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In any society, education serves as the “instrument of livelihood” for its members. The primary role of education is to equip all individuals with the essential tools to become productive members of society. Education should further serve as the vehicle which creates opportunity and maximizes “life’s chances” for every individual. In an ever changing, fast paced global economy the development of critical thinking, communication, and collaboration skills are crucial. Education should foster a drive for inquiry, exploration, and discovery, while generating and nurturing passion for lifelong learning. A school must embody the responsibility of safety, providing a haven where students feel accepted and able to take risks. Diversity must be embraced and every child should feel celebrated.
While education is considered primarily for its contribution to occupational placement, it also serves to function in a society as: proprietor of the socialization process, transmitter and transformer of social personality, and historian – storyteller of cultural heritage.
The Superintendency: Strategic, Instructional, Operational, and Political Leadership
Public education is intended to ensure “equal” access to quality education, leveling the playing field for all individuals to achieve lifelong success. This is no small charge and an immense responsibility! Leaders within the educational professional community hold an ever increasingly challenging and demanding job, with the primary objective being to maximize the potential of every child. While a leader is simply defined as “someone who guides or directs others” the role of school district leader, is depicted as vastly more encompassing. The charge of a district level leader is to “develop, advocate, facilitate, articulate, collaborate, respond, collect and analyze data, and design and implement programs” (Green, pg. 26). Embodying these responsibilities and challenges, the role of superintendent involves leadership of the school district in its entirety! The superintendent may be credited with progress or discredited with lack of progress towards the attainment of a district’s educational mission, short term goals and long range vision. Encompassed within this immense charge exist four distinct domains of leadership that a superintendent must manage: strategic, instructional, operational, and political.
Continuous improvement is a vital organ in the body of growth for any organization. This is especially true in education, for the commodity produced is human (skills, attitudes, attributes, and competencies) and high stakes (lifelong implications). A superintendent must embrace strategic leadership with a growth mindset, keen eye for opportunity, and a commitment to effecting change that benefits the STUDENTS and the organization. This necessitates the utilization of progress monitoring and assessment tools to determine whether a program, policy, practice, or an implementation plan is effective and supports a districts” vision and current priorities.
The strategic leadership lens commands that a superintendent consider these two key questions:
Is the organization making appropriate progress in achieving the school vision (specific to academic achievement, school culture, student safety, continuous improvement, etc.)? If not, what action steps can the district leverage to maximize progress and close deficit gaps where they currently exist?
Before engaging in a change cycle, a superintendent must seek to understand the dynamics of the district factoring in variables such as student performance data, staffing configurations, sources of pride and areas of concern, norms, current culture and cultural history, traditions, etc. In addition, the superintendent must listen, observe, pose questions, note, and develop adequate assessment tools to identify opportunities for growth spanning the organization in areas such as: Organization, Curriculum & Instruction, Budget & Finance, Human Resources, Facilities, Transportation, and Political Relationships with stakeholders. Finally, a superintendent must possess, demonstrate and employ strategic leadership skills, taking a long range approach to problem solving and decision making through trend and data analysis. These skills include the ability to identify, clarify, and problem solve barriers to achieving the common purpose, both in the short and long term.
Regardless of organizational area of focus, strategic leadership begins with an acknowledgement that an opportunity exists for change within the organization. Upon identification, the superintendent must invest time and energy to develop a thorough understanding of the current situation, involving as many stakeholders as feasible in the exploration. Detailed action plans which are specific, measurable, achievable, results focused and time bound must be agreed upon for implementation as the “strategic action” but only after the team of stakeholders has developed a shared understanding of the problem to be addressed. Collaborative partnership with stakeholders in the action plan phase is crucial to the development of ownership and accountability by faculty, staff, and families (as applicable). It also fosters a greater likelihood of successful implementation of the action plan, initiative, or solution. Implementation of any strategic action should be followed by a period of evaluation. The superintendent and stakeholder groups should determine a timeline for benchmarking and then explore, 1) Did the strategic action yield gains? If yes, the superintendent should lead in the celebration of its success, regardless of value added measure! 2) If the strategic action did not yield gains, the team should use the evaluation process as an opportunity to address unanticipated deficit areas in the solution model.
