Sunday, July 4, 2010

ISER Paper Bjork

Educational Reform in the USA: Characteristics of Superintendents in Instructionally Effective School Districts


Dr. Lars G. Björk, PhD.

Paper Presented at the

International Symposium on Educational Reform: 2010
Republic of South Africa

July 26, 2010

Dr. Lars G. Björk, PhD.

Professor and Interim Chair, Department of Educational Leadership Studies

College of Education, University of Kentucky

111 Dickey Hall, Lexington, Kentucky 40506-0017
(859)-257-2450, (FAX) 257-1015,


This paper will be divided into four separate yet related sections. The first section is intended to familiarize readers with the educational “system” in the United States of America. Rather than having a national system of education, each state in the country is responsible for providing education. The second section will describe the nature and direction of educational reform in the USA between the years 1983-2010 described as three distinct “waves”. This discussion of how school and district-level leadership is changing in response to demands for improving learning for all students is central to understanding the dynamic shift in leader expectations presently occurring in the United States. The third section briefly describes the characteristics of individuals who serve as superintendents, the nature of their work and emerging leadership expectations. Lastly the paper will review empirical evidence regarding strategies or “levers of change” used by superintendents in instructionally effective school districts.

Early findings of Bridges (1982) and Cuban (1984) indicate that the success or failure of public schools has been directly linked to the influence of the district superintendent, particularly those who maintain a high level of involvement in instructional programs. Murphy, Hallinger and Peterson (1985) note that "districts with excellent student achievement have superintendents who are personally involved" (p. 79) with their curriculum and instructional program. Björk (2005. 2008) found a curious anomaly in research data on superintendents’ work: Although they primarily are responsible for managing a school district those serving in instructionally effective school districts use their positions (i.e.) organizational space to leverage change needed to improve learning and teaching. In other words, superintendents can use their position in the organization and make management decisions that indirectly influence the behavior of principals and classroom teachers who have a greater and more direct impact on curriculum, instruction and student academic performance. The Instructionally Effective School Districts (IESD) research identified five strategically important leadership activities including: a) staff selection and recruitment; b) principal supervision and evaluation; c) establishing clear instructional and curricular goals; d) monitoring learning and curricular improvement activities and, financial planning for instruction. When superintendents reframe routine management decisions they become levers of change that can increase the instructional effectiveness of their districts.

Overview of the Decentralized System of Education in the United States
A national system of education does not exist in the United States in the same sense that it does in most European countries where education is centralized and controlled through a ministry of education. Education in the United States is considered as state function and responsibility is handled by local boards of education that may be organized by counties (provinces) or cities. There are fifty different state systems and many differences exist among local school systems within the same state. There are approximates 15,000 different local school districts-each has their own board, philosophy and goals

The U.S. Constitution makes no mention of education, but the Tenth Amendment reserves to states all powers not specifically delegated to the federal government or prohibited to states by the Constitution. This provision is the basis for allocating responsibility for public education to states. However, states have delegated to local districts the responsibility of the practical day-to-day operation of schools to local districts.

The Role of the Federal Government in Education:

The schools have always been a responsibility of towns and cities in the United States, rooted in Colonial tradition of the nation. However, the federal government has always had some say in public education. The welfare clause of the U.S. Constitution gives Congress to tax for the common good and for general purposes. The language is broad enough for the federal government to use public tax monies to support the nation’s school and enact educational laws for the welfare of the people. The federal government provides support through state governments that transfer funds to local schools. The United States Department of Education administered by a secretary of education, provides oversight of federal education programs (i.e.) distribution of tax funds, collects data on the condition of education in the nation and supports long-term research on important issues facing schools.

The Role of the State Government in Education:

Every state has a by Constitution, laws, and practice responsibility for the support and maintenance of education within its borders. States give local boards of education responsibility for managing school districts. Schools are funded by local property taxes (60%), states allocations (33%) and the feral government (7%). Being responsible for schools, states legislatures make laws regarding education, determines school taxes and financial support to local districts, sets minimum standards teacher and administrative licensure and personnel salaries, determines the curriculum, and special services (buses, books, and programs). The state school code is a compilation of laws that guide the operation of school districts and conduct of education in states.

State constitutions and laws provide for the establishment of a uniform system of schools and specify how they are governed. The typical state hierarch includes a school board that may be either elected or appointed by the governor. The state board of education hires a commissioner or secretary of education to oversee the state department of education. Sate departments of education have separate departments and experts that are aligned with different aspects of education and provide oversight of local school operations.

Local School Districts

The local school district is the basic administrative unit in the education hierarchy. It exists at the pleasure of the state, which has complete control of its boundaries, jurisdiction, funding, and powers of the board of education. It is the primary point of education access of citizens in education policy making. Policy making at the local level is constrained by the need to comply with the state constitution, state rules and regulations. In other words, local policies can’t conflict with the state constitution or laws. The local school boards primary responsibility is legislative (i.e.) making policy and providing oversight of school district operations. Because citizens who are not experts in school affairs are members of boards of education, they must ensure that school professional personnel carry out these responsibilities. Districts are comprised of many schools that include grades Pre-schools, elementary schools (grades 1-5), middle schools (grades 6-9) and high schools (grades 10-12). A board of education is elected and holds staggered terms to ensure continuity of decisions over time. Boards tend to have 5-9 citizens however cities may have large boards of 12-15 members.

