Sunday, July 4, 2010

ISER Paper Clark

School District Superintendants’ Influence

on Principals’ Collaborative Leadership Style


Ryan Clark

Paper Presented at the

International Symposium on Educational Reform: 2010

Republic of South Africa

July 21 & 28, 2010

Ryan P. Clark


Old Kentucky Home Middle School

301 Wildcat Lane

Bardstown, KY 40004


Abstract: This paper is intended to take a closer look at the leadership of the superintendent and how that might affect schools being led collaboratively. Collaborative leadership has been shown in numerous studies to be a very effective way for principals to lead schools. Although many factors impact the collaborative culture in a school, there appears to be a gap in the research literature as to how the leadership of the superintendent might have an effect on principal leadership styles.

This paper will discuss the need to examine school district superintendents’ influence on principals’ collaborative leadership style. Björk (2005) found that superintendent support is a key factor in launching and sustaining new initiatives including principals’ collaborative leadership styles. Recent literature on collaborative leadership not only suggests that it is highly effective way for principals to lead schools (Collinson & Cook, 2007; DuFour, Eaker & DuFour, 2005; Fullan, 2001; Schlechty, 2009) but also is central to bringing about significant school change that contributes to all students learning at high levels (Hord & Sommers, 2008; Lieberman, Saxl, & Miles, 2007; Stoll, & Louis, 2007; Murphy, 2005). Although many factors may influence creating and sustaining collaborative cultures in a school, several researchers suggest that without support from the district school superintendent these initiatives may be slow to develop (Bjork, 2005; Blase and Bjork, 2010) and more difficult to sustain. This proposal presents a discussion of a how a dissertation study may contribute to the knowledge base in the field on how superintendents may influence principals’ collaborative leadership style.

For many years in education, leadership researchers have known that the principal must be a strong instructional leader (Barth, 2001; Crow, Matthews, McCleary, 1996; Collinson & Cook, 2007; DuFour, Eaker & DuFour, 2005; Fullan, 2001; Schlechty, 2009) The job of the principal is understood to be very complex as they manage the day-to-day business of schools and provide instructional leadership needed to guide teachers in their professional approaches to improving teaching and learning. The principal alone does not provide instructional leadership. So principals are being asked to lead collaboratively, acting as a leader of leaders (Crow, Matthews, & McCleary, 1996). The empowerment and development of teacher leaders is the answer to providing effective and continuous instructional leadership (Barth, 2001).

Collaborative leadership is different than the traditional top-down leadership style that is prevalent in so many schools and school districts (Muijs & Harris, 2003). For teacher leadership to become the norm in a school the emphasis of top-down leadership must be replaced with collaborative approaches of shared decision-making (Pellicer and Anderson, 1995). Many factors may get in the way of a principal leading collaboratively and subsequently promoting and empowering teacher leadership. The majority of the factors are appropriately identified within the school walls, but the role that district leadership and specifically the superintendent’s leadership plays in a principal being able to make the paradigm shift to working collaboratively is not widely known.

If leading a school collaboratively and empowering teacher leaders is imperative to creating a successful school, then how does the superintendent of schools promote or impede a principal’s ability to lead collaboratively? Does district leadership have to lead and train principals the same way teacher leaders should be led and trained to promote collaborative leadership? District superintendents, both present and future need to know the role they play to support collaborative leadership among their principals so teacher leaders can be empowered in their schools.

Review of the Research

Instructional leadership from the principal is crucial to the success of a school (Edmonds, 1982). Collaborative leadership by the principal and others is the approach needed to foster a positive school environment where learning can thrive (Gruenert, 2005). For a principal to be able to lead in a collaborative manner where leadership is shared, it has to be supported, and understood by district leadership (Anders, Centofante, & Orr, 1987). The superintendent must understand the value of collaborative leadership and subsequently support and encourage principal to operate in way where decision making is shared and collaborative cultures are fostered. The relationship between the superintendent and principals in a district would likely also need to be collaborative. In other words, if leadership that fosters collaboration, shared decision making, and distributed leadership then the principal should have this type of environment modeled for them (DeMoss, 2002).

The style of leadership and culture needed to have a positive impact on student learning is widely understood as collaborative and focused on student achievement (Gruenert, 2005). Today’s schools operate in a high stakes accountability environment, where results of a test seem to drive the public’s perception of a successful school. District leadership, specifically by the superintendent, is under tremendous political pressure to deliver results now (DeMoss, 2002). Under such a high pressure environment it may seem difficult to allow principals to lead in a non-authoritarian manner, especially when a school is struggling. But, if the collaborative approach is the most effective way to build and sustain successful schools, then how can a principal engage in true collaboration and share leadership without having the same style modeled and supported?

