Superintendents Research Paper

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The role of the superintendent is dynamic—shaped and reshaped by social, cultural, political, and economic forces.1 It has evolved since its advent in the early 19th century from clerks for powerful boards to professional educational leaders like Horace Mann in the late 19th century, to corporate CEOs in the era of scientific management of schools in the first half of the 20th century.

Profound social, political, and economic changes occurred in the last decades of the 20th century, brought about by events such as the Supreme Court decision outlawing segregation in schools, the Vietnam War and Watergate, globalization, and the perception that poor schools hurt America’s global competitiveness. These changes have resulted in a number of educational reforms: the standards and accountability movement and the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) mandates, teacher empowerment, parent involvement in decision making, site-based management, and school choice. These reforms have further transformed the role of the superintendent, requiring renewed emphasis on skills of instructional leadership, communication, political strategy, and collaboration. These changes have also led to calls to reconceive the superintendency with a focus on “valued ends of school organizations—student learning, democratic community, and social justice” (J. Murphy, 2002a, p. xi).

The next section outlines different stages in the development of the superintendent’s role. New stages did not replace earlier responsibilities but added layers to them, making the position increasingly more complex.

History and Evolution of the Superintendent’s Role cit

Clerk to the Board of Education: 1820-1850

Consistent with constitutional authority that assumed state and local rather than federal control of education, local school boards in cities and towns established and led the first school districts in the United States. They appointed the first superintendents to be their clerks, functionaries who carried out their directives on a day-to-day basis. The early colonists had an “anti-executive bias” (Brunner, Grogan, & Bjbrk, 2002, p. 212) that severely proscribed the authority of the first superintendents. Local citizen boards intended to maintain lay control of schooling and “were reluctant to appoint superintendents to direct the schools” (p. 214).

Professional Educator: 1850-1900

Superintendents remained relatively weak. As boards focused their lay expertise on managing growing and evolving school districts, however, superintendents became more responsible for the instructional program (Brunner et al., 2002, p. 216). As teacher-scholars, superintendents identified themselves as educational professionals and as teachers.

Citing political corruption and partisan politics, the national superintendents’ organization advocated a reduced role for boards and an expanded role for superintendents. Superintendents explicitly committed themselves to a democratic mission—achieving the equity in opportunity for all children that Horace Mann envisioned and providing the universal schooling that Thomas Jefferson espoused to ensure an educated citizenry for the democracy (Brunner et al., 2002, p. 215).

Efficient Manager: 1900-1950

In the late 19th century, business leaders, concerned that the United States was not economically competitive, criticized public schools, which were struggling to deal with waves of immigrant children and the transitions from a rural, agrarian society to an urban, industrial society. These business leaders claimed that public schools were inefficient and ineffective. They wanted schools to run more like businesses (Cuban, 2004, p. 159).

At the turn of the century and well into the first half of the 20th century, superintendents embraced faith in the efficiency benefits of scientific management. The self-image of superintendents changed from that of a scholar to that of a businessman (Callahan, 1962). In this political climate, a factory model of schooling prevailed—”large classes, rigid schedules, and uniform approaches to instruction” (Johnson, 1996, p. 271)—with its emphasis on providing suitable workers for industrial America and its values of efficiency, competition, and standardization.

Embracing the role of manager also enabled superintendents to consolidate power. Hierarchical organizations characterized by top-down control became the norm in public schools. This bureaucratic structure ensured superintendents’ authority over operational areas and helped to define a corporate model of governance that limited the school board’s role to broad policy concerns (Bjbrk, Glass, & Brunner, 2005, p. 26).

In this era of scientific management, the social justice concerns expressed by superintendents in the second stage were a distant memory. Cubberly, for example, believed that the influx of immigrants was serving “to dilute tremendously our national stock and to corrupt our civic life” (Tyack & Hansot, 1982, p. 127). He advocated separation of the races in education. Valuing diversity was clearly not a priority during this stage (Brunner et al., 2002, p. 220).

Communicator and Politician: 1950-Present

In the second half of the 20th century, school systems became far different. Major social, economic, and political events transformed our society. Student demographic diversity exploded; their personal and social needs increased; the federal mandates for special education and English Language Learning to meet their diverse needs proliferated. Students were no longer, if they ever were, “raw materials ready to be processed in an education factory” (Johnson, 1996, p. 272). District staffs expanded and became more complex and specialized. They were less easily controlled by superintendents.