The District Superintendent

Local school boards hire a district superintendent who serves as a chief executive officer and manages its day-to-day affairs. They have a “central office” staff that varies in size with district size. The central office staff provides oversight and support to local schools. Superintendents are hired on multiple year contracts (usually 3 years in length). Over an average superintendents career lasting 16 years they serve in about 2 districts spending about 7 years in each. Superintendent duties include: (1) Advising the board of education on education and policy matters; (2) Making recommendations to the board regarding personnel hiring; (3) Ensuring compliance with directives of state and federal authorities; (4) Preparing district budgets for board review and adoption; (5) Leading long-range planning activities; (6) Providing oversight of instructional programs and student performance; (7) Determining the internal organizational

structure of the district; and (8) Making recommendations regarding school building maintenance and new construction needs.

The School Principal

In most states, superintendents who recommend individuals to be hired by the board of education interview principals. In Kentucky, an education reform state, school based councils made up of three teachers and two parents interview principal candidates and recommend them to the superintendent who in turn presents the names of individuals to the board for employment. Superintendents however evaluate and may fire principals.

Usually each school has a single administrative officer, a principal who is responsible for the operation of the school. It is common practice for principals to work closely some type of community group for improvement of the school; this group may be a Parent Teacher Association (PTA), school based management council (SBMC) or a site based decision-making council (SBDMC). During the education reform movement in the United States (1983-2004) the role of principals shifted from management to instructional leadership and ensuring that all students learn. Characteristics of effective principals evidences leadership in areas of curriculum and instruction and who has implemented:

1. High expectations for student achievement.

2. A coherent curriculum across grade levels

3. Well articulated instruction

4. Clearly defined goals and objectives that are aligned with standards

5. Maximizing learning time.

6. An emphasis on reading and math skills

7. Staff development programs

8. A sense of order in classrooms

9. Monitors student academic progress

10. Incentives or rewards for students and teachers

11. Parent-community involvement

12. Positive school climate.

School-Based Decision Making Councils

During the education reform movement in the United States education moved towards distributed leadership and more inclusive governance systems. This change was consistent with broad changes in the role of principals that shifted from hierarchical management towards working with and through others (transformational leadership). Although the size and membership of school-based councils vary in size and membership most include 3 teachers, two parents and the principal as an ad hoc member. This approach gives voice to groups that have not been empowered to part of the school’s governance and decision-making structure in the past. Recently, they have been regarded as central to the task of school improvement and student learning. Councils tend to focus on school policy making however in some reform states like Kentucky they also have authority over selecting the principal, curriculum and instruction, the school budget, planning and hiring teachers and support staff.

Educational Reform in the USA


Several public policy initiatives have defined the nature and direction of education reform during past half century (1954-2007). The first focused on ensuring equal access to public education to all students and stimulated unprecedented expansion of education in the nation. The second policy initiative focused on achieving academic excellence. During the last two decades (1983-2003), widespread concerns for the nation’s economy were linked to questionable condition of public education. During the early 1980’s several national commissions and task forces were convened to scrutinize public schools. Their reports were highly critical of the condition of education in the nation and launched what is arguably the most intense and sustained effort to reform public education in American history.

National Education Commission and Task Force Reports

Although serious efforts to correct school deficiencies began in the late 1970's (Firestone, 1990), the release of a Nation at Risk in 1983 launched an era of educational reform in the United States unprecedented both in its magnitude, duration, and intensity. Although the content and claims made within the Nation at Risk document were disputed, the media coverage of this publication facilitated the development of a public perception that not only had our nation’s schools failed children but this failure had precipitated the nation’s economic decline. This perception stimulated calls for investigating public school effectiveness.

Analysts agree that educational reform reports were released in three successive waves and reflected separate yet related themes (Bacharach, 1990; Firestone, Furhman, & Kirst, 1990; Lane & Epps, 1992; Murphy, 1990). The first swell of educational reform reports (1983‑1986) commenced with the release of A Nation at Risk (1983), which was followed in rapid succession by similar documents including Making the Grade (1983), High School (1983), Action for Excellence (1983), and Educating Americans for the 21st Century (1983) (Björk, 1996). These first wave reports called for improving student test scores, assessing school-wide performance and tracking progress, increasing graduation requirements, lengthening the school day and year, and increasing the rigor of teacher licensure requirements. As a consequence, many states promulgated legislation that focused on increasing school accountability and regulatory controls that often reached into the classroom. These initiatives shifted policy making from districts to state levels of government, constrained the district role in policy-making, expanded the size of district bureaucracies and increased the workload of superintendents, principals, and teachers (Björk, 1996).

