February 7, 2011 | last updated June 1, 2012 9:40 am
OTHER VOICES

Leadership matters to maintain momentum of school reform

Eric Daniels
Christine Marcks

Hartford cannot afford to be complacent about education despite the extraordinary gains made over the past four years as the first steps of its school-reform work were taken. Considerable work remains to be done.

Our challenge now is to maintain this great momentum. Research published by the Harvard Business School suggests that seven out of 10 major change efforts fail. While Hartford's school performance is indeed improving, the early success of its massive change effort remains fragile. This is underscored by the impending retirement of Superintendent Steven Adamowski, who has ably led the school-reform effort in Hartford for the past four years.

Sadly, the achievement gap between school districts in Connecticut is still greater than anywhere else in the United States. While reflecting a serious economic issue for our area, perhaps more troubling is what this says about our moral obligation to our children and their futures. How Hartford maintains and, we hope, accelerates the momentum of positive school change will, in fact, define our economic and civic well-being for decades to come.

As the Board of Education seeks its next superintendent, highly effective leadership for the next phase of Hartford's school reform — sustaining and building on the gains made to date — could not be more pivotal for our Capitol city, its families, and the region as a whole. While strong leadership and a commitment to reform are essential from the city's mayor and its Board of Education, we cannot expect to build on and increase the momentum in school reform without vision, operational expertise, and a strong community presence from the superintendent.

To that end, ongoing, long-term change will require the following commitments from Hartford's next superintendent:

• Advancing and building upon reforms already made;

• Providing strong, innovative, reform-minded leadership; and

• Building greater and lasting support for reform strategies among all education stakeholders.

Long-term success will also require effective leadership.

First, we cannot turn away from the results achieved. All participants in Hartford's education process — particularly the next superintendent — must commit to building on the foundation that's been put in place over the past four years. While not perfect, the reform is clearly working. As such, the city's next school leader must come with an exceptional and demonstrable record of continuous improvements in teaching and learning; a focus on accountability for performance and effective use of data; and a record of promoting school-level autonomy and school choice.

In addition, our next school leader must demonstrate an unyielding commitment to what is in a student's best interest — and the ability to make hard decisions in an environment of competing forces and financial uncertainty. Our next leader must create and sustain a culture of high expectations that is responsive to the needs of urban children. Most importantly, success in the next phase of reform will require an effective, purposeful communicator who can connect with the community, educators, and parents.

Finally, lasting improvement will require that all concerned commit to working together. Proof of success in strengthening school-community partnerships, in earning community trust, and in cultivating support among all involved to create better education outcomes should be prerequisites for this job, as should a commitment to the effort for at least five years.

Hartford residents need to believe that positive change can take place: they must trust their schools and their superintendent. The new leader's ability to earn that trust — to generate the support necessary for widespread, sustainable success — will be difficult to gauge but crucial for our community.

Albert Einstein once noted that "the world is not dangerous because of those who do harm, but because of those who look at it without doing anything." For four years, Hartford has been doing something, and we are better for it. Its reform effort is well under way — and showing results — and it needs to continue. Thankfully, we've moved beyond the first, difficult phase of initiating change. But four years of positive momentum will quickly vanish if Hartford's next superintendent does not make the commitments or demonstrate the leadership needed for continued growth and sustainability.

Eric D. Daniels, a partner at Robinson & Cole, chairs the Board of Directors of Achieve Hartford. Christine C. Marcks is the president of Prudential Retirement. Achieve Hartford is an independent, nonprofit organization of business and community leaders that focuses on student achievement and supporting effective and sustained reform in the Hartford Public Schools.

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