After World War II, the sorting and selecting mission of factory schools became increasingly untenable. Clarity and consensus about the purposes of schooling no longer existed. Boards of education became far more diverse and far less accepting of the superintendents’ authority. The increasing ethnic, racial, and linguistic diversity among parents and students also increased the difficulty of any ready consensus emerging among competing factions about what educational goals to adopt or what educational practices to follow (Johnson, 1996, p. 154). The dilemma between equity (the belief in equal education for all children) and excellence (the need for all children to reach high standards) caused conflict in public debate. Superintendents had to exercise political skills—finding allies, building coalitions—to be successful.

The publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983 began the most sustained period of school reform in our history. The standards and accountability movement of the last 20 years has permeated schools more than any earlier reforms. As anxiety has grown about America’s ability to compete in a global economy, school reform has become a national priority, and a steady drumbeat of media criticism of the performance of public schools has increased public skepticism. People no longer accept the underlying assumption of professionalism that school people have special knowledge and skills not possessed by the general public (Owen, 1998, p. 4).

Instead of working in an environment that expects and accepts unilaterally exercised authority, superintendents now function in a school world in which power is divided among the various participants in the schooling enterprise. Blumberg (1985) stated that, beginning in the mid-1960s, we have seen “diminished power of the superintendent. . . . If there ever was such a thing as the ‘Imperial Superintendent,’ . . . the concept is no longer in vogue” (pp. 60-61). Superintendents can no longer issue orders. They must persuade and cajole.

What Is the Superintendent’s Job?

With the daily press of their direct responsibilities for students and teachers, principals sometimes wonder about the superintendent, who has no such direct responsibilities, “What does he (or less frequently she) do all day?” The work of superintendents is often not visible to others. They spend much of their time in meetings with individuals and small groups, often behind closed doors. They also spend much time out of the district, at regional and state meetings.

Today’s superintendent fills a number of essential roles that substantially affect the effectiveness of schools in meeting the needs of children. The superintendent may

  • shape and articulate vision and values as “moral steward” of the system (J. Murphy, 2002b, p. 75);
  • develop and manage the system’s financial, physical, personnel, and political resources as chief operational officer;
  • be the public face of the school system to its constituents and stakeholders as chief advocate and publicist;
  • be the system’s lightning rod and the first target of blame;
  • buffer the system from the external environment, including the board of education;
  • be the gatekeeper who distinguishes a harmful intrusion (e.g., micromanagement of instruction) from a helpful one (e.g., adoption of a research-based instructional model);
  • manage the system’s relations with external organizations, including the state education department, unions, suppliers, PTAs, community groups, and business partners;
  • develop and manage all the system’s human resources, including both instructional and non-instructional staff;
  • plan and implement professional development programs for the various workforces;
  • allocate resources to schools and programs;
  • help the board initiate system wide policies and programs—curricular, co- and extracurricular, or operational—and ensure their coherence and coordination (Smylie, 2006, p. 7).

Who Superintendents Are Today

We know curiously little about superintendents. In reporting the dearth of demographic information, Hodgkinson and Montenegro (1999) called them the “invisible CEOs” and decried the irony that so little attention is paid to a group in public education that is so important to the quality of schools (p. 5).

One group that has regularly surveyed superintendents since the 1920s is the American Association of School Administrators (AASA). The 2007 AASA Mid-Decade Study found that superintendents are aging, with an average age of 54.5, the oldest median age in any study this century (American Association of School Administrators [AASA], 2007, p. 19). Increasing numbers of superintendents appear to be entering the superintendency later in their careers. As a result, the average number of years served in the superintendency will likely decline since “most state retirement systems ‘silently’ discourage employment past 60” (p. 16).

Trend data from the AASA studies over 30 years indicates that between 1970 and 2000, the average tenure of superintendents in a specific position did not change significantly, ranging from 5.7 to 7 years (Bjbrk, Keedy, & Gurley, 2003, as cited in Bjbrk et al., 2005). The average tenure reported in the latest study is 5.6 years.

Urban superintendents, however, often have markedly different demographic characteristics. Political battles among contentious board members and other local politicians often catch urban superintendents in the crossfire. The latest data available from the Council of Great City Schools (2006) indicate that the average tenure for a superintendent in their sample (59 of 65 member districts reporting) is now 3.1 years, up from 2.8 years in 2003.

Why does the length of a superintendent’s tenure in a district matter? Experts have long held that deep, institutional change in how school systems work takes significant time—a matter of years not of months. Moreover, leadership instability leads to changes in district direction that disrupt ongoing improvement momentum and effort and distract everyone from focusing on instruction to analyzing political shifts. Waters and Marzano (2006) reported that leadership stability in the superintendency has an impact on student learning. Two studies they reviewed show a statistically significant correlation between the length of superintendent tenure and improved student achievement.

