How a Superintendent Affects Change?


Conventional wisdom on the nature and scope of many social systems holds that meaningful change cannot be handed on a silver platter (Schein, 1985). Administrators, managers, and leaders along with their followers need to work intensively to achieve the results by initiating and following through change-inducing interventional measures that are compatible with their respective areas of jurisdiction (Robbins, 2003). In the case of school systems at the district level, it has been advanced that meaningful change cannot be achieved without first overhauling the existing organizational structures (Baumman, 1996; Fullan, 1996; Hess, 1998; Kowalski, 2000; Kowalski, 2001). Precisely, policymakers have singled out school culture as the most pertinent area that should first be addressed for change to be fully realized (Baumman, 1996; Fullan, 1996).

The main point is that humans are always subject to changes with particular reference to the given research because it examines the ways superintendents can contribute to those changes (Schein, 1995). This section provides a comprehensive review of the existing literature of school district superintendents as change agents. For bringing out the ideas clearly, the review is arranged into the following sub-headings, a mentioned in the introduction, that denote the salient roles that school superintendents play as they go about imparting the change:

  • Superintendents as managers;
  • Superintendents as communicators;
  • Superintendents as judges;
  • Superintendents as teachers and as students;

Superintendents as Managers

Reforms that have engulfed educational systems in various states and local school districts over the last decade have greatly changed the roles of superintendents. As a matter of fact, contemporary educational systems are characterized by accountability and transparency in terms of school management and classroom instructions (Bjork et al, 2005). Consequently, superintendents today act as accounting officers, professional educators, curriculum developers, instructors, and evaluators (Bredeson & Kose, 2007; Babb, 2006). To be more precise, Carter and Cunningham (1997) assert that, similar to conventional management officers in other social sectors, superintendents offer professional and technical advisory services that revolve around good resource management practices. In this respect, Weiss (2003) states that school superintendents successfully meet state and federal academic requirements by indulging in a range of strategies, which, it their turn, comprise the total of all efforts geared toward improving students’ academic performance.

Moreover, due to the inherent “crossroads” atmosphere within the realm of educational leadership, superintendents’ roles have evolved over the years (Myers, 2010). In particular, Thomas and Moran (1992) assert that, superintendents are “planners and thinkers” and, therefore they are similar to other conventional managers who “manage great businesses or industrial enterprises” (p. 42). Myers (2010) introduces the idea that if they are to effectively fulfill these changing roles, superintendents should be professionals, but not employees, who have succeeded in implementing other educational policy reforms by practicing sound planning and time management skills (Hanglund, 2009; Myers, 2010; Reeves, 2002). To comment on this, Myers (2010) argues that superintendents achieve desired goals and objectives by acting as “the bridge[s] from chaos to clarity for every stakeholder so that students, teachers, parents, leaders, and the broad community in whole know what success really means” (p. 77). To be more exact, the management role of policy implementation has been strictly defined among superintendents as they struggle to make key decisions, coordinate students’ evaluation, and deliver measurable academic results in accordance with the requirements of various legislative enactments including No Child Left Behind Act (Haglund, 2009).

Superintendents as Communicators

Waters and Marzano (2006) elucidate that in order to successfully get other educational stakeholders to take active roles in change drives at the school district level superintendents employ good communication tactics that help to create new and sustainable relations with their subordinates. Similar sentiments are echoed by Carter and Cunningham (1997) when he asserts that superintendents overcome the highly unpredictable stakeholders’ demands by acting as “the communicator[s] to the public” (p.24).

Davis et al. (2005) argue that the demands made on contemporary education systems are enormous. There is more accountability on the part of a school superintendent’s job than it has ever been witnessed before. While referring to the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act, the superintendents are expected to deliver convincing results; otherwise their district are under the risk of forfeiting important funds from the federal government. To eliminate the forthcoming threats, the superintendents explore efficient strategies for achieving the goals and fulfilling their duties properly. Based on the findings of a research study commissioned by the Wallace Foundation and carried out by researchers from the Stanford Educational Leadership Institute, school leaders have provided a platform for employing a range of methods in effecting changes. One of these methods involves the strategies aimed at improving student academic performance through “the support and development of effective teachers and the implementa­tion of effective organizational processes … prepara­tion and licensing requirements, which generally subscribe to a set of common expectations for the knowledge, skills, and dispositions of school leaders” (p.5).

These arguments are also galvanized by the findings of a survey conducted by superintendents who have found that most school district acknowledged their responsibilities as links to knowledge among the various school heads within their school districts (Wallin & Crippan, 2007). Similar sentiments are shared by Waters and Marzano (2006) when they argue that superintendents, as competent communicators, directly coordinate local stakeholders in the overall implementation within their respective school districts of requirements imposed by federal funding agencies.

