The First Lever of Success for Superintendents


In this era of new accountability brought by pushback against No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the signing of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), it is important to consider: What levers do superintendents and their central offices have that will ensure success?

In my view, the levers have not changed as a result of the evolving accountability systems, which will hopefully become more meaningful for schools due to broader, more appropriate measures of achievement. This would include, for example, consideration of students’ social-emotional health. The key mechanisms that superintendents have now, as I believe they have had in the past, are these three:

  1. Define a clear theory of action for school improvement by defining a discrete number of “non-negotiables” for all schools.
  2. Support schools by leveraging the district’s principal supervisors to enhance principals’ instructional leadership and hold principals accountable for continuous improvement.
  3. Manage performance of schools, by defining and tracking valid measures of implementation of defined non-negotiables.

In this article, I focus on lever 1 — defining a clear theory of action. In upcoming issues I will address the other two levers.

Theory of action sounds like a lot of jargon, but it is really just the leadership’s set of beliefs for how schools will improve. A district’s theory of action is often thought of existing on a continuum of school management approaches. At one end of the continuum — a “centrally managed” approach — the central office controls many inputs required for an excellent education, including hiring of staff, resource allocation, curriculum and assessment and professional development. At the other end of the continuum — a “school-based management” approach — the central office empowers schools to make most decisions related to how and who delivers an excellent education to students. 

Research has found challenges and benefits to both the centrally managed and the school-based management approach (see Figure 1), and, in reality, most districts fall somewhere between the two far ends of the school-management spectrum. For a school-based management approach, drawbacks include a reduction in the number of tools that the central office has to ensure that all students are receiving an excellent education regardless of neighborhood, family income, ethnicity, primary language spoken or disability. These tools become increasingly important as student mobility increases and student achievement levels off in some schools.

Figure 1. School Management Approaches: Potential Benefits and Challenges

Although there is no “correct” position, research finds that districts must be purposeful in identifying their placement on the school-management continuum and then make decisions related to central-office organizational structure and staffing, systems, use of resources, and school-improvement strategies that are consistent with their selected approach.

Figure 2 outlines the key areas of emphasis that should be taken for each.

Figure 2. Ideal Points of Emphasis for School Management Approaches

My organization, Cross and Joftus, works with districts along the entire school-management curriculum. For example, Kentucky state law actually mandates that districts take a school-based management approach, and Fayette County Public Schools — which includes Lexington — currently has no initiatives that all schools must implement. On the other hand, the District of Columbia Public Schools has over the last few years ratcheted up requirements that schools must implement.

Figure 2

Again, neither of these approaches is wrong or right. What is critical is that school systems are clear about their approach and create systems and structures, and leverage resources and stakeholders, in ways that are consistent with the theory of action that they have purposefully selected.

Next issue I will discuss how the strategic use of principal supervisors can ensure effective implementation of the theory of action.

Scott Joftus, a partner at Cross & Joftus, is very familiar with the workings of state education agencies and local school districts from his many years in the education field as a teacher, the director of an education policy firm, a head of an education policy consulting group, and the leader of an education advocacy organization. He is also a well-seasoned evaluator of education programs, having conducted numerous evaluations for states and districts. Scott is now putting that experience to good use with the national rollout of The Learning Network, a new approach to school system improvement, and as the senior strategic advisor and technical assistance provider of the Race to the Top Technical Assistance Network a $43 million initiative funded by the U.S. Department of Education to support bold reforms and dramatic improvements in student achievement in states across the country. (email:

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