The AASA study noted that most superintendents continue to be White and male, but the number of female superintendents has grown markedly from 6.6% in 1992 to 13.2% in 2000 and to 21.7% in 2007 (AASA, 2007, p. 17). Despite this recent increase, women remain significantly underrepresented in the superintendency in contrast to their numbers in the teaching and school administration workforces. Sixty-five percent of teachers and 43% of principals are women (AASA, 2007, p. 30). Bjbrk (1999, p. 3) observed that according to U.S. Department of Labor statistics, the public schools’ superintendency is the most male-dominated executive position in the United States. Despite long-term understanding of the problem, by some estimates men are 20 times as likely as women to advance from teaching to the superintendency (Skrla, 1999, p. 3).

When a woman does advance to the superintendency, she frequently finds herself in a classic double bind:

Everything she does to enhance her assertiveness risks undercutting her femininity, in the eyes of others. And everything she does to fit the expectations of how a woman should talk risks undercutting the impression of competence that she makes. (Skrla, 1998, p. 8)

This no-win situation appears to exist despite evidence that, especially in today’s collaborative superintendency with its emphasis on interpersonal relationships, women may be more successful than men (Skrla, 1999, p. 3).

During the 1990s, the number of minority superintendents increased from 3.9% to 5.1% (AASA study, 2000, p. 15). Many of the superintendents of color serve in urban districts. The latest data from the 2006 Council of Great City Schools survey indicate that 54% of respondents were people of color, a decline from 63% in 1997. The current statistics “leave the nation far behind in attempting to more closely reflect in public school leadership the gender and racial make-up of its students” (Hodgkinson & Montenegro, 1999, p. 19).

Overall, despite dramatic changes in the superintendent’s role, the demographic profile of those serving in it has not changed. The overwhelming majority of superintendents are White men over 50 years of age. Despite the increasing diversity of school districts, minorities and women are seriously underrepresented, except in urban districts where the majority of superintendents are men of color.

How Superintendents See Their Jobs

In the last two decades, the national spotlight on the shortcomings of public schools has eroded public confidence and increased demands for demonstrable improvement. At the same time, the superintendent’s job responsibilities have increased and become more complex. NCLB requirements have increased workload as well as the pressure on superintendents to prove that they can improve student learning. Smylie (2006) pointed out that with these changes comes “increased potential for role ambiguity, conflict, fragmentation, stress, increased risk of failure, diminished sense of reward” (p. 7). In the 2007 AASA study, the majority (59%) of superintendents felt NCLB has had a “negative impact” (p. xvii).

Despite these pressures, superintendents continue to be both confident and optimistic about their abilities. Public Agenda’s Reality Check 2006 reported that superintendents have a “positive, almost buoyant outlook” (p. 1). They think their school systems are not just good but excellent. In fact, 93% think that the education children are receiving today is better than what they received when they were in school. The 2007 AASA study reported that nearly 90% of superintendents are satisfied or very satisfied with their jobs.

Superintendents in minority, lower income school districts have significantly less positive perspectives. They are much more likely than superintendents in mainly White, higher income schools to perceive a serious dropout problem (67% to 36%) and to feel that “too many students get passed through the system without learning (44% to 25%)” (AASA, 2007, p. 12).

Fuller, Campbell, Celio, Immerwahr, and Winger (2003) also found that urban superintendents have a pessimistic perspective. Responses from 100 of the nation’s largest urban and ex-urban superintendents reveal that they think their jobs are “undoable.” The conditions of these superin-tendencies (e.g., board instability, patronage politics, lack of authority over crucial hiring decisions) “set them up for failure” (Fuller et al., 2003).

Despite the overall positive feelings, superintendents express strong frustration with red tape and the increasing constraints that new laws and regulations impose on school governance. In the 2006 Public Agenda survey, 64% of superintendents agreed that “markedly reducing the number of mandates and the bureaucracy and paperwork associated with them” (p. 21) would make them more effective leaders.

A primary responsibility of superintendents is to plan and manage school district budgets, and funding issues constitute their major headache. Public Agenda (2006) reports that the “vast majority believe schools need more money” (p. 3). In 2005 and 2006, AASA brought together

state superintendents of the year for discussion. “The lack of resources in an era of high stakes testing quickly took center stage” (AASA, 2005, p. 3). Superintendents complained that NCLB is underfunded and does not provide sufficient money to enable the long-term change the law envisions.

