The school superintendent occupies a highly public position as he or she oversees the management and development of a community's schools. The job is often fraught with controversy. The superintendent must balance the interests of teachers, administrators, parents, and community groups all while seeking to serve the students' best interests. To be successful, a superintendent must effectively communicate his vision, foster positive relationships between stakeholders, and, when necessary, be willing to exercise his or her authority to resolve conflicts. Before accepting a superintendency, candidates should carefully research a district's political climate to ensure a good fit between him or herself and the district.
Keywords American Association of School Administrators (AASA); Central-Office Position; Participatory Management; Public Education; Public Schools; School Board; Superintendent; Superintendency
Approximately 14,000 school districts make up our nation's public education system (Richard, 2000). While many people may unintentionally take ubiquitous access to public schools for granted, the truth is that it is the local school district leadership that enables schools to function as they do. Serving as the primary face of this leadership is the District Superintendent.
Our school superintendencies are occupied by experienced and accomplished men and women. While most enjoy their work, few will argue that the job isn't demanding. School superintendents must be leaders, communicators, mediators, decision makers, and supporters. The job holds unique challenges that, for many, make it more of a vocation than an occupation.
Educational consultant and 1990 National Superintendent of the Year Don Draayer offers a unique parsing of the word "super-in-tend-ent" to arrive at the essence of what it means to be one (Draayer, 2006). A superintendent, he writes, is responsible for "tending" the school district. He or she "watches over, guards and responds to the needs of those within his or her charge: early childhood, K-12 and adult learners, co-workers, community and society at large" (Draayer, 2006, p. 1).
A superintendent is also responsible for the district's "intending." Beyond tending to the day to day needs of the district, the superintendent must
set forth goals, strike direction and achieve purposes. Status quo goes out the window. Homeostasis is found not in what was or is, but what shall be. Leadership, action and change form centerpieces of the job description. Boldness, risk and opportunity come together intentionally when this fuller measure of the superintendent's job is properly understood (Draayer 2006, pp. 1-2).
Finally, superintendency, in exceeding the demands of most other jobs, is more of a vocation than an occupation. Draayer notes that "[a]ccepting the title of school superintendent requires a willingness to apply both the mind and heartfelt values to the cause of education with a level of devotion and direction that clearly goes beyond the ordinary. Accountability is tied to the highest standards" (Draayer, 2006, p. 2).
Despite the "super" nature of the superintendency, White (2007) observes that the superintendency is only as strong as the level of support which it receives from the school district. White suggests that while superintendents must lead their respective districts, they must also remain aware that "the key leaders are the teachers and the principals who supervise them" (White, 2007).
The qualities a superintendent needs to be successful vary from district to district. Every district has its own difficulties and political situations which require different skills and experiences from its superintendent. When choosing a superintendent, school boards tend to look most closely at the candidate's academic qualifications, administrative experience, community relationships, and personal qualities (Glass 1993).
The majority of superintendents hold doctorate degrees, usually in education administration; most other superintendents hold masters' degrees. However, some studies indicate that education administration programs often do not sufficiently prepare students for the challenges they will face as administrators (Glass, 1993, p.79; Jacobon, 2005). Programs tend to emphasize theory over practice, resulting in graduates who have not had the opportunity to test what they have learned in the real world of education.
Rather than their academic credentials, superintendents usually cite their experiences serving in other administrative positions as the best preparation for a superintendent position. In a 1991 study of superintendents whom their peers identified as exemplary, most had followed a career path from teacher to principal to central office to a superintendency. Sixty-three percent of these exemplary superintendents had spent five or fewer years teaching, and 68.5% began their first administrative position before they reached the age of thirty (Glass, 1993). Administrative positions help aspiring superintendents gain a better understanding of school board operations and the relationship between boards or committees and superintendents, as well as how to manage financial resources and build support among stakeholders (Hord et al, 1993).
Another major consideration is how well a superintendent understands and relates to the district in which he or she is serving. Meeting a community's educational needs requires the support of a variety of groups including school board members, principals, teachers, students, and parents. Often, these groups have conflicting interests. A superintendent must maintain strong relationships with all of these stakeholders in order to effectively mediate between them for the good of the district.
Finally, a superintendent must demonstrate certain personal qualities which inspire trust and confidence within the district. School boards often ask that candidates have good judgment, personality, poise, intelligence, a sense of humor, good physical and mental health and an open mind (Hoard et al, 1993). Superintendents are highly visible figures in their communities, and can quickly attract criticism for actual or perceived mistakes. They must have the strength of character to work with districts through the pressures attending their jobs.
School boards and superintendents should also have similar visions for their districts. Some school boards are more or less satisfied with their community's schools and only need the superintendent to maintain their performance. Other boards might desire specific improvements like raising test scores; they need someone who will work with them to develop the district, but not fundamentally change it. Another board may have come to a point where its members believe deep, systemic change is needed. Their superintendent must be willing to provide and implement a deep, comprehensive vision that will radically change how the district functions. Though school boards and superintendents may disagree on the specifics of how plans should be executed, to maintain a good working relationship, it is crucial that they share similar visions of the district's future (Hoard et al, 1993).
At its core, the superintendency is a position both of leadership and accountability and of support and personnel development. A successful superintendent has "the ability to bring out the best leadership qualities in colleagues, parents and students and engender in them the same kind of passion for the district's vision and goals" (White, 2007, p. 1). In and of itself, however, this can often prove a daunting task. Board members, administrators and teachers can sometimes be less than enthusiastic about implementing changes or improvements proposed by the superintendent. Such a lack of support, White notes, can be a source of tension which not only delays the implementation of program improvements but can also cause relational roadblocks between the superintendent and the school board.
Because so many stakeholders are involved in the future of a school district, White (2007) emphasizes that communication is vital. He writes, "Communication is the essential tool for building the case for change and creating the mandate for destroying the status quo. It is the key to neutralizing or defeating the common attitude of 'this reform, too, shall pass'" (White, 2007, p. 2). One of the best ways to create an environment conducive to success is for the superintendent to nurture relationships with school boards, administrators, and teachers in order to effectively delegate tasks and leadership.
The superintendent must also be sure that his vision is clearly communicated to teachers and administrators – people who work most closely with students. In the end, it will be these people who see out the day to day implementation of the superintendent's vision. White recommends "comprehensive recruitment, effective staff development, and clearly defined and supported expectations" (2007, p. 2). However, it is the superintendent who ultimately bears the praise or the blame for success or failure. "[T]he superintendent," White writes, "is always responsible for what happens in the school district" (White, 2007, p. 2).
By the Numbers: Gender in the Superintendency
While the demographics of many professions have changed over time to better reflect national or even regional demographics, school superintendencies have in many ways remained demographically static. This is...
(The entire section is 4246 words.)