With regard to the above, studies concurrently echo with superintendents’ efforts to fulfill their mandate, (Carter & Cunningham, 1997; Reeves, 2002; Thomas & Moran, 1992; Waters & Marzano, 2006). As school leaders, they are responsible for the day-to-day implementation of all policy matters as directed by the local, state, and federal educational requirements (Reeves, 2002). Analytically, they earn the leadership status by making timely and bidirectional communications.

Superintendents manage change processes within their areas of operation by indirectly communicating with the public through the media people. According to Jenkins (2007), superintendents get a chance to tap in on the benefits that comes with the “power of pen” due to the close cooperation with the media (p.31). The media is capable of creating a good image of the school system and its processes and, therefore, the information it provides does not portray the shortcoming of the school system. However, it can contribute to creating good relations between the public and the school management systems in the school district. To achieve this nature of coordination, Langlois (2004) offers that school district superintendents should maintain a close tab on the media so that quick actions can be taken to prevent any form of miscommunications such as leakage of uncensored information that might harm the credibility of the school district.

Superintendents as Judges

In their study, Alsbury and Shaw (2005) posit that, while acting to mitigate the unrelenting pressure from various educational stakeholders as well as diminishing funds, school district superintendents strive to introduce education consolidation interventions aimed at enhancing a sense of justice among all the school stakeholders.

Firestone and Martinez (2007) found that the responsibilities of a school superintendent are multifaceted. They entail direct cooperation with the school boards, principals, teachers, and students on one side and the state and federal representatives’ one the other (Sergiovanni et al, 2009). At this point, being a superintendent demands high levels of impartiality so as to effectively deal with the conflicting opinions from these two sides while ensuring that the interests of all the stakeholders are fully served (Kowalski, 2004). In a nutshell, this process of absorbing pressure, cracking complex organizational puzzles, formulating workable policies to address challenges, and, most importantly, fulfilling expectations of all educational stakeholders within cannot be carried out without first embracing all nuances of change (Robbins, 2003; Schein, 1995).

Under the presented circumstances, superintendents achieve change by taking impartial positions particularly in the face of pressures and mixed opinions from the stakeholders. Hoyle et al. (2005) affirm that, on the one hand, superintendents effect change by acting as primary interpreters, initiators, or as leaders in their respective school districts. On the other hand, Bredeson and Kose (2007) suggest that, while imparting change, superintendents not only assume administrative functions, but also assume instructional roles by engaging subject teachers and school principals in regular capacity building workshops.

An extensive account of school superintendents as judicial officers is offered by Marzano et al. (2003). The authors argue that the school superintendent judicially handles all classroom related issues, gives timely and relevant responses to all concerns from stakeholders, solves conflicts among stakeholders in amicable ways, addresses political overtones related to education, and addresses the demands of school boards. Similar sentiments are shared by Portis and Garcia (2007), when they acknowledge that school environments are at times awash with all sorts of conflicts, with the superintendent acting as an impartial judge of the last resort.

Kowalski (2005) argues that change in both elementary and secondary schools’ has been realized not as a result of efforts by educators themselves but by external forces. In support of his assertion Kowalski contends that, “the impetus to refashion organizational structure or operations has been predominately external … [and that majority of] changes that have occurred in districts and schools have been imposed” (p.60). In essence, the school superintendents in their capacity as the link between the state/federal education authorities and the school boards have been in the forefront of imparting this change (Kowalski, 2004). For instance, the implementation of key federal educational directives such as the No Child Left Behind Act as well as state legislations dealing, for example, with performance-based school programs are implemented by the superintendents. This position is supported by the conviction that school reforms emanating from state or federal levels need to be locally coordinated for them to fully fit into the system (Kowalski, 2003).

Superintendents as Teachers and as Students

So as to successfully overhaul the existing school culture, school superintendents assume the double roles of teachers and students. Using a qualitative methodology, Babb (2008) found that indeed school district superintendents spur change. The author indicated that superintendents create active learning environments among school teachers and go ahead to learn together with them. The study explained that by actively taking part in the learning process, district-level educational stakeholders enhance their chances of putting into practice what they learn. Babb argued that when educational stakeholders indulge each other in discussing the expected changes they are more likely to embrace them.

Similar sentiments are shared by Kowalski (2005) who offered an extensive account of the various roles played by school superintendents in their respective areas of jurisdiction. In making this account he paid tribute to Callahan (1966) who portrayed the school superintendent as an applied social scientist (Robins, 2005). He acknowledged that deployment of a barrage of social science theories (such as role theories, change theories, and social learning theories) has enabled superintendents to engage in more result-driven endeavors of administration and leadership. However, so as to be in a position to juggle these social sciences theories, superintendents require intensive training and hands-on experiences.

