ERIC Identifier: ED468515 Publication Date: 2002-09-00
Author: Lashway, Larry Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Educational Management Eugene OR.
The Superintendent in an Age of Accountability. ERIC Digest.
To outsiders, the role of the school superintendent has always been a little
mystifying. Most people can explain that the superintendent is the ultimate
"person in charge," but what superintendents actually do remains vague.
In truth, superintendents themselves may sometimes wonder. Their once
imposing authority has eroded considerably in the last several decades. State
and federal policymakers have not hesitated to impose major mandates on
districts, and a variety of special-interest groups have become assertive about
advancing their agenda through the schools. Parents and teachers are more
inclined to demand a seat at the decision-making table, and a growing number of
charter schools are public but not fully answerable to the district. Most of
all, standards-based accountability has made reform not just the trademark of
progressive superintendents but a minimum expectation for the job.
How are superintendents responding to their changed environment? What
leadership strategies are they using? Is the superintendency in a state of
crisis, as some assert, or is it just adapting to fit the times? This Digest
examines those questions.
ARE SUPERINTENDENTS AN ENDANGERED SPECIES?
The language of
crisis pervades many discussions of the superintendency, and at first glance it
would be easy to agree. Paul Houston, executive director of the American
Association of School Administrators, says, "The job is impossible, the
expectations are inappropriate, the training is inadequate, and the pipeline is
Houston cites a number of trends that have made district leadership so
difficult: changing demographics and growing diversity, a fragmenting culture,
deregulation in the form of vouchers and charter schools, decentralization of
power, and increased accountability with no additional authority.
As the complexity of the job has increased, so have fears of a dwindling pool
of qualified leaders. Bruce Cooper and colleagues (2000) found that almost 90
percent of the superintendents they surveyed agreed that "the applicant shortage
represents a crisis in the superintendency." The Institute of Educational
Leadership has portrayed the urban superintendency as a merry-go-round with an
average tenure of less than three years (Task Force on School District
This seemingly grim assessment does not tell the whole story, however. Other
studies have indicated that the average tenure of superintendents is at least
five years, even in supposedly volatile urban settings (National School Boards
Association 2002; Thomas Glass and colleagues 2000). While almost a quarter
serve less than three years, the majority appear to have a reasonable amount of
time to make an impact on their districts.
In addition, surveys reveal a district leadership cadre that is largely
confident and committed, if sometimes frustrated. For example, 69 percent of
superintendents in a Public Agenda survey agreed that "with the right
leadership, even the most troubled school districts can be turned around" (Steve
Farkas and colleagues 2001). Glass and colleagues found that only 6 percent of
their sample said they derived little or no satisfaction from their jobs.
Houston probably speaks for many when he observes that the superintendency is
less a job than a calling. The opportunity to "shape the lives of children in
profound ways" is powerful compensation for all the frustrations.
HOW DO SUPERINTENDENTS LEAD?
How do superintendents
navigate through the leadership maze? Arguing that "conflict is the DNA of the
superintendency," Larry Cuban (1998) says that superintendents struggle to
create coherence out of the numerous and sometimes incompatible goals that the
public sets for schools. Expected to improve the system, but lacking direct
control over the classroom, "most district administrators have to create their
own personal cause-effect models and rely on luck."
Cuban notes that superintendents must fashion a solution out of three
sometimes-conflicting roles: instructional, managerial, and political. As
instructional leaders, they bear ultimate responsibility for improving student
achievement. As managerial leaders, they have to keep their districts operating
efficiently, with a minimum of friction, yet taking risks to make necessary
changes. As political leaders, they have to negotiate with multiple stakeholders
to get approval for programs and resources.
All the roles are apparently necessary. Susan Moore Johnson (1996) found the
same three themes in her indepth study of superintendents, as did Nancy
Nestor-Baker and Wayne Hoy (2001). The latter study also found that
superintendents spent the most time thinking about the interpersonal dimensions
of their political and managerial roles, especially in dealing with the board.
Board relationships are a continuing issue for district leaders. Despite
theoretical clarity in the division of labor (the board sets policy and the
superintendent executes it), the practical application is much more ambiguous.
Although boards accept most of their administrators' policy recommendations
(Glass and colleagues), superintendents have to work hard to frame issues in a
way that will garner majority support. Whereas 93 percent of the superintendents
Glass (2001) surveyed reported a collaborative relationship with the board, 70
percent believed the current governance structure should be restructured or
HOW WILL THE ESEA REAUTHORIZATION CHANGE THE WORK OF
The recent ESEA reauthorization puts federal teeth into
standards-based accountability. Testing will become an annual event; states must
define "adequate yearly progress" to measure success; and schools failing to
meet the standard will face a variety of consequences. While these changes will
not eliminate the superintendent's political, managerial, or instructional
roles, they are likely to alter them in significant ways.
First, the new law will widen the gap between accountability and authority.
The expectations are higher and very explicit, and superintendents will be under
heavy pressure to keep districts on track. The new ESEA does little, however, to
enhance the superintendent's authority. In fact, the law strengthens
deregulation by mandating various kinds of parental choice in schools that fail
to demonstrate adequate yearly progress. In addition, corrective actions for
low-performing schools must be based on "scientifically based research," adding
another layer to the decision-making process and conceivably limiting the
options available to districts.