A key relationship for all superintendents is with the school board. Perceptions of the state of these relationships today appear mixed. Nearly 70% of superintendents complain about board interference in their work. Almost two thirds agree that boards too often seek to hire superintendents whom they can control (Public Agenda, 2001, p. 9). On the other hand, the AASA (2007) study reports that 93% of superintendents feel their working relationship with the school board is good or excellent (p. xv).

Despite overall satisfaction, the stress levels expressed by superintendents have increased markedly. In the 2007 AASA study, 44.3% reported considerable or very great stress, the highest stress levels reported in any AASA study (p. xvi). Public Agenda (2001) reported that an overwhelming majority of superintendents surveyed (over 80%) feel that “managing harsh political criticism and political heat” (p. 26) is an everyday job activity. A similar majority believe that their positions have forced them to make serious compromises in their personal and family lives.

Discussions among superintendents confirm that “day-to-day challenges can erode a superintendent’s spirit” (AASA, 2005, p. 3). Kelleher and Van Der Bogert (2006) describe typical stories of superintendents who feel “exhausted and ‘burned out'” with “little hope of positive change” and who are “looking forward eagerly to an early retirement” (p. 11).

NCLB has certainly increased stress, in part because the NCLB results often contradict those of state and local accountability systems. Superintendents have to explain to stakeholders and constituents the “mixed and confusing messages” caused by discrepancies between schools highly rated by state systems but in need of improvement under NCLB (AASA, 2006, p. 8).

Blumberg’s (1985) study found that superintendents also felt quite positive. In general, “they liked what they were doing, felt challenged, had fun, and often were simply quite excited by their personal and professional prospects” (p. 137). Yet, Blumberg also commented that “the people who hold this office seem to be becoming increasingly aware of the emotional costs involved” (p. 155). He described several sources of their growing distress: “the slowness of the decision-making process; boredom; loneliness; feelings of inadequacy; concern over compromises of ethics; and feelings of personal stress” (p. 138).

Blumberg described one unique stressor for superintendents in America—the perception in their communities that they are “public property” (1985, p. 156). The community expects that they will be accessible and available on any day at any time; community members feel they can intrude on the superintendent’s personal and family life; and they feel that, as the custodian of the community’s educational values for its children, the superintendent’s personal conduct should be above reproach (Blumberg, 1985, p. 156).

Overall, superintendents’ emotional perceptions of their jobs seem as complex as the jobs themselves—ranging from the buoyant optimism expressed to Public Agenda surveyors to the despair shared at times with some researchers in more confidential settings. The explanation for this variance may be that superintendents develop a reflexive ability to put on a positive public face. The variance may also reflect the situational roller coaster that defines the work itself. In the midst of trying to figure a way out of a crisis, it is common to feel and express more negative feelings than when one has gotten back on top of things. And superintendents regularly engage in crisis management.

Leadership Challenges

Recent educational reforms have created new leadership challenges for superintendents. Historically the superintendent enacted three roles—educator, manager, politician—which received different emphases in different eras. Today, the complexity of leadership challenges require that superintendents enact the three roles simultaneously, moving between them as needed.

Effect of NCLB on Instructional leadership

Today, NCLB, the most powerful intrusion of federal power into public schools in our history, has had a major effect on how superintendents enact their roles, especially regarding instructional leadership. In the 1980s, at the start of the accountability movement, Blumberg (1985) found that superintendents focused less on instructional leadership and more on managerial and political dimensions. Today, the emphasis has shifted to providing greater leadership for change.

Superintendents describe themselves as having a “laserlike focus” on student outcomes (AASA, 2005, p. 12). The responsibility for ensuring the academic proficiency of all students, and especially for narrowing the achievement gap, has pushed superintendents to emphasize the strategies of data-driven instructional decision making, such as creating organizational processes to review performance data regularly, disaggregating student achievement data, and sharing it publicly.

The impetus of NCLB for more muscular instructional leadership has also led to a renewed emphasis on the superintendent’s role as applied social scientist. The law requires use of scientifically based research. Superintendents, or their close advisors, must know how to evaluate what works and what does not when choosing instructional practices.

Superintendents today must “create coherence” in curriculum and instruction (Petersen & Barnett, 2005, p. 126). They, or their close advisors, must have an expertise in curriculum—its scope, sequence, and alignment—in order to lead the organization to change and accomplish ambitious instructional goals. They also must have the ability to motivate, focus, and support teachers and principals in continual conversations about issues of teaching and learning (Petersen & Barnett, 2005, p. 122).

Teacher of Teachers

Instructional leadership requires superintendents to become “teachers of teachers.” Johnson (1996) found that this “teaching mission” is critically important to a superintendent’s success (p. 275). Through their roles as teachers, superintendents convinced others to lead with them, to participate in shaping a vision for change, to take principled stands about important issues, to accept responsibility for defining and solving problems, and to engage colleagues in finding better approaches to schooling (Johnson, 1996, p. 278).

