Superintendency Essay

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The local school district superintendent is generally known as the chief executive officer of a multi school district. Although the position may seem clearly defined, nothing could be further from the truth. Demographic and social shifts over time have changed public schools in the United States, as well as the superintendent’s role. Historically, the superintendent began as an unpaid school inspector who assisted overburdened, local school boards in managing the business affairs of an ever-growing number of schools in larger urban areas. The superintendent’s role has evolved in influence and complexity. Consequently, we will describe the current context of the superintendent in a changing society and characterize his or her shifting role(s). Public schools have experienced a significant change in social context and demographics over time, and superintendents have found their greatest success when functioning as political strategists and social scientists.

School district composition, superintendent selection, and their relationship to the school board vary across the country. Specifically, some states designate a school district for each and every community, whereas others designate countywide districts, resulting in districts ranging from fewer than 100 students to more than a million. This, of course, dramatically changes the responsibility and role of the superintendent. Additionally, most superintendents are appointed by either locally elected school boards or mayors, but some are elected. Superintendents answer to elected or appointed school board members ranging from sometimes reluctant, local, nonprofessional volunteers, to highly educated and politically motivated appointed and/or elected members. Some superintendents serve as the primary leader of the school board, whereas others function in an informational capacity with the mayor and city council members providing the majority authority. This variation in governance structure and function within school districts adds to a general confusion in defining a primary role for the superintendent.

Throughout the American educational system, there are several levels of superintendent, such as those at the state, county, and district levels. This description of the superintendency will focus on the chief executives of the approximately 14,500 local school districts in the United States.

Historical Perspectives

Although many presume that superintendents have always led school districts, the position is relatively new and followed the development of local school boards, teachers, and school principals. In fact, more than 100,000 school boards governed the first school districts, each of which was relatively small in size. Eventually, as larger urban areas began to increase their number of schools, the management of facilities, hiring of personnel, distribution of curriculum, and the inspection of teacher quality became unwieldy for single boards who hired school inspectors, eventually known as “superintendents.”

Early Years

These early superintendents assisted the board by performing mostly routine, menial tasks, and they had little authority. As more superintendents were hired in more populated cities, their duties became more focused on communicating the curriculum to teachers, helping them implement the material, and assessing their efforts. This has led some researchers to characterize superintendents in this era as scholarly leaders or teacher-scholars. Despite this mainly nonprofessional role, school superintendents, part of the teachers’ organizational society, eventually created a group called the Department of School Superintendance of the National Education Association in 1870.

The Industrial Revolution and the conjoining development and popularization of bureaucracies and scientific management theory in business and industry elevated the level of power and authority of administrative positions in the schools and particularly of superintendents. The focus on the importance of efficiency and the role of managers also provided impetus for a growing number of research studies in the social sciences, an emerging theoretical context, and the development of applied processes such as organizational management, motivational theory, individual and group interaction, resource allocation, and other personnel management.

Advances in social science theory during this era would eventually become the foundation for educational leadership theory and lead to the establishment of formal school management programs, essentially nonexistent at this time. The development of these management theories also contributed to cementing the shift from the religious focus and control of schools to the idea of schools as a secular organization whose main goals were to democratize the American citizenry and develop a stronger, more competitive economy.

To complete this national movement toward a business-based, management approach, a top-down hierarchy was established in schools, placing the superintendent just below the school board and above teachers and building leaders. This shift toward a hierarchical, management model dramatically influenced the role of the superintendent, who would now function as the chief district administrator with increasing power and authority within the school system. In fact, this trend made some business and government leaders uneasy because it allowed an increased capacity for social policy influence by superintendents and departed from a pure grassroots community leadership of schools. Mirroring their newfound authority, school superintendents broke from the National Education Association and created the American Association of School Administrators during this era.

The 20th Century

In the 1930s, following the great stock market crash, there was an increased attack on scientific management approaches and a call in research literature and from progressive educational leaders to focus more on human relations development. Superintendents were called on to manage more democratically, and the idea of shared authority was introduced. During this time, superintendents were criticized for gaining too much organizational power and relying too heavily on government resources, thus further diminishing the ideals of local control that had been the hallmark of school board–run districts. The subsequent call for superintendents to rely more on their local communities was reinforced by scarce resources. Consequently, superintendent roles became more focused on political activities to garner diminishing resources from state and local leaders and galvanized the superintendent as political strategist.

During the 1950s and 1960s, post–World War II prosperity coupled with the growing dissatisfaction with the concept of democratic leadership promoted a change in the superintendency. During this time, social science theory was rapidly expanding and was now including the studies of school administrators specifically. In fact, educational administrative theory began to replace practical, anecdotal advice in school management textbooks in the 1960s. A growing number of the public were becoming more involved in schools, and there was a resurgence of criticism of the school superintendent’s ability to lead schools. Democratic leadership principles were viewed as idealistic and mainly ineffective in the face of an escalating national defense concern with the Soviet Union and emerging global competition in economic and technological arenas.