Although a wide array of recommendations was offered by the authors of second wave reports (1986‑1989), an analysis of five of them—A Nation Prepared (1986);, Tomorrow's Teachers (1986), Time for Results (1986), Investing in Our Children (1985), and Children in Need (1987)—revealed recurring themes. First, they affirmed the need to institute standards-based assessment systems to hold schools accountable for improving student test scores. Second, recommendations called for placing greater emphasis on higher-order thinking skills, problem solving, computer competency, and cooperative learning. Third, they acknowledged that national demographic trends and circumstances of children living in poverty had important implications for education. Fourth, they made a compelling case for radically redesigning teaching and learning processes to strengthen programs to better serve all children particularly those viewed as “at risk” (Murphy, 1990). Fifth, the reports concluded that bureaucratic school structures and rigid regulatory controls had a stultifying effect on schools and contributed to low academic performance and high student failure rates. As a consequence, they recommended decentralizing decision-making and adopting site-based management (SBM) approaches that increased teacher participation and professionalism (Björk, 1996).


Authors of the third wave (1989-2003) reports were highly critical of previous solution driven commission recommendations (Peterson, 1985; Clark & Astuto, 1994) that placed greater emphasis on organizational and professional issues rather than on the well being of students and student learning. Prominent reports released during the third wave included, Beyond Rhetoric: A New American Agenda for Children and Families (1991), Turning Points (1989), Visions of a Better Way: A Black Appraisal of Public Schooling (1989), Education That Works: An Action Plan for the Education of minorities (1990), National Excellence: A Case for Developing America's Talent released in November 1993 and Great Transitions (1995). Authors of these reports offered two canons for authentic reform. First, efforts to improve education had to focus on children and learning rather than on organizational structures or teacher professionalism. Second, providing support to families was viewed as essential to enhancing children’s capacity to learn as was fundamentally redesigning schools to serve as the hub of integrated service systems (Murphy, 1990, p. 29).

In 2002 enactment of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) reiterated earlier commission report themes that focused on assessing student learning and school accountability. Although the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) eventually gained bipartisan support, conservative and progressive factions in Congress were sharply divided over the issue of funding adequacy. Conservatives believed that a combination of modest federal support, reallocation of state education appropriations, and judicious use of existing district resources would adequately fund NCLB mandates. Although progressives agreed that the intent of NCLB was laudable in that it is directed towards ensuring that all children learn, they, however, were highly critical of how it was implemented and inclusion of high stakes accountability measures. They regard NCLB as the largest under-funded federal education mandate in American history.

Although most educational reform reports released during the past several decades (1983-2003) underscore the importance of strengthening school curriculum, teaching and learning for all children, Peterson and Finn (1985) commented that: “at a time when the nation is deeply concerned about the performance of its schools, and near-to-obsessed with the credentials and careers of those who teach in them, scant attention has been paid to the preparation and qualifications of those who lead them” (p.42). The notion that school leaders are key to the success of reform initiatives was subsequently affirmed by several commission reports released by the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy (1986), the Holmes Group (1986), the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education (1988), and the National Commission for the Advancement of Educational Leadership Preparation (2002). As a consequence, serious questions were raised about the condition and viability of university-based professional preparation (Björk, 2001).

Several national commission reports (NCEEA, 1987; NPBEA, 1989; NCAELP, 2002) recommended that Revising Course Content and course sequences were at the center of developing a coherent work-embedded curriculum. In addition, the Danforth Foundation (1987) recommended that programs shift away from conventional emphasis on school management to an emphasis on leadership that reflects emerging work in decentralized systems characterized by shared governance, participatory decision making, and school-based councils, while the NCAELP recommended that programs be anchored to leadership that is focused on supporting student learning (Young, 2002a). These reports were consistent in articulating that principals and superintendents were central to the success of school reform, and as expectations for enhancing students’ learning increased the notion of leadership for learning evolved. Embedded within the concept “leadership for learning” is the expectation that school and district leaders will have a working knowledge of learning, teaching, curriculum construction and alignment (Björk, 1993; Cambron-McCabe, 1993; Murphy, 1993).

In 2000, the American Education Research Association (AERA) in collaboration with UCEA and the Laboratory for Student Success (LSS) at Temple University formed a task force, Developing Research in Educational Leadership, and charged it with responsibility for promoting and encouraging high quality research in educational leadership. Three years later, it released its report, What We Know About Successful School Leadership (Leithwood & Riehl, 2003) that reviewed research findings and summarized what we know about effective leadership related to instructional improvement as well as implications for current practice and the preparation of aspiring leaders. The report provides policy makers, practitioners, and professors with empirical evidence on how school and district leaders can directly and indirectly influence student achievement.

The task force made a compelling case for re-centering the work of practitioners to improve learning and teaching as well as to re-align university-based professional preparation to be consistent with these new demands. The report provides empirical evidence that supports five (5) ways that leaders can positively influence student learning.