Teaching teachers affects student learning. In a meta-analysis of 27 studies conducted between 1970 and 2005, Waters and Marzano (2006) found a statistically significant correlation between superintendent instructional leadership behaviors and student achievement. They identified several leadership activities including setting non-negotiable district goals and achievement targets by a consensus that includes the board of education and other constituent representatives; mandating districtwide, research-based instructional strategies, continual monitoring of progress by classroom “walkthroughs” and other review activities; and establishing and funding districtwide professional development aligned with the instructional program.

Waters and Marzano also found a paradoxical correlation between the level of site-based autonomy and student achievement. How can both district control and building autonomy be important factors? Effective superintendents allow school sites “defined autonomy” (Waters & Marzano, 2006, p. 13)—that is, the freedom to make instructional decisions within the framework established by the goals and the mandated instructional program.

Authoritative but Collaborative leadership

Can a superintendent lead by charisma that inspires and, along with the positional authority of the role, compels people to change? Many people, frustrated by complexity and confusion, ask these questions out of a yearning for the heroic leader who can come into a district, clean up, and lead the district forward through the sheer force of his (usually in this image) personality. Johnson described heroic leaders as those who “clarify problems, create order, inspire confidence, and make things right” (Johnson, 1996, p. 7). She suggested that this image of leadership is unrealistic for several reasons including the limitations on the positional power of today’s superintendent and that heroic leadership does not inspire in others the sustained commitment to reform necessary for successful change.

Elmore (2000) also pointed out that there are only a few “larger than life” leaders in any society and that “Few visionary leaders have had any effect on the dominant institutional patterns of American education” (p. 2). He suggested that another reason people in school yearn for heroic leaders stems from the belief that the core of teaching and learning is ineffable—that it is magical, mystical, and artistic—and not reducible to rational formulation, organization, or management. They believe that administrators protect teacher-artists from external scrutiny and control; that leadership should be loosely coupled to the technical core of teaching and learning; and that leaders only influence the school organization by personality characteristics, not by competence in organizational and management skills (p. 8).

Effective district leadership that brings about instructional change balances authoritative or appropriately directive (but not authoritarian or oppressively controlling) and collaborative approaches. The “defined autonomy” of schools that Waters and Marzano (2006) described is an example. Schools retain control of instructional decision making but within a clear, non-negotiable framework of goals defined by the district. This balanced approach is both top-down (articulating core values, establishing accountability structures) and bottom-up (including all constituents meaningfully and developing leadership in others). In this process, leadership is less hierarchical. The superintendent’s role shifts from the top of the organizational structure to the hub of a complex network of interpersonal relationships.

Collaborative leadership that improves instruction also develops leadership throughout the organization. Elmore (2000) argued that this “distribution” of leadership is the only way to accomplish the complex work of large-scale instructional improvement (p. 15). Johnson also depicted this more collaborative style that develops leadership capacity: “The emerging conception of leadership is one of reciprocal influence, through which individuals holding different roles collaborate to improve education” (Johnson, 1996, p. 13).

Skepticism About Educational Change

Overcoming deep-seated skepticism about the possibilities for educational change is another leadership challenge. Superintendents expect to bring about change. Few enter the job planning to maintain the status quo. Bringing about change, nevertheless, can be a daunting challenge. In most districts, many veteran teachers set down roots and stay for 25 or more years. As we have seen, superintendent tenure is much shorter—6 to 7 years at best. Johnson (1996) described how teachers and administrators are inured to each new cycle of change with the advent of a new superintendent because of decades of school reform activity characterized by finger-pointing, failed promises, and lack of follow-through. Superintendent turnover makes staff especially skeptical and mistrustful of yet another initiative. Staff cynics cite the metaphor of the revolving door of administrative change to justify their inaction.

Leading Through Managing

Another leadership challenge is integrating leadership and management. The literature about running organizations often distinguishes between the two. The domain of management is the “mundane work of making a bureaucracy work” (March, 1978, as quoted in Johnson, 1996, p. 219). The domain of leadership is the purposeful work of fundamentally changing what the organization does. Although there is validity to this distinction, it does not capture the more complex interrelationship between effective management and leadership. Johnson argued that the separation of leadership and management is a social construct that is misleading and inaccurate. Successful superintendents do both simultaneously. “In no district did we find evidence of effective leadership without effective management” (Johnson, 1996, p. 239). In fact, they manage in order to lead.

