"Our Voice" NJ Leaders

Earlier this summer I emailed over a hundred NJ School Superintendents and asked for their support in starting a page that would share the opinions of some of our leaders across the state. The intention is to create a central page where people can come to hear from and about NJ school districts from the perspective of the superintendent. This is a work in progress and I suspect it will change and grow with time. Enjoy...

Hello Paul & Gordon by David Gentile

Email to authors P. Knowles & G. Donaldson in response to Frontline/our view
School Administrator Magazine

I felt compelled to email the authors from a recent article in School Administrator. They wrote about the superintendent talent or lack of in the August 2012 issue. My response is below:

Hello Paul & Gordon

While I was reading your recent article in School Administrator I was struck cold by some of the comments and thought I would throw my response back to you for comment. ( I will let you know if they respond) * Paul Knowles response below:


Thanks for your response to our article. The article is by no means stating there are not strong, strong, effective, and experienced leaders like yourself, who love the hard leadership work needed in today's school systems. More to the point, we 
are advocating that school boards and policy makers need to more fully understand the demands of the superintendency and provide more support in developing the relationships with their superintendents, being more involved and passionate about

helping to set the course for the future of their school systems in a more balanced and consistent way, rather than individual or political agendas, and finally advocating for more ways to support superintendents' growth and professional 
development. Our slice of reality in Maine is that there are currently 40 +/-superintendent positions open. Many are being filled with temporary interim individuals. Most superintendent searches attract only 4-6 candidates, of which maybe two are

highly qualified and viable. In many cases repeated searches attract no candidates. I teach the Superintendent Internship Class at UMaine. I had seven interns last year, Only one student moved into a superintendency. Your right, we need to also 
accentuate the positive...the good work which is being accomplished by superintendents like yourself, and why the job can be rewarding.

Thanks again for your response.


You wrote, "When one of us recently contacted a friend who is a practicing superintendent to ask about his well-being, his response was a dejected, "I am still here"...his comment was just another sign of a crisis in school system leadership that's unfolding across the nation. Just when school systems need strong, effective superintendents more than ever, school boards are finding few, if any, highly qualified, well-trained and experienced individuals eagerly seeking these key leadership positions"

So, on one hand, I want to believe you are advocating for greater respect for the chief education officer aka superintendent, but on the other, I could not help to insecurely wonder if this somehow implied that I am not a "strong, effective, experienced" leader? Is there research that supports that boards of education are really having trouble finding applicants? If so, I would be interested in seeing it. When people say "why would I want to be a superintendent" I would stop trying to convince them…as there are so many amazing reasons to be a school superintendent - I don't want anyone joining the team as a chief education officer if they are put off by a little adversity. For example, in good old NJ, we have had our throats basically stepped on by our Governor, criticized by the public, but still, I skip into work everyday excited about the positive change happening in my district. I am excited about my job – matter of fact – I love it! I am probably not exactly the standard some may be looking for, as I am only 37 years old, became a superintendent at the age of 33 – not sure exactly how that happened but...nevertheless, I am an active Twitter'er, I love to express my views on my blog, and I have data – real data– that proves our efforts here in Millville are paying off for our kids. I think in the absence of those who had to retire from the position of superintendency recently (in NJ it was mostly because they would have to take large salary cuts with our new state caps) there have been many new, creative, exceptional, strong, effective new school superintendents and leaders willing to take the reins. Such as Steve Engravalle, Eric Hibbs, Chris Manno…etc….I could go on.

Since we don't know each other, and email can be a bit of a bugger when trying to figure out exactly what is this person saying…I will try to be as clear as possible. I love being a superintendent, I love people who ask interesting questions or point out interesting ideas in an effort to make things better, I believe being a superintendent is a great honor and  like spiderman, a great responsibility….so I am not sure why anyone (your friend the practicing superintendent) would show up to a job if the best they can muster is "I am still here"- perhaps that is a sign they should not still be there - so next time you want to write about the state of the superintendency, give me a call — I will give a slightly different take on the state of the superintendency.

