person trained in the superintendents academy. Prior to joining DPS, the Stanford-educated lawyer worked to help Hong Kong transition from British to Chinese rule. I had lot of experience with change management, said Boasberg, but through [superintendents academy] I got exposure to national best practices in education and was able to participate in in-depth dialogues with leading educators. A few years after Boasberg's graduation from the academy Denver students are already seeing the benefits from having a skilled leader at the helm of their district. We still have a long way to go, Boasberg said, but Im proud of the progress we have made.
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