1. Successful school leaders can positively affect student learning by distributing leadership, enacting moral, instructional, and transformational leadership roles as well as establishing high academic expectations.

2. They can identify a core set of leadership practices that have shown to be successful across educational contexts including setting directions, building the capacity of school staff, and developing the organization.

3. Successful leaders can view accountability as both challenges and opportunities to align changing practices with school contexts and needs.

4. They can approach the education of diverse groups of students by developing a better understanding of community contexts and examining prevailing school practices.

5. School leaders can help nurture the educational culture of families by building trust, improving communication, providing parents with the knowledge and resources needed to help their children succeed, and improving school practices.

Empirical evidence of successful school leadership delineated in the report, What We Know about Successful School Leadership (Leithwood & Riehl, 2003) provides as useful framework for improving practice and reconfiguring how the next generation of school and district leaders are identified, recruited, prepared, hired, and evaluated.

Part III

Superintendent Characteristics: Roles and Demographic Data

During the past several decades, widespread concern for the condition of education and the economy launched and sustained what arguably is the most intense effort to reform public education in recent history. For over two decades (1983-2005) national commission and task force reports examined the condition of American public education, heightened expectations for schooling, and called for improving instruction as well as fundamentally altering the manner in which schools are organized, administered, and governed. Recommendations for improvement stimulated reform initiatives launched by state legislatures, education agencies and districts not only challenged conventional assumptions about the nature of schooling but also increased awareness of the importance of school and district leadership. During the early 1990’s interest in large-scale systemic reform also heightened interest in the role of superintendents. Although they are viewed as essential to launching and sustaining improvement initiatives, the scope, intensity and complexity of changes increased demands on superintendents (Brunner, Grogan & Björk, 2002) and concurrently raised concerns both about how they are being changed, as well as, need to change.

One of the most important resources available to national, state, and local education policy-makers, researchers, and superintendents interested in tracking changes, understanding problems and framing solutions are the American Association of School Administrator’s (AASA) ten-year reports.

Beginning in 1923, the National Education Association’s (NEA) Department of Superintendence conducted the first in a series of nationwide studies of superintendents that has continued each decade throughout the 20th century. The Study of the American School Superintendency 2000: A Look at the Superintendent of Education in the New Millennium (Glass, Björk, & Brunner, 2000) is the most recent in this tradition of longitudinal studies. Although this and previous ten-year reports provide credible information about men in the profession, information on women in the superintendency are derived by disaggregating their responses (294) from the total (2,262) number of surveys returned. This approach can lead to a less than thorough understanding of the characteristic and perspectives of women in the superintendency. Recently C. Cryss Brunner and Margaret Grogan completed an important and indeed historic initiative, The 2003 Study of Women Superintendents and Women Central Office Administrators, funded by (AASA). Brunner and Grogan (2003) used the same survey instrument developed for the most recent AASA ten-year study (Glass, et. al., 2000) and included additional open-ended questions to gain greater insight into important issues facing these superintendents. As a consequence, data from these two studies not only may be compared but together provide definitive national data sets that are indispensable to scholars, practitioners and policy makers. Selected findings relating to how women perceive and enact the five role configurations that are addressed in this volume are reported in Chapter 10, “Women Superintendents and Role Conception: (Un)Troubling the Norms”.

Empirical data from the ten-year study (Glass, et al., 2000) provide current information on the superintendency including demographic characteristics, search and selection to the superintendency (i.e.) role expectations, age, career patterns, tenure, turnover and attrition, school board relationships, and superintendents' opinions on important problems facing the field discussed in Chapter 2. Findings on professional preparation and the relationship between community power, board political configurations, and superintendents preferred administrative style and mentoring are reported in chapters three and seven of this volume. In addition, Brunner and Grogan (2005) discuss recent findings on women in the superintendency in chapter 10 of this volume.

The superintendency is a position fraught with a wide range of problems. As a consequence, local boards of education seek to hire superintendents who are viewed as change agents capable of improving learning and teaching, increasing management efficiency, and effectively responding to community demands. Glass, et al., (2000) report that 26% of superintendents are hired to serve as change agents. Expectations to serve as change agents appear fairly uniform across all districts ranging from 29% for superintendents in large urban districts to 25% for superintendents in very small rural districts. An examination of five superintendents role expectations provide a comprehensive view of their work after they are hired.

Superintendent Role Expectations

As discussed by Kowalski in Chapter1, Callahan (1967) identified four stages in the evolution of the American superintendency (1865-1966) that describe distinct role conceptualizations including (a): scholarly leaders (1850-1900), business managers (1900-1930), educational statesmen (1930-1950), and social scientists (1950-1967). In addition, Kowalski (2003) posits that a fifth role conceptualization, communicator is needed to describe how they enacted their role over the course of history (1850-2003). Kowalski and Björk (2004) and Kowalski (2005) investigated these role conceptualizations. These role configurations will be discussed to ascertain relevance in contemporary district settings.