It is important that district leadership support collaborative leadership for it to become a norm in schools (Björk & Gurley, 2003). The leadership of the superintendent must model collaborative leadership they expect from their principals. They must also provide the support and trust principals need to foster a school learning environment where collaboration and shared decision-making can thrive (Buffum, et. al 2008).

The literature provides evidence that a collaborative school environment is needed to create and sustain successful schools (DuFour et al. 2005). Such an environment encourages, fosters, and empowers teacher leaders. The following review of literature will examine the relationship needed between principals and teachers to build teacher leaders. The relationship between principals and teachers will build the case for more research into the perceived professional leadership approach of the superintendent needed for principals to lead collaboratively (Usdan et al. 2001). In sum, this review will ground the researcher’s contention that there is a compelling need to study the nature of superintendent leadership style and understand how it may influence principal’s capacity to lead collaboratively.

The Need for Teacher Leaders

Under the current high stakes testing environment and the mandates from No Child Left Behind to ensure proficiency of all students, the leadership of the principal is the key for school success (Fullan, 2001). Principals must be an effective instructional leader that focuses on building student-centered relationships with stakeholders (Hallinger & Heck, 2000 as cited in O’Donnell & White, 2005) to create positive environments where all students learn (Andrews, Basom, & Basom, 1991; Dwyer 1984,). Principals hold the responsibility for all school functions related to teaching and learning (Knapp et al. 2003; Murphy, 1990). With this kind of responsibility, the need to lead collaboratively and distribute leadership responsibilities to teachers is critical for principals to be able to focus on instruction (Camburn et al. 2003; Murphy, 2005). The principal alone cannot lead the school instructionally.

“The demands of the principal to manage the physical plant, solve discipline and attendance problems, placating angry parents and teachers, writing endless (and often meaningless) reports, and attending a myriad of meetings, few of which deal with teaching and learning, leave the principal with precious little time for tasks designed to increase teacher effectiveness and student learning” (Anders, Centofante, and Orr, 1987, p.61).

With these kinds of demands, there is a need for more leadership with more people to get the job done (Leithwood & Mascall, 2007).

The school principal must have the ability to build leadership capacity and collaboration among professionals. It is the principal’s style and actions that have strong influence over teachers taking on a teacher leader role (Birky, Shelton, & Headley, 2006). The need for a principal to be successful in developing teacher leadership is evident because of the power teacher leaders have in dramatically improving teaching and learning. The power in teacher leadership resides in the actions teachers engage in to promote continuous improvement in teaching and learning, which results in increased achievement for every student (York-Barr & Duke, 2004). The principals that are able to successfully empower teacher leaders create schools that have the ability to continuously improve. The empowerment of teacher leaders also creates a place where students learn more and teachers are more satisfied with their work (Pellicer & Anderson, 1996).

The effectiveness of teacher leaders is determined by the support of the school principal (Birky, Shelton, & Headley, 2006). Waters, Marzano, and McNulty (2003) summarized that:

”administrators can either have a positive or negative impact on student achievement, depending on their leadership style and the extent to which they share or distribute power. Student achievement is affected by teachers and teacher effectiveness is affected by school administrators.”

Leadership Characteristics/Actions of the Principal for Teacher Leadership

When a principal leads collaboratively, distributing leadership among teacher leaders, they must be willing to abide by some of the actions initiated by teacher leaders and may have to give up control over some key decisions (Lyons & Algozzine, 2006). The administrator’s willingness to give up some control is determined by the level of trust present in the school. The level of trust can be deducted by the extent to which leadership and decision-making is shared (Louis, 2007).

Principals need to express appreciation and thanks verbally when they respond to the work of teacher leaders (Birky, 2002). Teacher leaders need support when engaging in tasks intended to impact teaching and learning beyond their own classroom. Teachers take on some risk when participating in leadership roles. Teachers need to know they have the support and appreciation of their principal. In the study conducted by Birky et al.(2006) they provide specific examples of how teachers can become discouraged when they attempted to engage in a leadership action and were not supported or appreciated by their principals. The testimonials indicated the teachers would be reluctant to take on this level of leadership in the future.

Administrators encourage teacher leaders when the collaborated with them in making school decisions (Birky et al. 2006). Teachers feel valued when they are asked about their opinions and allowed to make major decisions about staff development (Birky, 2002). Trust is a positive side effect resulting from collaborative work, which consequently encourages teachers to make more leadership decisions about teaching and learning (Birky, Shelton, & Headley 2006).

Teachers taking on leadership roles also increase when the principal encourages teachers to embrace change and take risks. In the study by Birky et al. (2006), a teacher stated, “When I can take risks, that’s how my administration motivates me, and that’s what really helps me dare and dream” (p. 95). Teachers have to feel supported when they are taking on risks to embrace change. Again trust seems to be an underlying relationship theme between principals and teacher leaders.