During this era, school administrative training programs began infusing social science theory into the curriculum, marking a shift in the focus from internal management to the influence of the broader legal, political, social, and economic context. In addition to the societal changes noted above, the 1954 landmark case Brown v. Board of Education brought schools and their superintendents squarely into the business of managing and helping resolve national social issues such as discrimination. These trends further expanded the importance and influence of superintendents into national social issues and changed their role into one of an applied social scientist.

Today’s Superintendent

During the 1970s and into current times, societal changes continued to influence the role of the superintendent. This era, labeled the Information Age, required skills to acquire and process large amounts of information, and schools were charged with focusing the curriculum more on problem-solving skills, and knowledge acquisition and management. The easy and instant access through the Internet to previously inaccessible information led to an exponential increase in international competition. The 1983 report A Nation at Risk criticized schools for not preparing students to meet this challenge and led to a cry for performance based assessment of schools. This era required superintendents to focus more on collaboration and communication with internal and external stakeholder agencies, and management preparation programs began to focus more on larger issues of social policy and how schools were affected by and could influence that society. This era ushered in the superintendent role of communicator.

Current social conditions have also influenced the role that superintendents play in local school governance. Researchers describe the influence of external forces affecting schools, noting technology advances, changes in family structure, increased pockets of poverty, high minority student populations, diminishment of a common culture or set of values, ideological pluralism, and centrist reform and accountability demands embodied in the No Child Left Behind Act. As a result, superintendents were faced for the first time with the need to successfully educate all students while also managing diminished resources and demands for involvement in decision making from a community with often diverse and sometimes contradictory values, cultures, and ideologies.

Required Skills

As a result of this changing social context, educational leadership research has downplayed the need for managerial and technical skills and emphasized skills akin to social engineering, such as the transformation of culture, the development of moral purpose, and equity and social justice. School superintendents are expected to be experts in consultation and negotiation; consensus building; and reconciliation of diverse culture, values, and ideas both within and outside the school. Superintendents are asked to increase the achievement of all students in their schools, including those with learning disabilities and those who do not speak English as their primary language. All of this is to be accomplished while recognizing and celebrating divergent cultures and ideologies and ensuring social justice and equity.

Superintendents are also called on to be political strategists. Superintendents exist in the center of a maelstrom of centralized federal and state reform directives and local community demands that may or may not be congruent. They are expected to include all stakeholders (school personnel, parents, community members, and students) in a decentralized decision-making process while managing a nonprofessional, elected school board that has statutory power to make the final decision.

Additionally, societal changes seem to demand an increase in the use of collaborative decision making, yet the inclusion of outside community influence is often avoided and resisted by school staff and, sometimes, school boards. Although the educational interests of superintendents seem tantamount, most report that their primary duty is managing their political world, which is contextually unique in each and every school district. Communities differ in their power structures, as do the characteristics of the school board, influencing the superintendent’s role.

For example, researchers have found that most communities today are pluralistic, that is, they lack a commonly shared ideology but are willing to negotiate and compromise. Most school boards take on a center ground and remain values static. This combination calls for a superintendent who functions as a diplomat, professional advisor, mediator, and facilitator. Although this represents the majority of communities and boards, a healthy minority are elite dominated, factional, or inert, requiring a superintendent to take on different roles to have success. This process of assessing a community and organizational culture and adapting the appropriate leadership role is known as organizational socialization.

Typical Roles

Unfortunately, superintendents tend to fall into one of two categories, that of professional advisor or decision maker, indicating that in more than half of the districts, the leader’s role and the community culture is mismatched. Researcher studies have confirmed that superintendents list a strained school board relationship as a primary reason for leaving a district, which they do nationally every six years on average.

In apparent contradiction to the call for leadership over management skills, superintendents report that most of their time on the job is spent on fiscal matters, facilities, and personnel issues. Notwithstanding the call for more focus on student learning, superintendents round out their duties dealing with community and school board matters, writing policy, and dealing with legal issues. Despite the changing demographics in schools and communities, superintendents from 1922 to 2000 have remained mostly White, male, middle-aged, past high school teachers; only their rate of earning doctoral degrees has changed significantly. Even though many individuals hold superintendent licenses, fewer than half seek positions, citing unreasonable job stress and the instability of the position as primary reasons for not doing so.

Although the social context of K–12 schools has changed, as has the theoretical base in superintendent training programs, some believe that the position has remained a mix of scholarly leadership, management, social science application, communication, and political strategy. Generally, superintendents are hired and evaluated by community boards, work on single-year contracts, and do not enjoy tenure protection. Some suggest that these superintendent roles have never been clearly delineated, but rather the focus of each role has ebbed and receded to match shifting external expectations of behavior to please various stakeholders who ultimately determine whether success has been achieved.


  1. Bjork, L. G., & Kowalski, T. J. (Eds.). (2005). The contemporary superintendent: Preparation, practice, and development. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  2. Kowalski, T. J. (2006). The school superintendent: Theory, practice, and cases. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  3. Petersen, G. J., & Fusarelli, L. D. (Eds.). (2005). The politics of leadership: Superintendents and school boards in changing times. Greenwich, CT: Information Age.

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