Henry Mintzberg, who has researched and written about leadership and management for over 30 years, also sees a more complex relationship. He rejects the idea that “leadership is something bigger and more important” than management. “Management without leadership is sterile; leadership without management is disconnected and encourages hubris” (J. T. Murphy, 2006, pp. 527-528).

Another way that leadership theorists have made the distinction between leadership and management functions is through the contrast of transactional and transformational leadership. Transactional leadership maintains the status quo. The leader meets the needs of followers, and they give the leader the support necessary to continue. Organizational equilibrium remains undisturbed. Transformational leadership produces change by developing commitment to shared values and capacity to translate those values into action. Organizational equilibrium shifts. Educational change requires transformational rather than traditional transactional leadership.

But Johnson (1996) found a more complex relationship between the two. Superintendents have to first meet the transactional expectations of constituents before transformational leadership is possible. The expectations for new superintendents are distinctly transactional at first. Teachers and principals feel that if the superintendent responds to their needs—for budget support, facilities maintenance, and other basics—then they might be willing to comply with the superintendent’s initiatives. Although meeting basic needs at this transactional level is necessary, it is not, Johnson found, sufficient to produce a more transformational, more reciprocal relationship, in which mutual commitment to change can occur. Superintendents have first to prove their mettle as managers (p. 131).

Hardwired Political Tensions

Politics is “an enduring characteristic of public schooling. . . . It is not inherently corrupt” (Bjbrk & Gurley, 2005, p. 168). Often we think of politics as unsavory activity. We characterize as “political” any actions that appear underhanded, manipulative, or in pursuit of selfish ends. But political skills in building support for policies and programs, in fashioning compromises, and in resolving differences constructively—practiced ethically—are crucial tools for superintendents. “Thinking politically means identifying and engaging the key constituencies whose behaviors affect the education of children” (Heifitz, 2006, p. 512). A key leadership challenge is to be effective in this dimension of the superintendent’s role: politician.

In an open, diverse society, community conflict inevitably occurs as groups vie for influence, power, and resources. Arguably, the possibilities for conflict have increased in recent years as community power structures and the local boards they elect have become more pluralistic and less dominated by a powerful elite. Superintendents today have to be able to read and navigate increasingly complex political landscapes.

Political savvy is especially important in the superintendent’s relationship with the board of education. Board-superintendent teamwork is consistent with the new emphasis on collaborative leadership. Arguing that authority for moving any school district forward has multiple sources in the system and the community, today’s superintendents talk less about themselves as “super-intendents”—individuals in whom authority to run the system is vested—and more about the “superintendency”—the network they have built of staff, board, and even community members who participate with them in system governance. Kelleher and Van Der Bogert (2006) described explicit efforts, some more successful than others, by superintendents they studied to build such board-superintendent teams.

The realities of shared governance are considerably messier and more complex, however, than slogans about the value of shared leadership suggest. Among themselves, superintendents often complain most about board actions. One reason for their frustration is that boards and superintendents have different roles, specifically defined in state law and, generally, in district policy. Among the responsibilities that set superintendents apart from the board is managing the relationship between the board and school organization, an area fraught with possibilities for conflict. Board members want access to teachers and administrators in order to fulfill their oversight responsibilities. Superintendents want to be sure that board access does not lead to micromanagement. Amid these role conflicts, board superintendent trust is always tenuous.

Board-superintendent tension is hardwired into the relationship and it is not a new phenomenon, although it may have been exacerbated by the social upheaval of the late 20th century. As described earlier, the superintendent’s role has evolved through political conflicts with boards of education over the power that superintendents would have to run schools.

Elmore (2000) agreed about the cultural and historical roots of today’s board-superintendent tension. Citing Madison’s Federalist Papers, he reminds us that “institutions of government exist to play the interests of competing factions against each other, so as to prevent the tyranny of one faction over all others” (p. 18). Competing factions, jockeying for more power, are “hardwired into the culture and institutional structure” (p. 18).

Employee unions, especially the teachers’ unions, are the other group with whom political tension is hardwired. In the starkest terms, the relationship with the union is a struggle for power and authority over who is going to make educational decisions. In the history of collective bargaining in schools, negotiated contracts have steadily expanded beyond salary, benefits, and basic working conditions and encroached on issues of curriculum, pedagogy, and organization.

This struggle for power necessarily makes the relationship adversarial. But the superintendent cannot afford to treat union leaders as enemies. In the politics of the school system, he or she will sooner or later need their support or at least their acquiescence. Johnson (2006) found that it is essential for superintendents to establish firm, fair, and respectful relationships with union leaders (p. 185).