I feel that complaining about how tough it is for us superintendents only hurts our mission. Let's focus on the great work so many of us are doing, talk about how much we sacrifice for our districts, and despite the odds we still get results as a means to garner greater respect for our profession.

Some tips for other superintendents wanting to overcome isolation, get on Twitter, start your Professional Learning Network (I did thanks to innovators like Eric Sheninger. Now I have a great support system and the best part is its free, anytime, anywhere)



Charting a Personal Path
By Charles B. Sampson
Superintendent of Schools
Freehold Regional High School District

I enjoyed a presentation by Doug Reeves this past week. A brief component of the afternoon focused on the need for short term wins to promote positive change within schools, particularly when involved in an extended Strategic Planning Process where goals may be overwhelming, distant and intangible to the school community.  See Reeves thoughts on Saving Strategic Planning from Strategic Planners here: Reeves

I was energized to draw connections between Reeve’s work and our July Leadership Retreat, in which we collaborated to identify ways in which personal and organizational growth might overlap in the implementation of our Strategic Plan. To accomplish this complex task, we set about anchoring each administrator to a component of the larger plan in order to personalize the journey of achieving our long term goals by leveraging our varied passions for the work we perform as educators.

We honed in on our passions and committed to greatness.

We asked our team to write down what they were passionate about for this upcoming school year--what elements of their job both excited and refreshed them--and what were they particularly passionate about for the 2012-13 school year. We then required each administrator to note what they were going to do great this year to help fuel and sustain that passion. Finally, each administrator aligned their passions to a specific strategy within our Strategic Plan by articulating the connection, and then outlining a plan of action for this school year.

The activity was a smashing success for several reasons.

We reaffirmed and explicitly linked our educational passions to our Strategic Plan.

We made bold promises to live up to our passions with great work.

We each found a home within our Strategic Plan. The individual came together with the organization to establish a clear operational path to move forward for mutually beneficial growth that will allow us to better serve our students.

The activity also allowed me to refocus and reprioritize my work at FRHSD. You can come to work smiling each and every day, but only if you allow your passions to guide you.

Poverty and School Performance 7/30/12

Dr. Richard Katz, Superintendent
Clinton-Glen Gardner School District

More and more we hear assertions that America’s schools are failing, that New Jersey’s schools are failing.  There are also increasing comparisons between education systems in the US and Finland, with specific attention to the 2009 results of PISA where Finland scored first or second in math, reading and science.  Consequently, there are some who believe we should be competing with them and that we can learn from the Finnish model.

Simultaneously, others think that through changes with charter schools, teacher evaluation, school funding, common standards, student assessment, and school choice that we can improve our international test scores and student achievement.  Moreover, many are advocating for both the implementation of elements of the Finnish model and these reforms.

However, these beliefs are quite contradictory and two key points present as problematic.  First, the reforms fly in the face of the foundations of Finland's education system.  Second, the reforms and increased accountability measures do not address the larger national issue of poverty and its impact on student achievement.

A central focus of the Finnish system is the priority on local innovation and absence of standardized testing.  Actual teaching time in Finland is among the lowest in the world and teachers spend more time planning and collaborating than many school systems.  Their school days are shorter and students study less at home.  Becoming a teacher in Finland is a privilege; in fact, less than 10 percent of applicants become teachers.

Conversely, the US is stuck in conflict between an impetus for 21st Century instruction and an increasing spotlight on standardized testing and common curriculum.  By definition, "standardization" and "common" actually inhibit innovation and creativity.  In many parts of the US, the trend is towards extended school days, increased teaching time, and significant amounts of homework.  And while teacher quality is an enduring issue with calls for improved performance and preparation, we are in the midst of massive layoffs and waning resources for teacher training and development.  We are making teaching less attractive and more difficult to foster success.

A second problem with the direction of educational reform is that it appears less attention is paid to the strong negative effects on student performance of family poverty and concentrations of poverty in schools.  Iris Rothberg (George Washington University) claims the assumption that accountability, school choice, and common standards will solve our education problems is off-base.

