During a recent conference I attended, the topic of leadership requirements for superintendents was a huge discussion point. As expected, areas such as instruction, operations and business, and communications all ranked highly, but the idea of political leadership was seen as becoming increasingly important for the success of school leaders. It used to be, that aspiring superintendents were taught to be apolitical; not to engage in school board elections or legislative issues until called upon to do so. That sort of thinking seems out of date when mapped out to current conditions and challenges confronting education.
Increasingly, many school board elections are not run with local constituents trying to solve local issues. National groups, with clear agendas, are running candidates across the country to further their national goals. Donors, with deep pockets, are funding more school board races with candidates pledged to these national agendas. At the legislative level, similar legislation is being introduced across the country focused on addressing perceived problems in schools that most educators agree are not occurring. Superintendents who wait to address these challenges are often removed from their positions as they are caught being reactive rather than proactive.
So, what is required of today’s school leaders? It begins with superintendents going all in on advocating for a children-focused agenda; and, that means all children. Meeting the academic and social-emotional needs of all students requires specific actions and programs in schools that must be championed even when defined incorrectly by some seeking political advantage. Superintendents must be more proactive in framing what is actually occurring in schools and not ignore attacks with misinformation, or distorted facts. Left unchecked, these fear-mongering narratives become accepted as truth. Leaders must form relationships on both sides of the political spectrum at the state and local level and be involved early in draft legislation; to not do so means accepting what gets through the legislative process with enormous lobbying efforts from those whose focus is often not all children.
Ultimately, superintendents have to decide what to fall on the sword for in their roles. This was a concept presented to me during a superintendent preparation program. School leaders cannot fall on the sword for everything or nothing gets done. But, superintendents, who lead with strong core values and advocate for a children-focused agenda, know the areas of priority. By engaging in a new form of proactive political leadership, more superintendents can shape policies and legislation that help make schools better and not have to lose their jobs doing so.