The recent DESE review of CPS did not include any explicitly evaluative comments about the Superintendent, but they had a lot to say about the Cambridge School Committee: uncollaborative (with the superintendent), fragmented, lacking a unified vision, exceeding their authority, and paying too much attention to the CPSparents listserve. In fact, DESE implicitly blamed the School Committee for low achievement in CPS schools, describing the Committee as “undermining an optimal collaboration with the superintendent to act proactively and strategically to improve student achievement.” Though they had many positive things to say about the CPS administration, they had nothing positive to say about the Cambridge School Committee.
The Superintendent apparently agreed with the DESE assessment (and may have been the source of some of the complaints), since he saw the report beforehand and offered no corrective then or during the DESE presentation of the report findings. He could have sought them out to try to collaboratively improve their relationship, but instead he allowed DESE to render their harsh judgment.
The question of what is the authority of a school committee and what is the authority of a superintendent, however, does not have a clear-cut answer. DESE’s view as expressed in the report is that “school committee members should recognize that the superintendent is the educational leader for the school system; the superintendent provides administrative leadership for all school staff in operational matters and in proposing and implementing policy changes.”
The DESE website, however, says that by state law, “the school committee establishes educational goals and policies for the schools in the district, consistent with the requirements of law and the statewide goals and standards established by the Board of Education….The superintendent employed by the school committee shall manage the system in a fashion consistent with state law and the policy determinations of the school committee.” It would seem then that state law envisions school committees as setting policies, with superintendents charged with following those policies and implementing them.
DESE elaborates with this contradictory recommendation:
We view the school committee as the publicly elected or appointed equivalent of a board of directors of a corporation, which in this case is a school system. The school committee has oversight of and responsibility for the school system, sets the direction in which the system must go, and establishes criteria to determine if its goals and policies are being met. The superintendent serves as the school committee’s chief executive officer and educational advisor. The superintendent is the educational leader for the school system, and provides administrative leadership for all school staff in operational matters and in proposing and implementing policy changes. Day-to-day operation of the school system is the responsibility of the superintendent, together with school principals and other administrative staff members.
This question of whether a superintendent is the “educational leader” when their role is to serve as the school committee’s “educational adviser” seems contradictory. Since when is an adviser a leader to the body that it advises? If, by law, school committees “establish educational goals and policies for the schools in their district,” why would the superintendent “provide leadership” in “proposing and implementing policy changes”?
The comparison DESE makes between a school committee and a board of directors of a corporation also is a poor fit. A corporation is a private entity, accountable only to its shareholders. A school committee is an elected government body accountable to the citizens of its municipality, and the monies used to fund the school system are not shareholder dollars but public taxpayer dollars. It is for this reason that elected bodies have responsibility and oversight over municipal departments: It is the public’s money and the public’s young people.
The Massachusetts Association of School Committees (MASC) seems to view school committee members as “leaders,” as evidenced by their mission statement: “The MASC mission is to achieve excellence in school committee leadership through advocacy, training and service.” Their guide to how school committees can engage in state-level lobbying is entitled “A School’s Leader’s Guide to Powerful Education Advocacy.” And their website announces that “three education leaders, Margaret McKenna, Katherine Craven, and Mary Ann Stewart [all school committee members in their local districts]— have been appointed by Governor Patrick to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.”
A sample MASC policy states:
The formulation and adoption of these written policies will constitute the basic method by which the School Committee will exercise its leadership in providing for the successful and efficient functioning of the school system. Through the study and evaluation of reports concerning the execution of its policies, the School Committee will exercise its control over school operation. Policies are principles adopted by a School Committee to chart a course of action. They tell what is wanted; they may include why and how much. Policies should be broad enough to indicate a line of action to be followed by the administration in meeting day-to-day problems, yet be specific enough to give clear guidance.
Who, then, is the leader? Is it the superintendent or the school committee? Is he their adviser or are they his advisers? DESE and MASC seem to have different views.