Q&A with Dr. Maria Ott, Women in the SUperintendency


Dr. Maria Ott serves as Professor of Clinical Education at USC Rossier School of Education. Previously, she served more than seven years as Superintendent of the Rowland Unified School District, leading the district through major instructional improvement initiatives and modernization of facilities. She is nationally known for establishing partnerships with private foundations in support of Rowland Unified and its strategic plan and efforts to reach high levels of literacy and raise student achievement, placing Rowland Unified on the national stage and forefront of educational transformation movements.

Dr. Ott recently sat down with Voice4Equity’s Tiana Hill to talk about the experience of women in the Superintendent’s seat, and Dr. Ott’s experience as a leader and a professor at USC.

Tiana: Welcome Dr. Maria Ott. I’m so excited to have this conversation with you today.

You are a highly regarded former superintendent and national education influencer. I understand you have also been serving as a faculty member at the Rossier School of Education at USC in Los Angeles. Tell me about your current work.

Dr. Ott: Currently, I am a Professor of Clinical Education at USC Rossier School of Education. In that role, I teach courses in the doctoral program, I’m the course lead for the leadership class in the Organizational Change and Leadership Doctoral Program, and then I also teach courses in the Education Leadership doctoral program, so I work in both. One of the really interesting things that I get to do is I am the lead faculty for the Urban Superintendent Academy that USC Rossier has in partnership with the National Superintendent Association. There are two urban academies that partner with AASA. One is at USC Rossier. The other one is at Howard University. We work collaboratively from the East Coast to the West Coast in preparing superintendents. Some of our participants are current superintendents in the program to refine their skills, and some are aspiring where they’re in senior leadership roles like deputy or assistant superintendent. They’re trying to refine their final skills so that they can take that next step. So that’s one of the really great things I get to do, is work with superintendents and aspiring superintendents in the Academy.

Tiana: Nationally, women in the superintendency are only at about 27%. And BIPOC women hired into the top leadership are far short of the diversity of our nation’s students. What is it going to take to truly have equity of access for women and women of color into the superintendent seat? And what do you see as the existing impediments?

Dr. Ott: It is really disappointing because the 27% actually represents a decline. I think part of that decline can be attributed to changes that have occurred from the pandemic. But moving the needle beyond this level has been very slow and resistant to change. And as you said, with women of color, they’re in the single digits. So that movement has really been stuck in a sense that we haven’t been able to get much traction. So, what will it take?

One, of course, would be looking at the women themselves in their decision to pursue that next level to become superintendents. I work with women in leadership in the Urban Academy, and some of my doctoral students are aspiring to become superintendents. I know that women are very thoughtful about when they’re ready. Many of them will defer entry into that final step longer than I think typically men would. They want to have their professional skills really fine-tuned so that they’ll be successful when they take that role. And if they have families, they have that decision-making point in terms of ‘when am I willing to take a role that is a 24/7 kind of a role where you’re basically on duty all the time’.

Also, you have to look at the recruiters. Who are the people recruiting the talent to bring before a school board? I’m finding that more boards are open to having a diverse pool of candidates. It’s the recruiters who need to know who these individuals are, and not necessarily look at the traditional pool, but really get to know folks who are in route, who are maybe at the deputy assistant level, and get to know those folks, and encourage them when they see a good fit and encourage them to get into the process. Some boards may still have the challenge of seeing that first woman in that role. I think that’s a reality we also face is just really helping boards understand the potential that women have to be amazing, successful leaders who are passionate about the work and bring personal qualities that help an organization thrive. We know that for corporate women when you look at studies that have been done have really moved in advancing women. They are more profitable. We know that from the research. We don’t know as much about that in the educational field. I hope that we will get some research that looks at the impact of having a woman leading a school district. I think we need to help boards understand what they’re missing. If they’re not looking at women, they’re totally missing out.

Tiana: I saw all the tweets celebrating USC’s graduation, including Rossiers doctoral students; how exciting that is. Tell me more about the focus at Rossier on attracting and graduating women candidates who are pursuing the superintendent pathway. And why is this work so important to you?

Dr. Ott: USC, Rossier has had a tradition of really launching superintendents. As a school of education, we have more superintendents in that role in California than other Universities. We’re very intentional about it. There’s been a tradition of bringing in people who are practitioners into faculty roles. So, for example, I’m a retired superintendent. I was a superintendent in two different districts. I was deputy superintendent in LA Unified. I was offered the opportunity to come to USC on my retirement to join the faculty. Not every school necessarily does that as intentionally as USC Rossier does.

I think individuals looking to get a doctoral degree see that the faculty who has done the work has been successful. They’re attracted to that. So, we do draw people because of the faculty that we have. I’m proud that we’re a school of education that values the practitioner. We also have an amazing research team. We’re producing some incredible research from the research faculty.

Our new dean, Pedro Noguera, has an extensive career in both research writing and working with school districts, urban districts in particular, across the nation. He has been a spokesperson on behalf of the practitioners. And he’s very beloved by practitioners. He is more than just someone who writes about it, he actually goes in and works hand in hand in a lot of districts. I really commend our university for getting Pedro Noguera to be our new dean. I think he’s going to help us do even more in terms of building the pipeline. Because you have to build the pipeline, it’s a pipeline of getting women prepared. When I went through the doctoral program here at Rossier and finished the program, I was very much encouraged and supported in becoming a superintendent. I became a superintendent just shortly after completing the program. And I was the first woman in the district that I was selected for, and I was the first person of color in that district, being a Latina.