Blumberg’s (1985) study revealed that maintaining such a sound and positive relationship with the teacher’s union is complex because the board is watching and judging the superintendent’s performance with the union. Inherently, board members are jealous of their management prerogatives, and, as Blumberg pointed out, they may, as laymen, be suspicious of an unholy alliance developing between their professional administrator and the professional educators in the union (p. 98). As the man in the middle between the board and the union, the superintendent must balance these conflicting interests.

The accountability movement has weakened the political power of teacher unions in Washington and state capitals. This loss may positively affect superintendents in their work with unions. Traditionally, at the national and state levels, the two major teacher unions—the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA)—had substantial influence on policy makers, especially liberal democrats who were historically sympathetic to the needs and interests of the organized labor movement. The ascendance of conservatives to political power in Washington has coincided with a loss of influence and power for labor unions in general.

NCLB and the focus of policy makers on issues of teacher quality and school improvement has further weakened support for the primary agenda of teachers’ unions—improving salary and working conditions of the rank and file. Although the law arguably has had more effect on the daily work of teachers than any other federal law ever, the law has “few, if any, fingerprints of the two national teachers’ unions on its mandates” (Honawar, 2007).

Teachers’ union leaders are responding to this changed context. Johnson surveyed 30 local union leaders in six states and found a recognition that this new political reality demands new responses (Johnson, 2007, as cited in Honawar, 2007). Old style, adversarial relationships have given way to more collaborative efforts to work alongside superintendents and other administrators. According to Johnson, local union leaders “see the importance of framing arguments for improved salaries and working conditions within the context of improved schools and building a better teaching force” (Johnson, 2007, as cited in Honawar, 2007).

Superintendents today often describe themselves in no-win positions where any significant decision they make will alienate and upset someone or some group. At the AASA Forum in 2005, Paul Houston, a former superintendent, said of his own experience, “I had to get a thicker skin. People who didn’t even know me were always saying bad things about me” (AASA, 2005, p. 8). A factor that often contributes to their no-win position is that, unlike elected politicians, superintendents do not have partisan coalitions on whom to rely for support in times of trouble. And, unlike politicians who cannot be easily removed from office until the next election, superintendents serve at the pleasure of the school board and can be removed at any time.

In addition to managing micropolitics—contention, conflicts, and their resolution within the school system— the superintendent must also be skillfully involved in the macropolitical worlds of state and our nation’s capitals since state and federal policies determine so much of what occurs inside the schoolhouse. These responsibilities require that superintendents and their representatives be well known to policy makers and well informed about policy development so that they can influence it appropriately. “Politics and policy making are closely linked in that the objective of the former is to accomplish the latter” (Björk & Gurley, 2005, p. 171).

In summary, politics and conflict are embedded in the role of superintendent. To be effective, a superintendent must respond to the unique political context of the district and establish viable working relationships with all political players, especially the board and the unions. Superintendents must build coalitions among the various actors who have power in school decision making, negotiate effective compromises, and force and trade concessions when necessary.

Balance Between Control and Autonomy

Another leadership challenge for superintendents today is managing an organizational paradox—that is, positively affirming the culture and climate of the organization and yet bringing about changes to both. They must walk a fine line between promoting change and the discomfort it can create and yet respecting the climate and culture of the organization (Owen, 1998, p. 6).

To be effective in managing this paradox, superintendents must find the appropriate balance between controlling decisions far from the classroom and allowing teachers and principals to make decisions closer to the point of instruction.

NCLB has heightened the tension in this dilemma. Superintendents face an increased need for coordination of curriculum and instruction across grades and levels in the interest of improved student learning and the clear benefit of the empowerment of individuals and school sites in the interest of building their capacity to make more effective decisions about student learning. Waters and Marzano (2006) found that superintendents successful at improving student learning both centrally control the “ends” and grant “defined autonomy” for school sites to control the “means.” Most of the superintendents in Johnson’s study acknowledged the tensions involved in this dilemma by “two seemingly different directions”— both greater site-based autonomy and greater public accountability (1996, p. 246).

Elmore (2000), too, described the balancing act that superintendents must master between the control necessary for ensuring systemwide improvement and the autonomy that teachers and principals need to be able to achieve improvement. He advocated distributing leadership throughout the organization. In this model, district leadership can provide guidance and direction by clarifying the “glue of a common task or goal-instructional leadership” (p. 15) and by strengthening the culture—the commitment to a common set of values and beliefs. Superintendent leadership initiatives in these two areas will help ensure the necessary coordination and standardization for improvement to be consistent across the system.