Teacher-Scholar. From the mid-1880s until the first decade of the twentieth century, superintendents’ work was primarily focused on implementing a state curriculum, supervising teachers, and was viewed as “master” teachers and intellectual leaders in larger districts (Callahan, 1962; Petersen & Barnett, 2005). Although their educational leadership role waned after 1910, it did not become totally irrelevant. Rather, over the following decades, expectations that superintendents should provide oversight of district academic affairs fluctuated in importance. During recent decades, wide-scale interests in school reform heightened expectations that district CEOs provide the visionary leadership and expertise to improve student academic performance. The AASA report (Glass et al., 2000) found that the teacher-scholar role remains highly relevant. For example, over 40% of all superintendents surveyed indicated that the school board’s primary expectation of them was to serve as an educational leader. This role expectation was more pronounced (48%) in lager districts serving more than 25,000 students (48%) and in those serving between 3,000 and 24,999 students (51%). It appears that school board expectations for superintendents to serve as educational leaders vary by gender. For example, 51% of females and 38% of males indicate that this is their most important responsibility. In addition, slightly over one-quarter of superintendents (26%) indicated they were expected to serve as an instructional leader. This responsibility typically involves working closely with other administrators and teachers to improve learning and teaching in the district. Furthermore, functions associated with their role as an educational leader are directly related to significant challenges facing their districts including assessing and testing learner outcomes (ranked second); dealing with demands for new ways of teaching or operating educational programs (ranked fourth); and coping with changing priorities in the curriculum (ranked fifth). These data suggest that superintendent as educational leader and teacher-scholar (Callahan, 1962) remain highly relevant (Kowalski & Björk, 2004).

Business Manager. As the size of districts increased during the latter part of the 19th century, questions were raised about whether superintendents had the knowledge and skills to competently manage the affairs of large urban school districts (Cuban, 1976; Kowalski, 1999). After the turn of the century however, superintendents were assigned management duties including budget development, administrative oversight of operations, and personnel and facility management. Although support for superintendents to serve as business managers diminished after the 1929 stock market crash, most realized the need for competent district management-a perspective that became deeply embedded in the culture of school administration (Kowalski, 1999) and remains a highly relevant aspect of superintendents’ work (Kowalski & Glass, 2002). For example, more than one-third (36%) of the superintendents indicated a primary expectation of the board was to be a managerial leader (Glass et al., 2000). A very large percentage identified three serious management-related problems facing them including (a) lack of adequate financial resources (97%); accountability (88%); and compliance with state and federal mandates (82%). These critical management issues suggest the continued importance of this aspect of the superintendent role (Kowalski & Björk, 2004).

Educational Statesman. This role conceptualization is anchored in American political philosophy and the political realities of superintendents’ work (Björk & Gurley, 2005). During education’s formative years, the profession eschewed political involvement by superintendents (Björk & Lindle, 2001; Kowalski, 1995). During the 1930’s however, these convictions were set aside as expectations mounted for school and district administrators to serve as lobbyists and political strategists, and successfully compete for scarce resources. Melby (1955), Callahan (1962) and Howlett (1993) endorsed the idea of democratic administration and viewed local communities as an important resource that could be mobilized to galvanize support for district’s initiatives. Although the notion of superintendents serving as democratic leaders fell from favor in the 1950’s (Kowalski, 1999) emerging circumstances in the coming decades supported recognition that superintendents needed to function as democratic leaders (Björk & Gurley, 2005). The role of superintendents as democratic leaders is defined by the realities rather than the rhetoric of practice. For example, Glass, et al. (2000) found that 58% of superintendents said that community-based interest groups attempted to influence board decisions. This was even more pronounced in large school districts serving more than 25,000 students in which more than 90% of superintendents indicated that interest groups influence was prevalent. In addition, nearly 13% of superintendents indicated that board’s primary role expectation for them was to serve as a democratic or political leader. Furthermore, 83% of superintendents said that administrator-board relations (e.g.) micro-politics was a serious problem. Evidence suggests that role expectations for superintendents to serve as democratic leaders are important in district community contexts (Kowalski & Björk, 2004).

Social Scientists. Although the notion of superintendent as applied social scientist was influenced by a wide range of factors (Callahan, 1966; Fusarelli & Fusarelli, 2005; Kowalski & Björk, 2004) including attempts by educational administration programs to gain acceptance by social science disciplines (Culbertson, 1981), the need to understand school districts as complex systems (Getzels, 1977), and achieving social justice for children appear (Fusarelli & Fusarelli, 2005). These social factors have a profound impact on the capacity of public schools to educate all children and influence the nature of superintendents’ instructional leadership approach. Glass et al., (2000) found that 26% of superintendents were hired to serve as instructional leaders, 26% were hired to serve as change agents and once on the job 40% viewed instructional leadership as a key role expectation. In addition, negative effects of social factors on student academic performance require that superintendents to be at the forefront of ensuring that schools are simultaneously socially just, democratic, and productive learning environments (Fusarelli & Fusarelli, 2005; Goldring & Greenfiled, 2002; Sergiovanni, 1992; Starratt, 1991).