I had USC Rossier there for me. There were faculty who I could reach out to who were supportive. They talk about the USC family and the Trojan family, and it’s hard to describe to people who don’t know what it’s like to be at a school that has such intentional support for people who are doing the work in the field. I always describe that to people. And when they come, they go, ‘oh, my gosh, it’s everything you said plus more’. The Trojan family supports each other, we help one another get those jobs. And we’re there in terms of coaching, mentoring, and giving needed advice and celebrations, as well as achievements. We are a powerful family. I am very grateful to be a part of the faculty. Avis Williams, for example, who’s leaving Selma to go to New Orleans starting July one – she was in cohort four of our Urban Academy. Superintendent Scott Elder in Albuquerque finished our Academy last year. And superintendent Hilda Maldonado of the Santa Barbara Unified went through last year’s cohort as well, and I could go on. We have so many that are new that have stepped into the role, as well as those who are established in the role. I feel like a national reach is emerging.

Tiana: Our Voice4equity feature this month is Dr. Mary Sieu of ABC Unified in California. Not only has she far surpassed the national average for superintendent service with her completion of 10 years in the seat, she also has recently had her contract extended. What can you tell us about Dr. Sieu as a person and a leader?

Dr. Ott: Well, I can tell you I have the greatest respect for Dr. Sieu. When I see her, I always give her a big hug. She has been a leader and a role model for women, as a woman of color herself. Her parents were immigrants from mainland China. She’s a woman in a very underrepresented field as an Asian American woman; she is one of very few. And she has excelled as a leader. I have known her from when I was still in the superintendent role myself.

She has been recognized in many ways, but I think one of the things that I was very excited about was when she was our California Superintendent of the Year and, in 2017, for our state association. And then, she was a finalist for the 2018 AASA National Superintendent of the Year. She is deserving of all the accolades. She has built a model of collaboration with her teacher’s organization. I remember when I was deputy superintendent in LA Unified, working with a non-traditional superintendent, Roy Romer, and at that time, our association, UTLA, was interested in looking at other models of working between the district and the association. So, a team from the association and I went down to ABC to see what Mary and her teachers were doing. And it was impressive the way they collaborated. They come to the table together and have such a problem-solving orientation. That reflects a leader who is open to more collaborative ways of working with traditional organizations like a teacher’s union. I just think the world of her. She also heads up ACSA of the Southern California Superintendent Academy. I’m so excited to know that she has extended her contract because we need her to stay in that seat as long as she can do it. She’s a great role model and a wonderful example of a woman making an impact.

Tiana: These are challenging times for leaders in the superintendent seat. What advice do you have for novice superintendents preparing to enter their first superintendent appointment?

Dr. Ott: My advice is to always make sure you have trusted colleagues, whether a coach or someone you consider a mentor. You need someone who’s a thought partner who can listen to what you’re thinking and who can ask you probing questions to help you clarify what you’re going to do. I encourage novice superintendents to try to get a coach built into their first contract. To just put it on the table with the board. It’s such a great investment in terms of having someone confidential who you call at 10 o’clock at night and say, ‘this happened, and here’s what I’m thinking of doing to handle it’. ‘Is there anything that you see that I might be missing’?. I had that. I had people who weren’t formal coaches, but they were people I respected, who I could reach out to when I was a brand new superintendent. There were so many parts of the job that you’ve not done before, particularly working with the board. And going from the honeymoon of your new and selected position to the reality of, ‘here are things that we as a Board want to accomplish in our public face, so how are you going to get those things done’. And, you know, the tour of listening that most new superintendents do, just getting advice on how to do that well, is really important. For example, I had someone in the Urban Academy who was selected in a state where there were not many individuals of color. He was a brand new superintendent without a mentor and without enough coaches around him. It didn’t go well. Sometimes boards will say, ‘if you’re ready to be a superintendent, why do you need a coach’. Even the most successful CEOs have coaches. I’m a board member for an organization, a very prominent one. Our CEO has had a coach for over 15 years. And she doesn’t make any excuses for that.

I don’t know why we don’t value that role in education. We’re in the top executive seat of a very large organization, and everyone’s relying on you to do your job. Everyone. So that’s just my wisdom from years of experience and observing people who were not able to keep their positions. I always say, had they had a coach or some wise person whose only interest was in their success, how would that have gone? When I was deputy, I’d been a superintendent for seven years. And when LA Unified selected Roy Romer, he was coming from three terms as a governor of Colorado. He had not been in education. He was not like the rest of us. He hadn’t come up through the seats, but he had political skills. The board wanted him to have a deputy who had been a superintendent. I had come up through the district, so I got the call. I went back to LA to serve as his deputy for five years. And he knew every single day that my full commitment was to his success. I was there to help him succeed. It was different from a traditional coach because I actually had responsibilities that were quite extensive in the operation of the school district. It was just an acknowledgment that even very successful political individuals need to have people who have insight into how to make things work well.

Tiana: That’s sound advice. We don’t need to do it alone.

Dr. Ott: No, don’t do it alone. That’s my advice. Be wise. Reach out to colleagues, the people who care about you, and that are confidential. When I coach someone, that’s a very confidential and very trusted relationship. I value trust as much as the person receiving my advice values me. So, it goes both ways.

Tiana: Oh, wonderful. Thank you so much. It was wonderful spending time with you this afternoon.

Dr. Ott: Well, thank you for taking the time to let me rave about Dr. Sieu and all that she means to me and the profession. I am so grateful that you are featuring her in your upcoming newsletter. She is so deserving, and we can all learn from her pathway and what she’s done with her career.