Search form

Is the Superintendency in Crisis?
Part 2: How Will the Next Generation Handle Increased Challenges?

In Part 2 of "Is the Superintendency in Crisis?" Education World examines how a new generation of superintendents might handle the challenges of adversarial school boards, special interest groups, financial constraints, and more. Three experts offer their points of view.

Read Part 1 of this two-part series: Two recently published national studies from the American Association of School Administrators (AASA) take a close look at the state of the superintendency.

The school superintendent's job has become tougher and increasingly more challenging in the past 20 years, said Susan Moore Johnson, author of Leading to Change, The Challenge of the New Superintendency (Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1996). Johnson, the academic dean and professor of education in administration, planning, and social policy at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, studied 12 superintendents from four states for 18 months.

In the past, the job was primarily a managerial job, Johnson said. Now, a different approach to leadership is needed to tackle educational and political issues simultaneously. "Some of those challenges are well beyond the superintendent's control or influence, and many of them require substantial financial investments that society is not prepared to make,."

Some of those challenges include less public support for public education, increased learning needs of children in inner cities and poor rural areas, and the threat of school violence, according to Johnson. Compound those demands with the fact that there are fewer good candidates seeking principals' jobs, that many teachers do not have the skills needed to teach to higher standards, and that state and federal regulations command a great deal of a superintendent's time.

The superintendency now requires three dimensions of leadership, Johnson said. Although the superintendent still needs to provide managerial leadership, he or she must also impart educational leadership, understanding the core of work that happens in schools, and political leadership, which requires building coalitions both inside and outside the school system.


Better training is needed to prepare superintendents for these jobs, Johnson said. Conventional training does not engage future superintendents in real-world experiences. Only a few programs, such as the Urban Superintendents Program at Harvard, meet those needs, she said.

Johnson also believes it is important for a superintendent to be an educator first, to understand issues of schooling and pedagogy. "Otherwise, he or she cannot really provide educational leadership for teachers and principals," she said. If the superintendent isn't an educator, then another highly placed administer who is an educator, who works closely with the superintendent, should have broad authority to oversee issues of teaching and learning, she added.


In addition to the need for programs that better prepare superintendents, other pressing problems need to be remedied if school districts want to attract candidates to the superintendency, said Joe Cirasuolo, president of the American Association of School Administrators and the superintendent of schools in Wallingford, Connecticut.

The problem is that major issues are largely not being addressed, resulting in fewer and fewer administrators who are willing to step up to fill that top educators' job, he said. "There isn't much that local communities can do to improve the appeal of the superintendency," added Cirasuolo, a school superintendent for 22 years. "The issues that have to be addressed are systemic and control over the system rests, for the most part, at the state level with some secondary issues controlled at the federal level."

Federal mandates to educate people with disabilities without adequate federal money to support such initiatives are one of the difficult financial issues that superintendents face, he said. Typically, a school system spends 25 percent of its total budget on approximately 12 percent of the student population, Cirasuolo explained. "What it does is reduce the funding available for the 88 percent of a student enrollment that does not qualify for services and puts superintendents and boards of education in a no-win situation when confronted by the parents of that 88 percent," he said. "The federal government has fallen short of its commitment to fund 40 percent of the cost of special education in the country and has not funded even 20 percent of the cost."

Another issue outside local control pertains to teacher staffing. Statutory limits do not allow superintendents to dismiss teachers for performance that is mediocre, Cirasuolo noted. Teachers and administrators should have contracts that have the same duration. "If this is done, superintendents could non-renew those teachers and administrators whose performance is persistently mediocre," he said. According to Cirasuolo, "The most serious problems are the adversarial relationships that too often develop between boards of education and superintendents. The board and the superintendent should be a team, each with clearly defined roles."

State law needs to be revised to offer a clear delineation of the roles of school boards and superintendents. School boards should establish policies, including instructional objectives, and a structure of accountability for the staff; adopt an annual budget consistent with system policies and objectives; and hire, evaluate and, if necessary, fire the superintendent, Cirasuolo said. "The statutes then have to state clearly that all other decisions, including all personnel and all instructional strategies decisions, are exclusively the superintendent's to make."


"There is too much micromanaging done by board of education members instead of letting the superintendent run the school system," said Anne B. Kirkpatrick of Administrative Search Advisors of Connecticut. Kirkpatrick has conducted 60 searches for Connecticut school boards over the past 16 years.

During the past year, the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education (CABE) retained Kirkpatrick as a consultant. She works with their new partner, Hazard, Young, and Attea, a national superintendent search firm. She agrees that a school board needs to clarify a superintendent's area of authority and how things will be done. That would help school boards and superintendents create more-positive relationships

Another problem that worries potential candidates is that each election has the potential to bring about a new boss with a different agenda and preferences compared with the board that hired him or her, Kirkpatrick commented. Through her experience with potential candidates, she found that many worry about job security. The new school board doesn't have to renew the superintendent's contract and if it doesn't, the superintendent is out of a job, she said.


Related Articles from Education World

Please check out our featured articles this week:

Article by Diane Weaver Dunne
Education World®
Copyright © 2006 Education World