Communicator. School boards expect superintendents to effectively communicate with a wide range of constituents, subordinates, and colleagues in launching and sustaining district reform initiatives (Kowalski & Keedy, 2005). As Kowalski (1998) notes superintendents’ normative communicative behavior is influenced by several realities of practice (a) the need for them to provide leadership in improving learning and teaching, (b) the need for them to alter district cultures as part of improving schooling and (c) the need to access and use relevant information to solve problems of practice. Glass, et al., (2000) found that nearly all superintendents (95%) said that they were the board’s primary conduit of information about district and community matters. In addition, a majority of superintendents indicated that they communicated regularly with parents and other community citizens in (a) setting district objectives and priorities (69%); (b) strategic planning (61%); fundraising (60%) and program and curriculum decisions (60%). In addition, modern technologies enhance the quality of their communication (Kowalski & Keedy, 2005).

Superintendent Career Patterns

During recent years, scholars studying the characteristics of American superintendents (Brunner & Grogan, 2003; Hodgkinson & Montenegro, 1999; Johnson, 1996; Kowalski, 1995) report findings that are generally consistent with those reported by Glass, et al., (2000) in AASA’s most recent 10-year study. Between 1950-2003, the median age of superintendents has been approximately 50 years of age. This finding is understandable in view of typical superintendent career patterns that involve moving though the chairs and gaining experience as educators, managers and leaders. Although few individuals preparing to enter the education profession intend to become a superintendent, data identified two distinct career paths. The most common (48.5%) path traveled by superintendents was from teacher, to assistant principal or principal, to central office administrator, to superintendent. This career path is most prevalent among superintendents serving in districts serving more than 25,000 students and in districts with 3,000-24,999 students. The second most common route followed by aspiring superintendents (31.2%) was that from teacher, to assistant principal or principal to superintendent. This pattern appears to be most common in serving fewer than 2,999 students as well as in very small districts with less than 300 students (see Table 2). The latter finding is reasonable in so much as very small districts have a paucity of central office staff positions that may provide mid-career, stepping-stones to the superintendency. In addition, data indicate that the career path for males tends to be through the high school principalship. Although the work of superintendents and principals is qualitatively different, common wisdom in the field holds that they both require skills in managing large staffs, understanding the complexity of education organizations and honing their skills in working with citizens, parents, and community interest groups.

Table 2 Career Paths of Superintendents

Group A

>25,000 pupils

Group B

3,000-24,999 pupils

Group C 300-2,999 pupils

Group D <300


National Unweighted Profile

Career Path











Teacher, Principal, & Central Office


Principal & Central Office


Teacher &

Central Office


Teacher & Principal


Central Office Only


Principal Only


Teacher Only






Björk, L., Keedy, J., & Gurley, D. K. (2003). Career patterns of American Superintendents. Journal of School Leadership, 13(4), p. 411.

A comparison of findings from Glass, et al., (2000) and the previous ten-year study (Glass, 1992) indicate that aspiring superintendents are spending more time in moving through “the chairs” before becoming CEO’s. Increasing licensure and experience requirements, as well as, part-time/evening graduate school work (McCarthy, 1999) may contribute to increased time in the “chairs”. Typically, superintendents begin their career paths as a teacher at age 23. Then, after 8 years of teaching, they obtain an assistant principal or principal position in their early 30s. Some (9%) then move to a central office staff position in their late 30s. A significant majority, (84%) then attained a position as either an assistant principal or principal between the ages of 25–35. In most instances, individuals make decisions to become a superintendent when they are mid-career, typically while they are serving as an assistant principal or principal. Glass, et al., (2000) found that on average superintendents spent a little over a year in obtaining their first superintendency after becoming certified and actively seeking a position. Most entered the superintendency in their early to mid forties, serving in this position in 2-3 districts spanning between 15-18 years. They spend an average of nearly 7 years in each school district. In addition, Findings also indicate that 56% of superintendents had served in only one district, suggesting a substantial influx of new CEOs. Glass, et al., (2000) also found that although 88% of superintendents spend their education careers in one state, more than 68% of superintendents surveyed were hired from outside of their present district, influencing perceptions of impermanence and the transitory nature of the position.

Another interesting finding by Glass et al., (2000) was that superintendent career patterns are changing. For example, in 1971 46.5% of all superintendents in small rural districts with enrollments of fewer than 300 students were under the age of 40. Glass (1992) observed that only 17% of superintendents began their careers in small districts before moving up the ladder to larger suburban districts that are more adequately financed and offer higher salaries and benefits. The same trend appears to be unfolding in districts of 300-2,999 students. In 1971 22% of superintendents in these districts were under 40; however, by 1992 only 8% and then by 2000 only 2% reflected these characteristics. These data suggest that experienced superintendents are remaining in small to medium sized districts.

