Leading a large school district is a complex endeavor. Your days are spent managing thousands of employees charged with educating tens or hundreds of thousands of students, overseeing budgets that can easily reach nine figures, and navigating a complex legal and political environment. It’s not unreasonable to think that given the skill set needed to tackle those challenges, a business school training could be a great complement to traditional education leadership pipelines — which usually involve experience as a teacher, principal, and central office administrator, accompanied by training at schools of education, before taking on the superintendent role.
In fact, Bellwether’s Eight Cities project includes several examples where leaders with business backgrounds have overseen reforms that led to better outcomes for kids, including Joel Klein in New York City, Michael Bennet in Denver, and Paymon Rouhanifard in Camden. (Our site also includes examples of districts led by superintendents with more traditional backgrounds as teachers and school administrators, like Henderson Lewis in New Orleans.)
But efforts to infuse business skills into the superintendent role are still met with fierce criticism. Take for example the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation,* which recently gave Yale’s School of Management $100 million to house the Foundation’s efforts to develop a pipeline of public school leaders. Diane Ravitch and like-minded folks on Twitter are describing this as another step towards the “privatization” of public education.
Broad’s expansion and move to Yale is but the latest in an ongoing debate about the ideal skill sets for transformative district leaders. Should they be well-versed in pedagogical theory, curriculum design, and classroom management practices, or should their expertise be grounded in the leadership of large organizations and management of multi-million dollar budgets?
A better question would be: why should a large district have to choose? The Broad-Yale partnership could help strengthen public school leadership by adding new and complementary skill sets so that superintendents can benefit from the best of both worlds.
The traditional path of a superintendent (teacher to principal to central office to superintendent) may provide leaders with a strong grounding in the day-to-day operation of schools and classrooms, but it can also leave them unprepared for the political and fiscal challenges of leading a district. This is why four years ago, AASA, The School Superintendents Association, created their own superintendent certification program to help leaders build the skills they need to successfully lead a school district.
The Broad approach builds on this recognition. The Broad Foundation has been helping prepare education leaders since 2002 through The Broad Residency and Broad Academy, which have trained scores of people for superintendent and other education leadership roles, including many lifelong educators, outside of a university setting. This new partnership with Yale aims to continue the Broad approach to educational leadership development while also collecting data on leaders in public education and developing new research for the field.
It’s an approach that evolved alongside new approaches to district leadership, management, and improvement strategy. Many large school systems have moved away from the traditional “feeder” system of schools, in which students are assigned to an elementary school based on their home address and each elementary school feeds into a specific middle and high school. More districts now offer options such as intra-district choice (like magnet programs and specialized schools), inter-district choice, and public charter schools. Additionally, school systems are granting more and more autonomy for school-level leaders to manage personnel, programs, and budgets. But that kind of transformation doesn’t happen without leadership that understands how to manage change and develop leaders in complex, decentralized organizations.
That said, The Broad Center model isn’t necessarily the way all school system leaders should be prepared. While managerial expertise is a strength of The Broad Center and the Yale School of Management, the leaders they produce — as well as the organizations that will hire these leaders — ought to be aware of their potential individual blind spots and weaknesses. They will need support from a strong team with a wide range of skills and experiences to effectively lead school districts. Even though they may enter their role with an Ivy League business school credential, they should also have the humility to leverage the expertise and experience of other leaders with a variety of skill sets, perspectives, and training backgrounds.
Yale School of Management’s new Broad Center should help provide large school systems with leaders that have skill sets that complement, but don’t entirely replace, the skills of leaders trained at traditional schools of education. More importantly, it can help ensure that more districts are able to build leadership teams that include both business savvy and educational expertise.
*The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation and The Broad Center are both former clients and funders of Bellwether Education Partners. I maintained full editorial control of this post.