America’s schools and New Jersey’s schools are not failing.  In the US, socioeconomic status of students accounted for almost 80% of the difference in reading performance between schools on the PISA.  When examined separately, affluent schools in the US scored among the best in the world.  

I agree with Dr. Rothberg that current policy deliberations touch the periphery of these realities and that tougher accountability and test score comparisons will not address the true problems of poverty and our country’s divide.  Historically, accountability measures have not resulted in meaningful improvements in student learning.

Despite this, we illogically continue developing new policies not employed and often discouraged by countries such as Finland whose results we seek to emulate.  While there is nothing wrong with holding professionals accountable for performance standards, what we really need is to reposition conversations and focus actions on the real targets; implementing known, proven practices and addressing issues of poverty.

Accountability at the Expense of Leadership: Creating Purpose and Meaning 7/25/12

Dr. Christopher M. Manno, Superintendent of Schools, Burlington Township, NJ

Our political and government leaders now more than ever appear to perseverate on the concept of "accountability." Here's a look at the idea of "accountability" perhaps from another angle. Achieving results and fostering productive team member performance are certainly the primary challenges of management and leadership. How does one motivate, inspire and enable team members to work together, and contribute to the accomplishment of a shared goal? Does it happen through traditional "levers", as espoused under federal education legislation and in recent conceptions of new teacher evaluation models, or is there another way?

In their landmark book, Gung Ho*, Blanchard and Bowles share three principles to release energy and enthusiasm into any organization. The first principle is that of Worthwhile Work. Each and every member of an organization must know that their work is Worthwhile - that the work makes the world a better place, and that they are working toward a shared goal. Work can only be Worthwhile when it is strongly grounded in the explicit and shared Values of the organization.

Work can only be Worthwhile when there are clearly stated, understood, and shared Mission, Vision and Goals. The Mission is the Purpose of the organization - why the organization exists. The Vision is the fully realized Mission - what it would look and feel like if the Mission were completely accomplished. The Goals are benchmarks or steps on the way to achieving the Purpose and realizing the Vision.

To be Gung Ho, an organization must also embrace two other principles - that employees are in control of achieving their goals, and  that there is regular and genuine congratulations for achievement. However, it all begins with Worthwhile Work - an organization cannot be Gung Ho unless its members really believe their work is Worthwhile, that it makes the world a better place - Values, Mission, Vision, Goals.

Most problems with individual and organizational performance are actually the failure to clearly communicate why each team member's work is Worthwhile, and to engage in authentic communication about why the work makes the world a better place. Most members wish to do work that truly matters, they wish to work for an organization that matters, and they wish to be successful and for their organization to be successful.

Therefore, job one as leaders and managers is to explicitly and repeatedly convey to every team member the way in which their work is Worthwhile. Each members' work may be Worthwhile in a different way. It's the leader's job to figure out how, and to convey it effectively. It is not until this message is understood and lived that team members can really focus on goals and achievement.

In the Burlington Township Schools, our Mission is to develop the intellectual, creative, and social potential of each of our students through an active partnership with all members of the community. As a school district, we value active learning, diversity, community and collaboration, and lifelong learning. Our Vision as a school system is one of ALL students achieving their highest potential. To realize this vision, we strive each and every day to provide the best programs and safest schools, to promote a highly engaged community, and to operate the most effective and efficient school district. Each year we adopt goals to accomplish this Mission, live these Values, and realize the Vision. That’s Worthwhile Work! We talk regularly about these ideas, and about how each and every decision, action, and initiative connects to the Values, Mission, Vision and Goals.

In our current age of accountability and "data-driven decision making," we as leaders must be able to identify the "problem" based on the data, and systematically and methodically design and implement interventions to fix "the problem." These skills are critically important. However, we often forget to tend to the soul, which requires Purpose and Meaning. Our human desire is to fully understand and believe that what we do matters - that it is Worthwhile. Until we do, nothing else really matters, and Gung Ho is not achievable.

* Gung Ho! means "working together" in Chinese, and is now commonly used to describe boundless enthusiasm, energy, and dedication applied to some task.