An effective strategic leadership model is recursive, affording the superintendent and school district a model of continuous improvement. This model also lends itself as a scaffold and natural segue into the development of a strategic planning tool, the School Improvement Plan – which captures an overview of current levels of achievement and the plan for achieving desired levels of efficiency, efficacy, and proficiency levels in achievement.
A superintendent serves as the instructional leader for a district, spanning K-12, and across all content areas! While this leadership responsibility may be distributed and shared with leaders in other roles, ultimately the superintendent is the lead learner and responsible for ensuring that the district has a viable curriculum, solid instructional practices with continuous assessment practices, respectful, rigorous tasks for all learners (including the adults!) and a safe and supportive learning environment.
The instructional leadership of a superintendent must be strategic by design. Academic performance data must be leveraged to fuel and drive change in instructional practices and pedagogy. A cycle of data-informed instruction includes the elements of assessment, analysis, and action. It is a key framework for consideration of a district-wide, systems approach to student success and permits a district to identify areas of strength and to target areas of deficit.
It is the responsibility of district leadership to use the data from multiple measures and to develop action plans to close achievement gaps. Superintendents, designees, and or educational teams may identify deficits in the areas of: viable curriculum and programming, vertical alignment and /or horizontal alignment of a curriculum’s scope and sequence, engagement, instructional delivery models of support and / or extension, assessment, rigor of instruction, etc. An identified deficit area may prompt consideration of numerous action steps, likely having implications for teachers and possibly necessitating professional development.
In John Hattie’s examination of over 1200 meta-analyses, the top two variables correlated with student achievement were teacher expectation of student achievement and teacher efficacy. Since Hattie’s original work in 2009, effect sizes have not changed considerably over time. This is compelling research / evidence to suggest that instructional leaders must build the capacity for teachers to implement highly engaging instruction and to work with a diverse range of learners. In addition to the above mentioned deficit areas, factors such as varying ethnic, cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds, as well as variability in student readiness, interest and learning style must be considered. A superintendent may rely on student achievement results, APPR observation data and examination of current instructional practices to determine and drive professional development learning needs. Along a parallel vein of best practice in instructional delivery for students, opportunities for professional development should be research based and personalized to meet the needs of the practitioners who are in the trenches.
Another consideration for the superintendent as instructional and strategic leader is the establishment of a safe and supportive learning environment. The culture of the district must exemplify the idea of high expectations for all students and staff. The culture must be ripe for learning and exude a feeling of student and staff safety (physical, emotional, and mental). It should also include attention to one’s sense of belonging, power and social competence, freedom and autonomy, fun, and physical need. In the event that the learning environment does not meet the criterion of being safe and supportive, the superintendent has the responsibility to engage as strategic leader in support of a safe and supportive learning environment which is primed for learning.
The role of superintendent encompasses leadership of the organization in its entirety. This charge is vast and all-encompassing, including responsibility for management and oversight of innumerable areas. As such, one facet of Superintendent as organizational leader includes general management competencies such as scheduling, organization, time management, and prioritizing. Effective management involves the development and deployment of a “plan” which permits the organizational leader to effectively initiate, analyze, react and respond to all facets of professional responsibility.
A second facet of organizational leadership encompasses the development and implementation of embedded systems and structures for various organizational constructs, such as communications, (internal – district, faculty, staff, and students, and external – Board of Education and community) opportunities for collaboration amongst varied stakeholders (leadership team members, Faculty, district, data teams, teachers, and related support staff, etc.), organizational meetings (Board of Education, Budget, Technology, Facilities, Transportation, etc. Capital Improvement), and professional development (Superintendent Conference Days, Grading Days, Faculty Meetings).
Organizational leadership of the superintendent includes the identification, articulation, and / or management and supervision of the district’s hierarchy of leadership and related professional responsibilities of such. This organizational hierarchy includes the assignment of other District Administrators (ASI, Directors, etc.), building level leadership (ES, MS, HS levels), Pupil Personnel Services, Human Resources, Business Office, Transportation, Facilities, Food Service, and Athletics.
