Extending Influence: Through the Governance Core

Co-authors of a new book highlight the strategies of effective, long-term superintendents in their dealings with board members
/School Administrator, April 2020

Michael Fullan, global leadership director at New Pedagogies for Deep Learning in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, studied superintendents who integrated governance with day-to-day actions.
It’s amazing to discover how little has been written about school system governance and the roles of trustees and superintendents as partners in reform at the district and state levels. We consider this to be a squandered opportunity as schools fail to progress in the way they should and could.

In a few cases, relationships between board of education members and superintendents are plagued by degrees of mutual conflict that inevitably render the school district ineffective, resulting in superintendent churn.

In many more cases, the district drifts along without dramatic events in governance but with limited progress on student growth. Nothing is more damning than the faint praise from a superintendent who states, “My board is great. They leave me alone.”

A Pair of Notables

We wrote the book The Governance Core to place the spotlight on district governance, especially school communities where we found superintendent-trustee relationships to be strong and effective. We wanted to uncover and spell out the features of good governance and offer specific guidance for how it could be improved in a way that would benefit everyone, especially all students and families.

We were drawn to the work of two California superintendents, Marc Johnson and Laura Schwalm, notably both long-serving. We readily note here the difficulty of getting superintendents in the early stages of their careers to talk publicly about how they relate to their trustees because of the real-time, public nature of the politics and personalities at play. Those with whom we talked and deemed to be on the right track covered much of the same ground that Johnson and Schwalm did. (See related story.)

The superintendents we studied took purposeful action to create trusting, cohesive relationships with their boards. The results, among other things, included much lower teacher turnover and greater student achievement.

Separating Politics
It helps to make the distinction between politics and governance. Politics is what happens around elections. It usually is partisan in nature. Governance is what should happen between elections. It consists of the day-to-day operation of the organization and should be for the benefit of all.

One of the key transitions for school board trustees is the transition from campaigning to governing. In the worst situations, politics carries over into daily administration, providing a constant distraction to the core business of the organization.

Governance differs from administration or curriculum and instruction. Instead, it is about the overall goals and direction of the district, its moral imperative and the main principles that guide the journey. Governance is a process for setting the direction of the organization, establishing the structure and ensuring financial and programmatic accountability. Generally, governance is about the what of the organization and administration is about the how.

If one cardinal rule of change management is emerging in system change, it is that direction must be jointly determined or otherwise treated as achieving unity of purpose. Effective superintendents work continuously at fostering unity of purpose with their boards of education, while simultaneously cultivating the same themes at all levels of the system.

Our vision is of a governance system, school board and superintendent working together as a cohesive, unified team with a common vision driven by a shared moral imperative. In essence, superintendents must take purposeful action in addressing governance, especially given the neglect of examining trustee-superintendent relationships.

Tenure as Causation?

We noticed the school districts that were most successful against the odds had superintendents with long tenures who had developed strong relationships with their boards. Were they just lucky? Is correlation, not causation, at work?

In some situations, a superintendent might get stuck with an impossible board or individual member. In such cases, it is possible to be a victim of bad luck. But such a situation is likely to be very much in the minority. Our main premise is that the vast majority of school board members are committed and dedicated to improving the public education system.

In the book, we feature five superintendents who were highly successful at integrating governance and day-to-day actions. All had great relationships with their school boards. What these leaders had in common — beyond at least 10 years of tenure in highly complex, challenging districts — were these characteristics:

»They knew how to be purposeful;

»They knew how to establish and maintain an internal moral compass;

»They could focus, focus, focus;

»They maintained a districtwide coherence; and

»They showed they were great teachers and facilitators with the board and the district staff.

Davis Campbell, senior policy fellow at the University of California, Davis, with Christina Murdoch, executive director of the university’s Superintendents Executive Leadership Forum.

Hidden Treasures

We have seen that core governance is about fostering cohesive conditions for implementing the moral imperative of all children learning. Further, this agenda includes internal cohesion at the board level, at the district and school levels and between the two levels. This requires superintendents to build teams and to participate as learners and forgers of purpose.

The moral imperative is front and center throughout the system. We find ourselves speculating that such a preoccupation and its relentless pursuit brings out the best in all people, including trustees. We believe that no matter the initial reason for joining the board, commitment to a shared moral imperative and a well-led governance system will build a strong foundation for sustainable excellence for all children.

We end with a seemingly simple, easy-to-overlook but exceedingly powerful human phenomenon: manner. High-performing superintendents understand that the best way for everyone to understand the importance of manner is to model the behavior and demeanor they expect from their trustees and staff (this doesn’t mean that anger over injustices has no place).

Everyone is watching the superintendent, but trustees even more so. The slightest innuendo can become magnified. Superintendents, much as the best classroom teachers operate, are better off if they demonstrate respect for everyone. Indeed, respecting those who might not appear to be fitting in may lead to hidden treasures of ideas, attitudes and energies.

MICHAEL FULLAN is global leadership director at New Pedagogies for Deep Learning in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Twitter: @michaelfullan1. DAVIS CAMPBELL, retired executive director of the California School Boards Association, is a senior policy fellow at the University of California, Davis. They are co-authors of The Governance Core: School Boards, Superintendents, and Schools Working Together (Corwin, 2019).