Josh Starr is the CEO of PDK International. He spent twenty-two years in public schools, as a special education teacher in Brooklyn, a central office leader in the New York City metro area, and ten years as a Superintendent of Schools, in both Stamford, CT and Montgomery County, MD. In light of elevated tensions around race and justice in this country, Josh wanted to share a series of practical steps for education leaders.
For ten years I was a superintendent of two very diverse school systems – Stamford, Connecticut and Montgomery County, Maryland. For school system leaders, the summer should be a time of reflection and planning for the upcoming school year. In the face of violence being perpetrated on Black Americans by government-funded employees who are supposed to protect citizens, and in light of increased attacks against students who are Muslim, LGBT, immigrants, or just simply not white, I believe system leaders, especially superintendents, need to confront this head on. Superintendents lead public institutions and therefore have the responsibility to confront institutional racism if we are to move towards truly living up to our potential and ideals as Americans. I believe educators are the keepers of that potential, but today’s times call for new actions. Here are some of my thoughts, in no particular priority order, about what superintendents must do. Full disclosure – I succeed at doing some of these, failed at others, and never got to a few. This is an aspirational list, as well as what I hope can become a new conditional list of requirements for superintendents. And, if you are not prepared to take on these issues, you do not deserve to be an educator. The list is incomplete, and I hope others add to it.
1. Read. Go out of your comfort zone and then share what you’re reading with your internal and external communities. Use it as an opportunity for collective learning. Start with James Baldwin’s 1963 speech “A Talk to Teachers;” Gloria Ladson Billings, 2008 AERA speech on the Education Debt; Lisa Delpit, Other People’s Children; Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States; Freire/Horton, We Make the Road by Walking; Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow, Ta-Naheisi Coates, Between the World and Me; Jeff Duncan-Andrade, Pedro Nogeura, recent blogs by Sabrina Joy Stevens, Jose Vilson, Jessie Hagopian and others in the #educolor movement.
2. Look at policies. Ensure your district has equity and curriculum policies that are clear about what students should know and be able to do and that all students must have access to an instructional environment that promotes that knowledge and skills and necessary supports if they need it. If such policies don’t exist, start working with your board to develop them.
3. Clarify your message. Be clear and relentless about your core values and those of your district. Be clear and relentless about what adults need to do in service of children. Be clear and relentless that all children deserve to feel valued, loved and safe, and that as educators, we have a special responsibility to our kids of color.
4. Review content. Ask your curriculum and instruction team to review all content for cultural competence and take steps to ensure that curriculum and materials are respectful and inclusive of multiple cultures. Engage teachers and leaders of color in this initiative and be public about it. Crowd source it, as there are more culturally proficient materials out there than some might imagine or are on the state-approved publisher contract lists (see American Reading Company materials for a good example).
5. Review employee turnover data and flag patterns where there's disproportionality. Talk to educators of color about their experiences. Ensure there are exit interviews so that employees who leave (including non-certified staff such as paraeducators) can give honest perspectives about the climate within the school. Make sure that your principal evaluation procedures can take into account climate and turnover issues; if it doesn’t, put that into your next negotiations.
6. Reduce suspensions of students. Now. Send a clear message to principals that sending students out of the building to fix themselves after they’ve committed a transgression will not help them change that behavior. Students don’t miraculously change behaviors by being pushed away; the opposite is true, they change behaviors when pulled in and held close. Coordinate the moral imperative of suspension reduction with a commensurate effort to train staff in restorative justice and similar programs. Be very attentive to the messages that are being sent to the public about the need to reduce suspensions and explain why we need to break the school-to-prison pipeline.
7. Analyze your budget to see if resources are allocated according to student need. Make sure your budget reflects your district’s values and policies and that the children who need the most are getting the most. Yes, politics are a factor here, as the most vocal parents are typically the most entitled, but be clear, consistent, comprehensive and fact-based in designing and communicating a budget that reflects students’ needs. Look at your Title funds too, as you can be more creative than you might think (see FedEd group for guidance on this).
8. Engage with community leaders and families, and not just the usual suspects. Summon your best active listening skills and reach out to faith-based leaders, community leaders (formal and informal), and key communicators. Don’t rely on the same structures that have always existed, although they need to be engaged as well, they don’t usually comprise the non-entitled. Model this for others.
9. Elevate student voice, listen to their stories, talk to them individually and in large and small groups. Be sure to really listen. Answer their questions respectfully and honestly. Model this for others and tell everyone what you’ve heard. Be sure to talk to students who might not be formal leaders, or who have been in trouble, or are just plain-old-average. Be sure to engage with English language learners and special education students too.
10. Engage teachers, support professionals and leaders, listen to their voices. Try to understand their underlying fears and concerns while also being non-negotiable about your expectations. It’s really hard to learn new approaches and many white educators especially don’t know how to confront their privilege. Teach them by being a partner in the learning process.
11. Negotiate equity, social-emotional learning, and cultural competency into formal evaluation systems. Work with your bargaining units to create appropriate language, use National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers language as models, as both have taken stands on institutional racism.
12. Be absolutely unequivocal in the message that relationships matter and learning doesn't happen without love. Yes, outcomes matter, yes, academics are important. But teaching is a social enterprise, and if children – especially children of color – don’t feel valued, respected and loved in classrooms, they won’t meet our expectations.
13. Analyze your data to determine whether non-academic needs are getting in the way of student achievement. If students are hungry, feed them; if they need support beyond the school day, work with community agencies to get it for them. Develop or purchase an early-warning-indicator system to identify kids that are in danger of dropping out and use the results at the school, district and community level to organize wrap-around supports for kids and families. Look at disproportionality in special education students and English language learners in identification and suspensions.
13. If students are being tracked, stop it. The public education system is the great sorting mechanism for American society. This has done immeasurable harm to generations of children. Look at district policies and procedures for identifying gifted and talented students, academic levels, magnet/choice programs, etc. Review the data, make it public, convene the right people to start dismantling it, consult with lawyers if necessary and Just. Do. It.
14. Measure engagement, hope and well-being, mainly of students, but also of employees. People need to be happy and engaged in their work in order to produce their best. They need to know that hard work will lead to improvement; that’s the basis of hope.
15. Never forget that you’re learning too. The superintendency can be a brutal job, but a wonderful privilege. No one will ever fully understand what you go through and why you had to make the decisions you did, and everyone expects that you have the answer to everything. Don’t become too enamored with your own expertise and past success; learn from and with others about how to lead from a social justice stance.
16. Don't be afraid to get fired for standing up for what you believe in.