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Toolkit: Advice for New Superintendents

Practical tools to help new superintendents be strategic and effective - whether it's your first time in the role or just new to a community

A New Superintendent's Perspective

A new superintendent in a mid-sized urban district closes the door to her office at the end of “day one.” The district faces some tough challenges: unacceptably low student outcomes, a stubborn achievement gap, a shortage of teachers in key subjects and schools, new more rigorous state standards, and a $20 million budget deficit. The mayor wants progress in the school system before the city election in two years, and several community groups are eager to get the superintendent's ear. She feels very deeply her responsibility to improve thousands of children’s lives.

Where to turn?

A New Superintendent's Challenge

New superintendents face big challenges when it comes to putting the system’s resources behind a coherent and effective strategy:

  1. Understanding the lay of the land. New superintendents must understand how resources are currently allocated, and whether that reflects the school system's values and strategy. Next, leaders need to identify the big shifts in resources that have the best potential to improve student outcomes—not just fill budget gaps or preserve past policies.
  2. Weighing trade-offs.  Strategic superintendents know that you can do anything, but you can't do everything. (Well, perhaps not anything, but often a lot more than you think!) New superintendents have to assess the tradeoffs (political and otherwise) of potential decisions and deliberately balance risk and return.
  3. Moving quickly. Major decisions often have to be made well in advance of the fiscal year, due to annual budget processes. New superintendents should seek to understand the budget development and school planning cycles as early as possible, to be sure they can advance crucial reforms at the right time. 

Whether new to the role of school system chief, or a seasoned veteran in a new city, new superintendents must establish priorities, make but tough but strategic resource decisions, and lead the districts’ hundreds of employees. In this overwhelming role, they can learn from the experiences of other leaders. The New Superintendent Toolkit we gathered below is designed to help leaders assess how resources are currently allocated, identify strategic priorities, make resource trade-offs that align to their goals, and learn lessons from other leading-edge school systems.


Districts At Work
This suite of case studies profiles eight school systems transforming how the central office supports schools, and seeing student results.

Seizing the Moment for Transformation

Resource use in some schools look very much the same as it did 60 years ago. Transformative change requires tough choices to tackle existing spending patterns and the structures that dictate them. School systems need to do two things: 1) empower strong, redesigned schools, and 2) strategically invest and organize resources.

In Seizing the Moment for Transformation, learn nine ways school systems can empower schools and restructure resources for student success.

Two-Way Conversations: How first-year superintendents are using data to build political capital that enables system change
An article in School Administrator Magazine that shares fives examples of how new superintendents leveraged key data points to create fertile two-way conversation.

How Three Districts Are Confronting the "Triple Squeeze" 
A blog by ERS's Karen Hawley Miles
The “triple squeeze” is a set of challenges school systems inherited and that require sustained, strategic action and political will to address. See how leaders in Baltimore, Boston, and Oakland are addressing these challenges.

Strategic System Snapshot | Mini and School Check
These web-based tools are designed to help you dive into the transformational strategies that lead to better resource use. The Strategic System Snapshot | Mini (district level, previously called "Resource Check") and School Check (school level) are questionnaires that tally and analyze your responses to show how close you are to best practices and where there's potential for improvement. They both connect to resources to help you take action.

Budget Hold'em for Districts and Budget Hold'em for Schools
We played Budget Hold'em for Districts during our session. Both versions are interactive explorations of the thoughtful trade-offs district and school leaders have to make as you consider how to invest your limited resources on what matters most—improving outcomes for our students. Play with your leadership teams.

Professional Learning Diagnostic Tool
Does your school system have the conditions and practices in place to connect professional learning to the everyday work of teaching—and to a systemwide strategy for student success? Find out with this self-assessment tool.

This presentation was given to aspiring superintendents at the National Superintendents Academy on January 11, 2019.

Workshops, Webinars, and Events

Learn about upcoming events and conferences where you can connect with other new Superintendents and collaborate on similar challenges.

Workshops, Webinars, & Events

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We welcome the opportunity to partner with your district to better align resources and generate a significant impact for your students, your schools, and your communities.



New Superintendents must develop a comprehensive strategy for student success. The Strategic School System is ERS' framework for understanding transformational system reform, based on nearly 15 years of partnering with school system and state leaders from across the country. Some topics that new superintendents might want to explore include:

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