District Support for the Principal to Lead Collaboratively

Collaborative leadership that empowers teacher leaders to impact teaching and learning is a very effective way for a principal to lead a school instructionally and for students to reach high levels of achievement (Buffum et al. 2008). The literature supports the principal engaging in leadership practices that model trust through shared decision-making, support for teachers when they take risks and acknowledging efforts when teachers take on leadership roles and responsibilities related to teaching and learning. What is not clear in the literature is the impact of a superintendent’s leadership in a principal’s ability to lead collaboratively. In a qualitiative study by Björk & Gurley (2003) they argued that the leadership of three superintendents, over 15 years, in a small rural community in Kentucky was key to transforming the district culture to a community of learners. These three superintendents in this small community embraced and supported the collaborative culture that became the norm for their schools. Are the same leadership practices needed for all superintendents to encourage and support collaborative leadership in their principals?

In a high stakes testing environment principals may be expected to opt for formalized programs, purchase test preparation packages, or rely of experts endorsed by the district (Fullan, 1998) instead of looking to the teachers and working collaboratively with them. Such an environment may be perpetuated by district leadership and consequently leading collaboratively may not be possible. In a study by DeMoss (2002) it is concluded that districts “should actively and vocally support principals’ continued efforts to pursue holistic, complex improvement efforts focused on instruction, even in the face of high-stakes testing” (p. 130). Principals may look for quick fixes and not engage in meaningful and sustainable improvement. DeMoss indicates that a district may be held partly responsible if the focus is exclusively on the high stakes testing program and not on systematic long-term improvement. The district has to actively support the principals’ school improvement efforts through vocal support and providing professional development about how collaborative professional communities are formed.

District or system constraints can be an obstacle to a principal’s ability to develop an effective instructional team. If district leadership does not provide support for efforts to lead a school collaboratively, then leading in this manner can be very difficult (Anders et al.1987). For collaborative teams to be successful, it requires the principal’s support, team member’s commitment, and a system that supports teaming (Turk, et al. 2002). The kind of support needed from the system and the kinds of actions a district engages in through the superintendent’s leadership is not clear.

In a study by Mangin (2007) it is stated that teacher leadership roles are dependent on the support from the principal, but little is known about the (district) conditions that promote principals’ support for teacher leaders (Datnow & Castellano, 2001). Districts can influence school improvement efforts (Firestone, Mangin, Martinez, & Polovsky, 2005). Much like the importance for a principal to be a strong instructional leader to have a successful school, superintendents can also play an important role in schools by also being a strong instructional leader (Björk, 1993). Therefore correlations can be drawn between the importance of the leadership style and strengths of the superintendent to schools’ improvement. Thus high levels of communication and leadership from the district about teacher leadership between to the principal can support the principal cultivating teacher leadership in their school (Mangin, 2007).

There appears to be limited research when it comes to the specific leadership needed by a superintendent that would support principals’ leading collaboratively to build teacher leadership for long lasting school improvement. Consequently, very little is provided about how the district might model collaborative leadership for principals through district decision making. So this proposal will begin to fill a gap in the kind of conditions, supports, and superintendents’ leadership needed to support a principal’s ability to lead collaboratively and develop a school culture of teacher leadership.

Implications of the Research

The role that district leadership plays in a principal’s ability to lead a school collaboratively is not well defined in the extant literature. Although, it is suggested that district support is needed and that training of principals better ensures opportunities for successful collaborative leadership. But, the extent to which district leadership, specifically the superintendent, play a role in principals being able to lead their schools collaboratively is not explained. A gap in the research related to the specific supports and actions needed by the superintendent and other district leaders appears to exist. Understanding about the style of leadership used to lead principals if a collaborative approach is best at the school level. More understanding on how to successfully introduce and sustain collaborative leadership in schools is needed and the role that district leadership and specifically the superintendent play is a gap in the research.

Purpose of the Study

If collaborative leadership that supports and empowers teacher leaders is the most effective way to sustain student achievement through continual improvement of teaching and learning, then why are some schools not lead collaboratively? The principal of a school obviously has to lead in a collaborative manner, but does the district play a role in the principal being able to pull off this kind of leadership style? In other words how does the perceived leadership style of the superintendent impact the principal’s ability to lead collaboratively?

In the public school environment where all students are expected to reach defined levels of proficiency, can superintendents lead school principals in a way that fosters collaborative leadership styles in the schools that principals lead? High stakes testing and community pressures to have high performing schools can create an environment where results are expected now. Because superintendents feel intense political pressure to push their districts to high levels of achievement, discovering the kind of leadership used by superintendents is important. The superintendent may be driven to be directive and authoritarian as pressure mounts. But, collaboration and shared decision making is the widely touted as the way to lead a successful school that can sustain success.

