Education and Society Program

Urban Superintendents Network

Since 2000, a central strand of the Aspen Institute’s Education Program’s work has been an ongoing professional development seminar and peer-learning forum for the superintendents of some of America’s largest and most complex urban school districts.  These semi-annual seminars, which typically bring together 10-15 superintendents are intensive, structured conversations using data and case studies to focus on individual and cross-district strategies to meet the major challenges confronting urban school leaders.

For the last several years, the retreats have been organized around system-level questions regarding human capital and educator quality: How do districts attract, develop, and retain the talent they need? How do they know what’s working in their systems and what’s not? How can school systems better organize to support great instruction?

At the superintendents’ request, we have built four additional networks of senior leaders within these urban districts:

Each of the networks meets twice a year, sometimes alone and sometimes in conjunction with one of the other networks (e.g., CAOs and CFOs meet together in January; CAOs meet separately and with the math and literacy teams in June). Each meeting is focused on a discrete set of issues and challenges that cut across the districts. Substantial background readings are selected and provided to each of the participants for each meeting, and external experts are brought into the meetings, as needed.

For several of the network meetings (superintendents, CAOs, and ULLN), the Aspen Education Program offers a day-long “critical friends” visit to the host district on the day before each retreat begins. We work with the district leadership team to identify an issue or initiative they currently are struggling with and bring in Aspen advisors for a structured visit with pre-readings, focus groups, and feedback and advice from the advisors. These critical friends visits have become a vital part of the Aspen Education Program and a valuable opportunity for the participating districts: they help the district teams to tests the hypotheses and assumptions they have been working under, surface new ideas and new ways of looking at the issues, and help to ground in the Aspen Education Program’s advisors in the concrete challenges and constraints facing the participating districts.

Readings and Publications on Strengthening Urban Districts

The Program on Education and Society’s work with the Urban Superintendents Network has been made possible by  generous grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the Spencer Foundation.