The superintendency carries a political charge unparalleled in any other role in the educational community. The political charge is experienced from both an internal and external loci of control. A superintendent is responsible for developing an understanding of the political climate and context of the educational arena external to the district. The superintendent is a leader in advocacy for public education and should participate and be involved within local, regional, state and national discussions as necessary and appropriate.
Within the actual district of service, the superintendent assumes the role as “lead” expert, administrator, teacher, practitioner and advocate for the community. This carries an immense responsibility, as the entirety of the learning community is looking to the superintendent for LEADERSHIP in the form of encouragement, honesty, support, answers, and action. The superintendent must be visible, accessible and approachable. The superintendent must possess strong listening skills and the ability to engage in courageous conversations while maintaining integrity, professionalism and confidentiality. The Superintendent must also possess the capacity to interact effectively with stakeholders such as the Board of Education, Teacher Association, Support Staff Association, Parent Teacher Association, Transportation, and other special interest groups that emerge as “partners” in the work of public education. There must be a commitment to demonstrate responsiveness and attentiveness surrounding stakeholder concerns and inquiries while preserving the integrity of information that may not be available for public consumption.
A primary focus of the superintendency must be the human element. Contemporary theories pertaining to effective leadership incorporate the ideology that people in all positions have a necessary and legitimate role to play in achieving the school vision. Effective district leaders must utilize a distributive leadership style to create a transformative culture of motivation and morality, utilizing such principles as benefit maximization and equal respect. By cultivating strong interpersonal relationships and by sharing authority, effective school leaders empower, inspire and motivate others to work as a unified team toward a shared purpose—student achievement. Thus, the skills and talents of the staff and other educational stakeholders are applied toward the common end, which is learning. The school leader must be a resolute, confident “lead learner.” This can best be accomplished in an environment of open communication, shared responsibilities, accountability and trust.
In the work Trust Matters, MeganTschannon shares research surrounding the factors which impact the development of trust. Five elements surface as integral to the development of trust: benevolence, honesty, openness, reliability, and competency. A superintendent must strive to develop high quality relationships with all stakeholders based on these attributes to achieve positive outcomes in the school organization. The school community must develop confidence in the integrity of the superintendent and his/her ability and commitment to identify, clarify, and problem solve barriers to achieving the common purpose.
In the event that the working relationship with any stakeholder group is less than effective or compromised, the superintendent must engage in strategic leadership practices – identify deficit area, deliberate solutions, decide on an action step, implement, and then assess – to remediate. In essence, to achieve stakeholder support surrounding the school vision, or any new program or initiative, leaders must foster relationships; achieve effective communication, and build efficacy in the working relations of the staff and educational community.
As the elected governing body of the organization, the Board of Education represents the voice, values, heart, history, culture, and priorities of the community it serves. The Board of Education works collaboratively with the Superintendent to develop and / or steward a district vision which reflects the heart of a district’s work and captures with simplicity the objective that all organizational members endeavor collaboratively to achieve.
A superintendent must work in close concert with the Board of Education to ensure effective calibration and service as steward of the district’s mission and vision. The Superintendent must also work openly, honestly, and collaboratively with the Board of Education to ensure that the community’s objectives, as reflected in district mission, vision, priorities and District Improvement Plan are valued and preserved and to collaboratively establish a roadmap of action steps to achieve intended outcomes. Additionally, the Superintendent must provide updates to the Board surrounding personnel, programming, and achievement results, review and recommend policy review and revisions with the Board, and organize / participate in Policy, Budget, Capital Improvement, and Facilities meetings with the Board.
The Superintendent is responsible for the judicious allocation of human and capital resources for the district. The superintendent must remain steadfast in commitment to the district vision and as such, prioritize budgeting responsibilities and requests to deliver and adhere to fiscally responsible budgeting practices. The development of the annual school budget should be in complete alignment with Board of Education goals and priorities and encompass collaboration with representatives from various stakeholder groups. This approach will yield greatest confidence from the educational community at large that all special interests have been considered, that the budget is functional, and that the budget supports continued movement towards attainment of the district mission and vision.