“As moral and transformational leaders, superintendents are expected to articulate and affirm the purpose of schooling, reflect on how well or how poorly student are served, confront rigid bureaucratic structures and practices, find common ground for agreement among disparate community interest groups, and create meaning in the work of teachers and students (Björk & Gurley, 2003, p.39)”

Arguably the leadership of the superintendent needs to support and expect collaborative leadership by their principals. The superintendant plays a critical role in the district level educational reforms (Blase & Björk, 2010).

Thus the overarching question to be investigated is; why are schools not being led collaboratively? Investigating the phenomenon is guided by more specific questions: a) How does the perceived leadership style of a superintendent affect a principal’s ability to lead a school collaboratively? b) Does collaborative leadership modeled by the superintendent engage principals in professional learning experiences where they improve their ability to impact teaching and learning? The answers to these questions will provide practicing and aspiring superintendents with the kind of leadership approach they should consider if they want to establish a collaborative culture in their schools.


Four school districts in central Kentucky will be chosen in central Kentucky through simple random sampling. This method is used when the population is small (McMillan & Schumacher, 2010). After the districts are determined, both quantitative and qualitative methods will be used to generate data from principals and superintendents. Although the sample size for a quantitative study is large and small in a qualitative study (Creswell & Plano Clark, 2006), this mixed methods investigation will use the same sample size. That is all principals and all superintendents in the four chosen districts will be asked to participate in the study.

The instruments used to collect quantitative date will be a close-ended questionnaire utilizing Likert scaled items. An open-ended interview will be utilized for qualitative data collection (Bergman, 2008). The combination of these mixed method strategies are appropriate because they are intended to provide concurrent triangulation to offer generalizability and context to the study (McMillan & Schumacher, 2010).

Identification of Collaborative vs. Noncollaborative Schools

School principals will be selected in each district and then will be asked to complete a questionnaire intended to determine the level of collaborative leadership measured by the frequency and type of collaborative activities, in which teachers are engaged. The collaborative activities are defined in this study as include shared decision making, teacher-to-teacher collaboration about teaching and learning, and distributed leadership.

Data from teachers questionnaires will be triangulated with data from principal interviews that seek to reveal the context of collaborative leadership that is present (McMillan & Schumacher, 2010). The interview will consist of questions related to the same collaborative activities evaluated in the questionnaire (i.e. shared decision making, teacher-to-teacher collaboration, distributed leadership). Appropriate analysis methods will be used to determine if distinctions exist among school leadership models, distinguished from the schools that are not.

Identification of the Collaborative or Noncollaborative Superintendent

A follow-up questionnaire will then be sent to the principals that participated in the interviews. This questionnaire will ask questions about the leadership style of the superintendent and the kinds of collaborative actions that principals are encouraged to be part of. The questionnaire will generalize the extent to which the superintendent leads collaboratively.

The superintendents of the four districts will then be interviewed to provide more context as to their leadership style and the kinds of collaborative activities they engage principals. The interview of the superintendent will provide triangulation to provide more validity to the follow-up principal questionnaire. Statistical analysis will be used to compile the data in the questionnaire and responses from the interview will be analyzed to determine the superintendent’s leadership style, collaborative leadership practices, and the extent to which the superintendent engages principals in professional (collaborative) learning experiences.

At the culmination of the data collection appropriate analysis will be conducted to compare collaborative or noncollaborative schools with their corresponding superintendent’s: leadership style, collaborative leadership practices, and the extent to which principals are engaged in professional (collaborative) learning experiences. This data should begin to provide an understanding of the role the superintendent plays in a school being led collaboratively.


This study will be conducted in two phases. Phase 1 is the identification of collaborative versus noncollaborative schools. Administration of school questionnaires will take one month, followed by interviews conducted within three months after completion of analysis of questionnaire data.

Phase 2 is the identification of the collaborative or noncollaborative leadership style of superintendents. Administration of superintendants’ leadership surveys will be conducted within one month of analysis of principal interview data. Interviews of superintendents will occur within two months of completion of survey data analysis.

Delimitations and Limitations

Determining the collaborative nature of a school will depend on the principals’ understanding of collaboration. If the principal defines collaboration loosely, then they may believe that some of the practices they engage in are collaborative when in reality they may not be. It will be very important to craft questions both in the questionnaire and interview that might uncover minimal efforts in collaborative leadership when the principal may consider them self a collaborative leader.

The same possibility exists with the superintendent. They may consider them self a collaborative leader when in fact they lead very differently. Again the careful crafting of questions in the interview and the questionnaire will be very important.

Another obvious limitation will be participation. The success of this study will rely on the participants taking the time to respond to questionnaires and freeing up time in their busy schedules to be interviewed. As an acting principal I understand the very tight time constraints that exist.


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