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Leadership Transition by




Steve WebbAcademic improvement happens when effective leaders have ample time to implement broad, sustainable reform. Timothy Waters and Robert Marzano’s study of 30 years of leadership research for McREL points to a statistically significant link between superintendent tenure and student achievement.

Their 2006 report states: “The positive correlation between the length of superintendent service and student achievement affirms the value of leadership stability and of a superintendent remaining in a district long enough to see the positive impact of his or her leadership on student learning and achievement. Of equal significance is the implication of this finding for school boards as they frequently determine the length of superintendent tenure in their districts.”

Despite the documented need for constancy of purpose, priorities and initiatives to sustain improvement, too many school districts lurch from one superintendent to the next. The large-city superintendency, in particular, is held by leaders who tend to exit after just a few years on average.

Private-Sector Model
In contrast, the 23,000-student Vancouver, Wash., Public Schools has used a leadership succession-planning model for its superintendent transitions for the past generation. This process, more common in the private sector, has enabled the district, which is located in southwest Washington with both urban and suburban features, to be run by just three superintendents in 33 years.

The continuity of school district leadership is intended and expected in our community. Our model is straightforward: Conduct a national search for a superintendent successor well in advance; hire an experienced superintendent into a supporting second-in-command role; ask the sitting superintendent to mentor the successor; and provide a significant high-stakes visible leadership task that requires the successor to demonstrate leadership talents, skills and abilities.

I became Vancouver’s superintendent successor and deputy superintendent in July 2006 and superintendent two years later. My first-year transition focused deliberately on two outcomes: (1) listening and learning and (2) building relationships. During that time, I conducted a needs assessment while anchoring productive and positive connections within the district and community.

In the second year of the transition, I facilitated a strategic planning process that built upon the district’s first long-range plan. Hundreds of community and staff members were involved in this yearlong conversation to shape a hopeful future and an ambitious agenda for Vancouver Public Schools. This process culminated with the board adopting a new strategic plan in January 2008, shortly before I assumed the superintendency.

Deliberate transitions are evolutionary, not revolutionary. Superintendent selection should be about finding the right match to develop a focused, high-performing governance team that is clear about its mission, values and beliefs, and vision for improved student achievement. Our district manages senior executive transitions in a similar way, albeit in a compact time frame. As Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, would say, it is about getting the right people on the bus.

A Better Way
Planned succession is intentionally systemic and future-oriented, focused on leadership continuity, ongoing improvement and sustainability of purpose. So what evidence supports the claim that this transition model results in improved student outcomes and community support?

Decline in poorly performing schools. In Vancouver, the number of schools identified by the Washington State Board of Education Achievement Index as “struggling” decreased from six schools to two since 2008-09. During the same period, the number identified as top-tier increased from five schools to 20.

Higher proficiency. Ninety percent of seniors in the most recent graduating class met the state high school proficiency standard in math. Nearly 100 percent met the proficiency standard in reading and writing.

Higher-level course taking. Over the past decade, the percentage of high school students enrolled in Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses increased from 6 percent to 46 percent, with enrollment in these classes growing from 379 students to 3,438 students.

College credits. Forty-six percent of the Class of 2012 graduates were eligible for college credit through their dual-credit program in high school.

More graduates. The district’s on-time graduation rate increased nearly 10 percentage points over the past two years.

Public buy-in. Voters in the community continued a 50-year tradition of supporting district levy measures.

Moving to No. 2
Before coming to Vancouver, I was superintendent of a midsized district in Southern California. The willingness of candidates — including sitting superintendents — to apply for a superintendent successor position communicates they are driven less by power and status and more by principles, values and beliefs. Not every ego can tolerate a move from No. 1 to No. 2.

Regardless of role, title or number of academic degrees, education leaders must serve students, families and communities first. Those who don’t understand this commitment need to catch a different bus. A planned leadership succession process identifies leaders who possess the appropriate values and are dedicated to ensuring that all students are future-ready.

Steven Webb is superintendent of Vancouver Public Schools in Vancouver, Wash. E-mail: Steven.Webb@vansd.org


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