Leader as Learner

One last leadership challenge, perhaps the most demanding for the character and personality of a superintendent, is learning and growth. NCLB and related policies have committed the nation’s schools to bring all students to high levels of achievement. Reaching that goal requires fundamental and far-reaching changes in how schools operate. Heifitz (2006) described this ambitious goal as an adaptive challenge—one that requires new thinking and understanding, a break with how schools operated in the past, as well as new norms and new work practices. Unlike technical challenges that have known solutions that can be found in a manual or a set of written procedures, adaptive challenges have no known or proven solutions. The new, adaptive solutions must be created and take into account idiosyncratic variables of context and people (Heifitz, 2006, p. 512).

Conflict is inevitably a part of responding to adaptive challenges. Uncertainty, confusion, and anxiety characterize the searching for answers outside of existing paradigms and conflicting with current values and norms. Under these circumstances, superintendents truly become lightning rods drawing the resistance and opposition from those threatened by adaptive change. Under attack, a normal, reflexive human response is to become defensive. Under attack, however, superintendents must develop reflective responses in which they learn not take criticism and attack personally. To be effective in building support for adaptive responses, they must, instead, recognize personal attack too as a normal and reflexive response toward a person in power in any context demanding adaptive response. They must be able to acknowledge the criticism, listen to it, and respond to it constructively (Heifitz, 2006, p. 512). In counseling superintendents not to be defensive, Paul Houston says, “It’s really about being humble enough to know that maybe someone else has a better idea” (AASA, 2005, p. 7).

Adaptive challenges require that superintendents be comfortable not knowing answers. They must understand that they will be effective when they “lead with questions rather than answers” (Heifitz, 2006, p. 512). Kallick (2006) described the “habits of mind” of the best superintendents she has known: listening, flexibility, and openness to learning (pp. 226-229). Jentz (2006, pp. 230-238) talked of the need for leaders to accept and even “embrace the confusion” they will frequently feel when confronting organizational problems and to employ it as a resource for mobilizing energy for inquiry in themselves and others. Better decisions will result. Jentz also argued that that the learning and change necessary for leading successful adaptive response is first of all about oneself. Put simply, superintendents must discover the discrepancies between what they think they do and how they actually behave and learn to compensate for them.


All successful 21st-century superintendents must integrate high performance in all three dimensions of the role—educational leader, politician, and manager—that have evolved over time. High performance for superintendents today, though, is not just about mastering the “means” of effectiveness—strategies, skills, and processes; it is also about putting those tools of effective leadership and management to “valued ends” (J. Murphy, 2002a, p. xi).

A superintendent must focus on purposes—not only on what leadership is but what leadership is for (Furman, 2003, as cited in Fusarelli & Fusarelli, 2005, p. 198). Leading thinkers about school administrators (e.g.,

Murphy and Sergiovanni) have described this purposeful leadership. One of a superintendent’s broad purposes should be moral—creating shared commitments among all school community members to values like social justice and equity and ensuring that school practices, activities, and decisions reflect those moral and ethical commitments. A second purpose is educational—developing and maintaining a deep knowledge of teaching and learning, keeping a focus on the goal of improving teaching and learning, and providing the direction and support that faculty and students need to be successful. A third purpose is community-building. Superintendents must help create learning communities for staff and students. But they should be social activists as well as applied social scientists (Fusarelli & Fusarelli, 2005), engaging the broader community in interpreting and committing to values that should guide education in a democracy. In the role of community builder, superintendents must be skilled in crossing the cultural divides that characterize our diverse society and in enabling others to cross them.

In these purposeful roles, effective 21st-century superintendents cannot be detached authority figures at the top of the bureaucratic hierarchy. They cannot afford to be distant from the publics that make up their constituencies. Nor can they envelop themselves in a cloak of professional authority. In the complex and turbulent environment in which today’s schools exist, they must be out there at the hub of the organization and at the center of local coalitions and networks—listening hard, explaining clearly and persuasively, responding quickly, and building alliances. In all three dimensions of their work— as instructional leaders, operations managers, and politicians—they must be expert communicators and political strategists.

The successful school system itself must be a flexible organization in which leadership recognizes the necessary interdependence of the whole organization with its surrounding government, social agencies, parents, and business groups, as well as its internal interdependence. In such a fluid and dynamic school world, leadership authority will not just reside in the positional leaders, such as the superintendent, but will be distributed throughout the organization. In this less hierarchical, more informal organizational structure, collaboration in the interest of creative problem solving will be prized and rewarded. These dynamic relationships will unleash energy that strengthens commitment and purpose and ultimately produces sustained improvement of instruction (Johnson, 1996, p. 275).

See also:


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