Second, the new law will heighten the superintendent's instructional role.
District administrators have typically been expected to set a tone that honors
and supports classroom instruction, but they have often done so in ways that are
symbolic or abstract. The new expectations will require an indepth understanding
of instructional strategies, coaching techniques, and use of data to guide
decision-making (Katy Anthes 2002). This does not require superintendents to
immerse themselves in the details of instructional planning and execution, but
they must be knowledgeable enough to hold principals and teachers accountable
for effective practice.
Third, the new law may affect the superintendent's relationship with the
board. District leaders serve at the pleasure of the board, and must continually
work to maintain credibility and support. In most cases this is a highly
interactive and personal process, based more on relationships and impressions
than on tangible criteria (Johnson). However, ESEA's "adequate yearly progress"
standard is specific, objective, and highly visible, with the outcome having
major consequences for the district. It will likely play a central role in the
board's evaluation of the superintendent.
HOW DO SUPERINTENDENTS ACT AS INSTRUCTIONAL LEADERS?
recent reform efforts have been focused at the school level, there is growing
evidence that districts can play a crucial role in improvement. Julie Marsh
(2000) notes that the district is the link that connects the state, individual
schools, and the community. On the one hand, it can ignore, resist, or
re-interpret state policy. At the same time, it is the crucial agent in
mobilizing the human, social, and physical capital needed to make major changes.
Johnson found that effective instructional leadership required a clear
instructional vision but that "good ideas, in themselves, never carried the
day." Superintendents were dependent on principals and teachers to actually
carry out the vision and were most successful when they could elicit commitment
from the staff. They did this by providing resources, buffering staff from
outside meddling, being visible, engaging others in conversation about
instruction, and empowering collaborative risk taking.
By focusing professional development on instructional issues and basing
principal evaluation on instructional improvement, superintendents can create
powerful learning communities within their districts. Without attempting to
micromanage classrooms, district leaders can be firm in asserting the
instructional agenda and aligning the organization to support it.
HOW CAN THE SUPERINTENDENT'S ROLE BE STRENGTHENED?
evolving role of the superintendent presents challenges for universities,
policymakers, researchers, school boards, and superintendents themselves.
Universities should revise preparation programs to provide district leaders
with the knowledge and skills needed to create well-focused learning
organizations. Superintendents need a thorough grounding in the complexities of
today's instructional leadership; a few courses in curriculum and supervision
will no longer do the job.
Policymakers and researchers should explore ways to bring better balance into
the accountability-authority equation. The radical instructional improvement
demanded by the new ESEA will require strong leadership at the district level.
School boards should work closely with superintendents to clarify their
expectations for performance and evaluation. Without strong and highly visible
board support, district administrators will be preoccupied with shoring up their
political base and thus unlikely to take the bold steps needed for transforming
Superintendents should put instruction at the top of the district's agenda.
While the managerial and political dimensions of the job will not go away, those
roles should be aligned with the overriding goal of continuous instructional
As long as the push for standards-based accountability remains strong,
district leaders can expect a turbulent and stressful job climate. At the same
time, superintendents continue to find creative responses to the challenge. If
the current situation is a crisis, it is the kind of crisis that energizes
rather than paralyzes.
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Child Left Behind Policy Brief. Denver: Education Commission of the States,
2002. 6 pages.
Cooper, Bruce; Lance Fusarelli; and Vincent Carella. Career Crisis in the
Superintendency? Arlington, Virginia: American Association of School
Administrators, 2000. 51 pages. ED 443 167.
Farkas, Steve; Jean Johnson; Ann Duffet; and Tony Foleno; with Patrick Foley.
Trying To Stay Ahead of the Game. New York: Public Agenda, 2001.
Glass, Thomas. Superintendent Leaders Look at the Superintendency, School
Boards and Reform. ECS Issue Paper. Denver: Education Commission of the States,
Glass, Thomas; Lars Bjork; and C. Cryss Brunner. The Study of the American
School Superintendency, 2000. Arlington, Virginia: American Association of
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Houston, Paul. "Superintendents for the 21st Century: It's Not Just a Job,
It's a Calling." Phi Delta Kappan 82, 6 (February 2001): 428-43. EJ 621 320.
Johnson, Susan Moore. Leading to Change: The Challenge of the New
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Marsh, Julie A. Connecting Districts to the Policy Dialogue: A Review of
Literature on the Relationship of Districts with States, Schools, and
Communities. Seattle: Center for the Study of Teaching and Policy, 2000. 32
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[Council of Urban Boards of Education] Survey Report: Superintendent Tenure.
Alexandria, Virginia: Author, 2002. 13 pages.
Nestor-Baker, Nancy S., and Wayne K. Hoy. "Tacit Knowledge of School
Superintendents: Its Nature, Meaning, and Content." Educational Administration
Quarterly 37, 1 (February 2001): 86-129.
Task Force on School District Leadership. Restructuring School District
Leadership. Washington, D.C.: Institute for Educational Leadership, 2001. 40
pages. ED 458 684.