Part IV

Superintendents in Instructionally Effective School Districts

The Superintendent's Leadership and Management Role

Pfeffer (1984) suggests that leadership activities should be more evident at higher levels in the organization where there is greater discretion in decisions and activities. He further suggests that the effects of these leadership activities may vary according to differing levels in the organization. Our understanding of the effects of superintendents' leadership on instruction and student learning in individual schools and classrooms is limited. Studies indicate that the chief executive officer in most organizations remains far removed from core production

activities and instead focuses on issues such as corporate planning, external relations and finance.

Communication with the production level is infrequent, and when it does occur, is aoften through intermedaries. (Hannaway, 1989; Crowson and Morris, 1990). The corporate chief executive officer and the superintendent of schools are similar in that they tend to engage in management, policy activities and communication patterns that distance them from the core activities of their respective organizations. If we expect superintendents to act as instructional leaders in school districts it is crucial that we better understand the contextual constraints of their work as well as the opportunities for how their leadership and management activities can be reframed to more effectively support the instructional efforts of principals and classroom teachers at the opposite end of the education hierarchy.

Although Parsons (1960) suggests that leadership occurs on a separate plane of organizational activity in which the school organization is related to the larger social environment rather than being concerned with core production functions other writers offer a view to the contrary. They note that superintendents are decisive in directing district affairs but are also contextually constrained by the nature of their work and position. In view of these constraints, their leadership behavior may be best understood in terms of the structural aspects of the organization (Lieberman and O'Connor, 1972). Their indirect influence over the behavior of principals and teachers at the building level, who are more directly involved with core activities, is derived from their willingness or unwillingness to alter the structure in which these individuals work. Their leadership activities are limited to changing the reward structures, communication patterns, decision making procedures, socialization mechanisms, and evaluation procedures (Crowson and Morris, 1990). Other scholars, however, note that organizational leaders may have a direct impact upon the core production functions of the organization (Peterson, 1984; Thomas, 1988). This perspective suggests that a change in the superintendent's behavior at one end of the education hierarchy may signal changes in performance at the building and classroom levels. Thus, the structural changes initiated by the superintendent in such areas as evaluation and rewards for performance, staff recruitment, selection and socialization, rules and regulations provide a crucial "valuative tie that binds from top to bottom" (Crowson and Morris, 1990, p.6). Leadership at this level involves sending messages and role cues to participants at the lower levels in the organization not only through clearly stating the organization's goals but demonstrating their importance by making appropriate structural changes and rewarding participants who support those goals. In this way, the school superintendent may be able to have a more direct influence in changing the behavior of principals and teachers at the building and classroom levels.

Although our knowledge of the leadership provided by superintendents is sparse, it appears that they see their primary function as managing tightly structured bureaucracies (McPherson, Crowson and Pitner, 1986). They occupy a pivotal position at the top of the school's bureaucratic hierarchy, serve as the formal, rational chief school officer (Cuban, 1976) and serve as the spokesperson for the administration. Empirical studies indicate that they spent most of their time in office staff meetings with personnel issues dominating the agenda, they initiated only 50% of their activities, and face to face verbal interaction dominated their work (Feilders, 1978). The frequency and diversity of superintendents' interaction with others was noted by Mintzberg (1973) and Duigan (1980) who observed that superintendents engaged in one activity every thirty‑eight minutes, twenty‑five percent of which were unscheduled. Their observations complemented the work of Pitner (1978) who described superintendents as managers of information spending 80% of their time in verbal interaction transmitting technical information, formal rules and regulations, past experiences of the district, perceived preferences of individuals inside and outside the organization and projected possible consequences of decisions and conditions by different constituencies.

These studies suggest that the superintendent's work is dominated by management tasks and are separated from instruction and student learning however, they also suggest that their organizational position and administrative discretion provide the opportunity and means to influence instructional programs and activities at the building and classrooms levels in the school district.

Superintendents as Instructional Leaders

The emphasis placed on the instructional leadership dimension of the school superintendent's role has varied considerably over the past century. It ranged from being a prominent aspect of his/her responsibilities during the latter part of the 19th century only to be overshadowed by the demands for managing larger and more complex school systems at the turn of the century (Callahan, 1962; Gilland, 1935; and Reller, 1935). As the nation focused on educational excellence and reform during the 1980's, the need to reexamine or even reestablish the superintendent's instructional leadership role became increasingly apparent (Alpin and Daresh, 1984; Cuban, 1985). The public's demand for school effectiveness and educational reform not only heightened the visibility and political vulnerability of public school superintendents (DeYoung, 1986; Rubin, 1984), but also contributed rising public expectations for a new kind of leadership that emphasized both the need for competent management and effective instructional leadership. This is a significant departure from the dominant view of the 1960's when Griffiths indicated "that administrators should have nothing to do with instruction" (1966, p. 102).