Ultimately, the superintendent must adhere to the following questions when considering Finance and Budget for the district: What is best for kids? What is judicious and responsible in allocating funds? What can be afforded by the community? What will be supported and approved by community?
While addressing these questions, budgeting obviously involves many other considerations. The superintendent must work closely with the Business Official to establish the budgeting approach which will be used to determine budget allocations (zero based budgeting, incremental increase/decrease based on previous year, or per student allocation). The superintendent must combat challenges and make difficult budgeting decisions that evolve from external forces, such as increasing employee benefits, rising health insurance costs, state mandates with no funding, and tax level cap constraints. With instructional programming driving budget allocations and the majority of a district’s budget locked in staffing expenses, the superintendent may opt to work in concert with a Budget committee (or otherwise) to conduct a program / services review to determine if deficit areas exist. This may ultimately drive a model of strategic leadership as the superintendent seeks to secure optimal programming that yields greatest financial prudence.
The Superintendent is responsible for the judicious allocation of human and capital resources for the district. Personnel Management encompasses every facet of staffing – from hiring, supervision, APPR, tenure appointments, Contract Negotiations to Labor Relations. One might argue that the hiring component of personnel management is one of the most important facets of this work, since it has been claimed that “Teachers matter more than any other single variable in student achievement.” Superintendents must work closely with HR (as applicable) or independently to ensure that the very best teachers are hired and positioned in district classrooms. Further, the superintendent MUST ensure that the very best candidates are coached and nurtured to ensure retention in the district and educational community at large.
Relationships matter. This is true of the relationship between superintendent and the teachers” association. While the Superintendent is responsible for administration and negotiation of the teachers” contract, this does not force a mutually exclusive model of collaboration with the teachers” association. The optimal scenario for a superintendent is to advocate and support judicious allocation of resources for the district, while engaging in collaborative discussions with teachers to foster heightened levels of practice and teacher self-actualization. In smaller districts, this is no small feat, as Labor Relations (dealing with labor management pertaining to contract, grievances, improper practices, negotiating agreements) and Salary & Benefits may be negotiated directly with the superintendent as opposed to a Human Resources department. In approaching these discussions, the superintendent must be prepared, data ready, concise, and ready to engage in courageous conversations which will be mutually beneficial for the district and the teacher association.
The educational community does not, nor should it operate, in isolation from the larger community. The educational community must pursue positive relationships, seeking active participation from community members and stakeholders. Superintendents must demonstrate that they value the community and communicate effectively with all factions of groups represented in the community. The Superintendent has a responsibility to communicate, correspond and connect with district parents and community members. These interactions demonstrate and reinforce the ideology that every child is some parent’s most precious commodity. The Superintendent must be responsive and willing to engage in courageous conversations with families and community members.
The superintendent must be cognizant of the community’s sense of welcome in the district schools. Varied and frequent opportunities for families to be involved are paramount.
The role of superintendent is no small charge. If one were to generate an all-encompassing list of professional responsibilities attached to the superintendency, it would be immense, perhaps infinite! The job description would have to embody responsibility for programming and practice for every student, faculty and staff member in the organization from teacher to bus driver to custodian (and every person and setting in between!).
A superintendent’s demonstrated commitment to high expectations, positivity, passion, growth mindset, work ethic, honesty and integrity in professional life may parallel similar attributes in personal life. As such, BALANCE is an integral concept for internalization by a superintendent. While achievement of balance may look differently for different individuals, it is a necessary objective for those serving in leadership roles. Stephen Covey argued that the most effective people engage deliberately “sharpening the saw.” Ultimately, Covey suggests that people MUST engage in self-renewal activities encompassing the physical, social-emotional, mental and spiritual domains. Absence of this “pampering” may result in less than optimal outcomes both personally and professionally. It behooves the professional, in this case, the superintendent, to seek out and to identify “sharpen the saw” practices which may be leveraged with intentionality. A superintendent has greatest potential for realizing their “best self” professionally, when their “best self” personally has been attended to.
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