Superintendents today are forced to contend with frequent, divisive issues that turn into district-wide flashpoints. 80% of superintendents in EAB’s 2022 Voice of the Superintendent survey agree that managing divisive conversations is now the most challenging aspect of their job.
The time superintendents invest in responding to flashpoints distracts from strategic initiatives, impacting student outcomes and exhausting leadership at a time when student learning and teacher morale are at all-time lows.
What’s worse, these flashpoints are not as straightforward as they were in the past and are deeply rooted in moral beliefs, politics, and the media. As such, they are more likely to cause decision fatigue and chronic stress, leaving superintendents unsure of how to resolve them and more likely to make costly mistakes.
Example of what lies beneath today's flashpoints
Break down district flashpoints into manageable components
Today’s flashpoints require a new approach—one that will allow district leaders to reduce flashpoints’ impact on students and strategic initiatives.
EAB studied a variety of management professionals who excel in flashpoint-ridden environments—from first responders and crisis management consultants to air traffic controllers—to see how they solve problems in high-stress situations. We noticed a similar methodology among these high-stress professions:
- Diagnosing the type of problem at hand
- Applying optimal strategies that work best for that type of problem
To facilitate this process, these professions call upon problem-solving frameworks—one of which, Cynefin, is directly applicable to district leaders' experience navigating modern flashpoints. Cynefin is a business decision-making framework created by an IBM employee that has since helped solve problems in fields ranging from counterterrorism to pharmaceutical strategy.
Apply the Cynefin framework to find the best strategy for each flashpoint component
Has been solved before and best practices exist
Can be solved through help of an expert
Unprecedented; solved through trial and error
No control at all; need to establish constraints
Though today's multi-faceted flashpoints cannot be categorized into one category, district leaders should apply the framework to determine how to respond to a flashpoint by diagnosing optimal strategies for each question or problem they face.
Cynefin in action
While the Cynefin framework is new in the field of education, some districts have already applied similar ways of thinking when responding to flashpoints. North Shore School District demonstrated how breaking down a larger flashpoint into individual components and diagnosing appropriate strategies helped resolve the flashpoint with incredible speed and accuracy.
In 2016, severe community backlash on social media contributed to the failure of a $200 million referendum ballot initiative at North Shore. District leaders were uncertain of the best strategies to solve the problem, leading to two years of inaction and ineffective district response.
In 2018, having learned from their mistakes, district leaders were able to significantly reduce flashpoint response time to a new ballot initiative by identifying individual problems and deploying optimal strategies for each one.
Problem type: Chaotic
How do we manage social media
Deploy community dialogue platform to proactively gather feedback
Problem type: Complex
How can we easily incorporate community feedback?
Assemble a rapid response committee to react to feedback in real time
Problem type: Complicated
How can we ensure the right experts are consulted?
Engage subject matter experts to expedite decision-making
How can we avoid backlash in the
Create a template of best practices to prepare for next time
Select strategies that work best for each type of problem
Click on one of the four categories to read about optimal strategies for each problem category.
Tactic: Triage "Stoplight"
Simplify decision-making for responding publicly to controversial flashpoints by proactively deciding which topics are mission critical, mission indirect, or mission unrelated. A simple stoplight framework can help categorize topics into color zones: green (respond), yellow (deliberate case-by-case), and red (do not respond).
Impact: Direct impact on students and educational mission
Impact: Indirect impact on students/staff, but not mission
Impact: Unrelated to educational mission
This framework ensures superintendents’ public communications are consistent based on the type of flashpoint presented. At best, this assures the community, and at worst, gives them one less reason to criticize the district’s response.
Tactic: Peer-informed risk register
Flashpoints are variable and unexpected, but effective responses are not. Similar incidents raise similar questions, such as ‘what did we say last time and how do our peers respond to these incidents?’. Gathering this information is important to composing a response, but it is also time-consuming and repetitive. Develop a peer-informed risk register to quickly access and benefit from this information when flashpoints strike.
Step 1: Templatize flashpoint responses to expedite initial response
Identify most common or likely flashpoints from list of possible risks
Review responses from peers and identify common elements
Draft, approve, and disseminate template packages to staff
Step 2: Cross-check your flashpoint response with peer districts
A risk register is a tool to organize risks and responses in one location. It allows districts to assign flashpoint risks to categories, score them based on severity, and monitor responses.
Tactic: Parent reps
Complex problems have no silver bullet solution, but instead are whittled down to a more manageable problem by testing different “tools in your toolbox” for the one that actually gets results. Parents are often the most complex flashpoint layer, driving many complex flashpoints, so it’s imperative to build more productive partnerships with parents, such as through a parent reps program.
Tactic: Large group constraints
Board meetings have gone from straightforward to chaotic due to the nationalization of local politics, declining news coverage of district operations, and the virality of social media. District leaders must apply appropriate constraints to ensure board meetings do not delve into further chaos.
Risks for chaos and appropriate constraints
Standardize a process for allocating time and facilitating public comment
Invite reporters to interview district leaders after the meeting and prepare statements in advance
Define "disruption" prior to the meeting to avoid unnecessary police/security involvement
Do not engage in emotional debate; refer to district strategic plan and use student-first language
More on district leadership
Work with EAB to reduce the impact of flashpoints in your district
EAB has developed resources to help district leaders implement the framework and strategies described above to manage divisive conversations and prevent flashpoints.