Few experts in the field of educational administration would deny the potential of both indirect and direct influence of public school superintendents on curriculum and instruction and on pupil achievement. In fact, Murphy, Hallinger and Peterson (1985) note that "districts with excellent student achievement have superintendents who are personally involved" (p. 79) with their curriculum and instructional program. The Instructionally Effective School Districts (IESD) research, has identified several functions that are characteristic of effective superintendents instructional leadership activities. These five (5) major activities include:

1. Staff selection and recruitment;

2. Principal supervision and evaluation;

3. Establishing clear instructional and curricular goals;

4. Monitoring learning and curricular improvement activities,

5. Financial planning for instruction.

Although these five activities appropriately describe the superintendent's management functions, they also identify structural elements over which they have discretion to influence the behavior of principals and teachers who work more directly with the organization's instructional‑core activities.

Staff Selection and Recruitment:

Recent research suggests that superintendents in the IESD play a leading role in the selection of new teachers and administrators. Superintendent participation in the selection process symbolically indicated the importance of the activity to other organization members. Focused and aggressive recruitment of staff is essential to achieving basic organizational goals and direct involvement in recruiting and selecting teachers and instructional leaders to the administrative cadre are also linked to district improvement. The direct involvement of the district superintendent in the recruitment and selection of professional staff members and has been shown to have a profound effect on the quality of the district's instructional program.

Principal Supervision and Evaluation:

The IESD data indicate that 83% of the superintendents were personally responsible for principal supervision and evaluation and were assessed according to the degree of instructional goal attainment in their schools as measured by standardized test scores. This recently identified practice is significant since prior research indicate that districts had not previously relied upon outcome measures in evaluating principals. Superintendents give principals messages during regular meetings that serve as vital role cues that identified what was important and were focused on improving the district's instructional programs at the building level. The effective schools literature concerning the evaluation of principals by superintendents included direct classroom observations, student discipline school climate and faculty in-service planning. This suggests that superintendents can have a significant influence on the instructional leadership behavior of building principals. This, however, is predicated on whether these role cues are stated clearly as being important, are understood as being an important role expectation, and are integrated as part of the principal's formal evaluation.

Establishing Clear Instructional and Curricular Goals:

Instructional programs in effective schools focus upon the achievement of specific goals that were clearly defined by the superintendent. In the IESD, superintendents exerted a strong influence in establishing instructional and curricular goals and staff awareness of these basic objectives is best communicated through participatory goal formation processes which also constituted an important instructional leadership function. Clearly stated instructional goals are an essential part of the superintendent's vision for the future of the school district.

Monitoring an Learning Outcomes and Curricular Activities:

Superintendents in the IESD reported that a strong leadership role in maintaining and monitoring instructional and curricular goals was essential and included visiting schools on a regular basis to determine the extent to which district goals were implemented. That high visibility in schools and in the classrooms was an effective means of monitoring and assuring an appropriate curricular focus. Regular contact with principals and teachers who served as instructional leaders at different levels in the organization also contributed towards academic and instructional improvement in the district.

Financial Planning for Instruction:

The superintendent's role in the improvement of curriculum and instruction requires that additional resources be made available. Budget allocations reflected superintendent commitment to articulated program goals and underscored the importance of the teaching and learning proces. In this regard, the ability of the superintendent to generate internal and external support for educational excellence in their school districts was dependent on their skill in convincing school boards, principals, classroom teachers, business leaders, and the news media that adequate financial support was clearly linked to instructional and curricular objectives. Using their position in the organization's structure to commit resources in support of teaching and learning appears to be an important aspect of instructional leadership at this level in the education hierarchy.


As the pressure for educational reform mounted over the past decade, school superintendents have been faced with the need to act decisively to improve instruction in their school districts. The broad array of activities that compose the superintendent's management role may both constrain as well as provide opportunities for instructional leadership. If the superintendent believes that the most important purpose of his/her role is maintaining organizational stability, then the managerial role will dominate his/her activities and instructional leadership will be viewed as a separate layer of responsibility. If, on the other hand, the superintendent believes that ensuring the stability of the organization and advancing student learning are of fundamental importance, then he/she will seek to use his/her routine managerial activities to increase his/her effectiveness as an instructional leader. Studies indicate that superintendents in instructionally effective school districts have increased effectiveness as instructional leaders through using their position in the district hierarchy to directly and indirectly influence the improvement of curriculum, instruction and learning. They have used routine management tasks to support instructional and learning processes in schools and have had more than a salutary effect on student outcomes as measured by standardized tests. This approach may be useful as we focus on other student outcomes such as critical thinking skills, information processing, problem solving and independent learning.

Analyzing the routine management tasks of superintendents in instructionally effective school districts has not only contributed to broadening the concept of instructional leadership but has enabled superintendent practitioners to identify areas in which they can more effectively support instructional improvement in their districts. The highly interactive nature of instructional leadership among the key actors, however, may require a more consultative leadership style when working in with the instructional dimension of schools.

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[MY1] Lars and Ted – I think the level of personification here is acceptable. I considered other ways to write the paragraph and each seemed a bit too wordy.

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