Duncan: Superintendent prep programs must change

Even more than theory, superintendents need hands-on vocational training, Sec. Duncan said.
Superintendents need hands-on vocational training, Sec. Duncan said.

States and school systems, with the help of the federal government, must work harder to improve the way superintendents are trained and prepared to lead the nation’s schools, Education Secretary Arne Duncan told attendees of the American Association of School Administrators’ annual conference Feb. 12.

Duncan, himself a former superintendent of the Chicago Public Schools, said policy makers should question whether the requirements in superintendent certification programs accurately reflect what we know about effective school district leadership.

“Successful superintendents don’t just need a Ph.D. in educational administration,” Duncan said. “Even more than educational theory, superintendents need hands-on vocational training. Superintendents require business skills, expertise in dealing with the media, the ability to negotiate with a variety of stakeholders, and a command of budgeting. Those skills are hard to acquire in a classroom.”

Duncan cited the example of Thomas Payzant, the former superintendent of Boston, who served as superintendent in five different states. Each time, Duncan said, he had to take a new course to be certified as a superintendent.

“Once, he took a course in special education, a subject he could have taught better than the instructor,” Duncan said of Payzant. “In another state, he took a textbook-based course in how to teach elementary reading, where he filled in bubbles on multiple-choice quizzes. Those courses were a waste of his time.”

Superintendent prep programs should be more outcome-based and grounded in evidence of what really works in the classroom, Duncan said. They also should do a better job of tracking the effectiveness of superintendents after they leave the program, he added.

“The truth is that few superintendent preparation programs track their graduates to see how many actually become superintendents,” Duncan said. “[And] no preparation program—with the exception of the Broad Academy for Superintendents—tracks the impact of superintendents on student achievement. That has got to change.”

President Obama has included a new program in his 2011 budget proposal to help improve preparation for school district leaders, Duncan said. The Teacher and Leader Pathways program would set aside $170 million for training principals and other school district leaders—more than five times the funding available last year for leadership programs.

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