A Conversation with Matt Utterback: 2017 National Superintendent of the Year
Understanding students through the lens of equity
We need to tell our stories. We need to talk about our successes. We need to talk about our kids and our communities.
When we talk, folks have a greater understanding of the value of public education, how it’s really a core part of our democracy, and how it’s critical to the future of our country.
DB: How has the role of superintendent changed and can we do a better job of communicating what and who a superintendent is and personalize the role and the position so the community feels connected?
I’ve talked to a lot of people who either don’t remember their superintendent when they were growing up, or they looked at them more as “city managers” – as opposed to professionals who understood teaching and learning and were engaging and understood the value of marketing and branding districts.
MU: I’ve often been told that the superintendent is one of the most challenging and difficult jobs in our country. It certainly is complex. You need to be a visionary leader who can guide and lead a strategic plan in the mission of an organization. You also need to understand what I call the “rocket science” behind teaching and learning in how students learn. You need to be able to manage people and budgets.
But you also need to be that community ambassador. For many communities, the public schools are the core of a public community. As a superintendent, you need to be in tune with what your community’s dreams and wishes are for the education of their children.
It requires us to be out in the community and talking about the public school system ─ what we’re focusing on, what’s our mission and vision ─ as well as listening to parents about what they want for the education of their children.
DB: Let’s talk about some hot topics. Where are we with federal versus local control? Where are we with the best way in which to manage a local community? – Understanding that we are in the United States of America and there are directives that can support us whether it’s budgetary or visionary. What is a preferred model looking forward?
MU: That is the question of the moment. We’re five weeks into a new administration at the federal level and superintendents are trying to figure out where education is headed from a national perspective.
We certainly have heard greater emphasis on state control, which I think most superintendents would prefer.
We’re a unique country. We’re a big country and we have different issues depending on where you reside in our nation.
To have decisions made at the local level ─ I think most of us would agree that is the place most decisions need to be made.
At the same time, federal government does play a role. They provide some federal funding in key, critical areas ─ our title programs for instance and support for students who have special learning needs. English-language learners and students of poverty critically rely on federal funds.
When an agency is providing those funds, there are some oversights that come with those funds. There definitely needs to be give and take.
But, at its core, decisions about the education of students should reside at the local level with the local elected core appointed school board.
DB: How do we look at it if the general public has seen press on the mismanagement or the challenges with managing funds and budgets at the district level?
I hear what you’re saying, “If we can do it locally, we’re going to know our communities better and we should have the ability to do that.” Yet, when we look at it nationally, we hear of districts that struggle to effectively manage funds; and then, globally, our expenditures per pupil exceed that of many countries and yet we still struggle.
How do we reconcile the facts around the message that can embolden the local communities to say “Yes, we trust our local officials; they’re the best at managing what we’ve got coming in.” How do we move it so we are all in sync?
MU: I think it’s important to acknowledge that there are 13,000 school districts in this country. I think it’s important not to make a bigger issue when a couple district have issues of mismanagement. The other 13,000 are giving what the community wants them to provide. I think we need to put it in perspective.
DB: So when you go into the office next week, what’s different for you? Is there going to be a moment of reflection where the phone isn’t ringing, the emails aren’t piling in like they are just out of congratulations, where there’s a moment of pride and accomplishment because this is a very significant point, I would imagine, in your career both professionally and personally?
MU: Yes. Yesterday ─ receiving the award ─ was a surreal experience. As a finalist, you don’t think you ever put yourself completely in there: “Oh, this is a possibility.” It was an awesome experience to be recognized for the work that our district has done.
I am blessed to work in a really supportive environment. Our administrators, teachers, classified staff, our school board, and our community ─ we’re all on the same page. We support each other and it really is a great place to work.
Yesterday after the awards ceremony, I was able to connect with some colleagues from our school district. They “live streamed” the announcement back to our district, and somebody took a video of that live streaming when the announcement was made. It was a room of seventy-five to a hundred people and seeing their reaction to the receiving of the award was probably one of the most heartfelt experiences of my career.
It’s a sense that we’ve done it together and how great it is for us ─ as a district and a community ─ to get this recognition.
When I walk back in on Monday ─ I’ll be excited. Everyone sent me a big hug from two thousand miles away and I want to reciprocate. “This is about us. It isn’t about me. Leadership isn’t about a single person. It’s about what we’ve done together.”
That’s what I’m most excited about.
DB: Matt, let’s close with this – What is the moral of the story of your professional path that we can take some lessons from and perhaps identify the next “Superintendent of the Year” nationally, even ten or twenty years from now? What can we learn from your story that helps us identify the next crop of talented leaders?
MU: I think the moral of my story is one that focuses on equity. When I became superintendent, it was apparent that we had disparate outcomes in our school district from student achievement to attendance to graduation rates
Those disparate outcomes were based on students’ skin color, their parents’ income level, the language that was spoken at home, and, even gender.
At my core, we cannot be a school system that has those disparate outcomes. It really requires us to take action. It has been our driver and our vision.
We tackled it through a lens of equity. We asked all of our staff ─ 2,000 of them ─ to look at who they are and the racial identity they bring into their work environment every day. We asked them to understand who they are ─ so that they’re better able to understand our students’ identity.
When you better understand your students through a lens of equity; you honor and celebrate their history, culture, identity, and the experiences that they’re bringing to us every day. You affirm their identity; and when you affirm their identity, you create inclusive learning environments for our students.
And that’s been our story.
We don’t focus on test scores. We focus on creating inclusive learning environments for our students; supported by really tight and effective instructional strategies. When we do that, great things happen for our kids.
DB: You’re very humble and I can see why you won the award. I hope you take the opportunity to take it in personally because it’s well deserved. It speaks to all the great opportunities in education that we want young people to see.
We might not be working in these positions in years to come but we want the younger generation to be just as excited.
MU: Thank you very much. I appreciate the opportunity.
About Matt Utterback
Matt Utterback is the National Superintendent of the Year Award Winner for 2017. Utterback has worked for nearly 30 years in public education. He has been superintendent of the North Clackamas School District for the past four years. The district has more than 17,000 students in 32 schools.
Utterback’s wife, Nancy, is a longtime North Clackamas teacher, and their daughter, Emma, is also a graduate of the district.
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