- David Stephens, superintendent of Barlett City Schools in suburban Memphis, had the rare opportunity to lead a brand new school district when he took on the role, District Administration reports.
- Stephens approached the new school district with a focus on raising ACT scores and better aligning CTE programs at the district's only high school with local industry, and his efforts have seen success with ACT scores rising from 19.4 to 21.5 since the district's launch in 2013.
- Stephens’ fiscally conservative approach has also led to the establishment of a separate 9th-grade academy that has improved attendance because students are able to on take on various student leadership roles that might be unavailable to them in a high school.
While most school superintendents never get the chance to help create a new district from scratch, they do get the chance to change their districts when they arrive. Taking on the challenge of a new district, whether it is new to the superintendent or new altogether, requires certain survival skills. However, once the first year is past, superintendents have a chance to reinvent schools at the district level. In fact, according to a 2004 study commissioned by the Wallace Foundation, the basics of successful school leaderships include setting directions, developing people, and redesigning the organization.
However, the matter of whether school superintendents have a great effect on student achievement is controversial. A report titled “What American School Districts Can Learn From How Israel Successfully Rotates Its Superintendents” states that “being assigned to a more effective superintendent meaningfully benefited a school’s academic performance. Test scores rose incrementally as superintendent quality improved, with the effects visible in students on either end of the socioeconomic divide.”
And the Wallace Foundation study previously mentioned stated: “It turns out that leadership not only matters: it is second only to teaching among school-related factors in its impact on student learning” and that “the impact of leadership tends to be greatest in schools where the learning needs of students are most acute.” However, a more recent 2014 study by the Brookings Institution revealed that superintendents generally account for a small fraction (0.3%) of student differences in achievement.