As applied social scientists, school superintendents employ empiricism, scientific inquiry methodologies, as well as the skills of drawing inferences from leadership experiences and using such inferences to plan for the future. Most importantly, as Kowalski (2003; 2004; 2005) and Johnson & Fusarelli (2003) have asserted, school superintendents fulfill their roles as change agents by incorporating the dynamics of behavioral sciences into the school system as well as by deploying theory in discerning the behavioral changes exhibited by educational stakeholders in their areas of jurisdiction.

While extending the applied social scientist methodology, Fusarelli and Fusarelli (2003) contend that, apart from the mere responsibility of discerning problems and formulating policy to ameliorate such problems, school superintendents also employ enculturation tactics. This entails the de-freezing process advanced by Kurt Lewin in his three-pronged theory of change (Schein, 1995). Ideally, superintendents prepare the ground for change by highlighting key shortcomings of existing processes or institutions, and then ensure that all the stakeholders are perfectly convinced that there is an urgent need for change. To achieve this they carryout institutional as well as procedural restructuring by way of inducing a new and popular culture that bars subjects from reverting back to the old order. Opportunistically, they then move in with the intended reform packages which they rollout to the stakeholders in practical and operational ways. For example, they do this by drawing out direct links between the new reforms packages and deep-seated social ills such as poverty, unemployment, insecurity, climate change, terrorism, etc.

Moreover, while basing their arguments on the educational challenges of the 21st century theorists’ Murphy (1991), Chance and Bjork (2004) assert that the contemporary education systems need to address the social part of the students needs. This opinion is galvanized by Schlechty (1997) when he asserted that school superintendents should appreciate that “the way social systems are put together has independent effects on the way people behave, what they learn, and how they learn what they learn” (p.134). Analytically, the human relations that school superintendents cultivate are directly responsible for bringing about new knowledge and skills. In essence, change, or the lack of change is greatly determined by the nature of social interactions among the leaders and their subordinates (Kowalski, 2003; Kowalski, 2004; Kowalski, 2005).

Conceptual Framework: Change Theory

Basing on the fact that school leadership and management is a complex process that requires significant amounts of time, capital, and human resources, the examination of the roles of school district superintendents as change agents can better be approached through the change theory lens. The hallmark of change theory rests on the postulation that change does not happen instantaneously, it is gradual, and that it comprises of significant amount of adaptations and adjustments (Schein, 1995). As such, imparting change in such a bureaucratic environment can be a daunting task. At the school district level, superintendents work with several school boards, principals, teachers, parents, and students. Consequently, superintendents need to effectively cooperate with all stakeholders. For meeting this purpose, they should introduce the driving forces to steer the stakeholders toward the desired ends through a three-step change model as advanced by Kurt Lewin (Shein, 1995).

Levin’s change theory implies the consideration of three stages: unfreezing, changing, and freezing. The first one suggests that the object under consideration should be ready for changes, which involves full awareness of steps to be taken to face the shifts, and understanding why these identified changes are imperative to introduce (Shein, 1995). In this respect, if superintendent provide more effective and persuasive strategies and reforms, the teaching staff will acquire more understanding of the necessity of implementing those changes. In addition, Schein (1985) asserts that for real change to be realized organizations must build strong capacities capable of managing immediate and perpetual change. Most importantly, organizations must be highly motivated to “learn how to learn” from emerging issues within their area of realization (Schein, 1985). Hence, superintendent should provide specific training programs that will show the teaching staff the main stages of overcoming the unfreezing period that is followed by feelings of frustration and distraction as well as cognitive recognition of necessity to introduce shifts to the educational sphere.

The second stage refers to the steps of transition where Lewin postulates that substantial efforts should be invested in the overall process of behavior change. The theorist acknowledges that the process should be gradual and methodical lest it draws out negative implications among the stakeholders (Schein, 1995). While interpreting this stage, school district leaders should understand that change is not a certain event, but a complication process making the educational system transfer to another level of development. They also perceive change at the local and internal level where the measures are taken with regard to the problem source. This gradual transition from lower levels of system to the upper one will enable schools to evaluate the overall credibility and quality of educational programs as well as curricular plans in its full extent.

The third step involves the complete entrenchment of the acquired change into the systems. The newly implemented step becomes a new platform for consideration and for building new educational programs and plans. This is necessary to prevent any potential slip backs to the old ways after a short time of realizing the new change. Essentially, this step involves the active entrenchment of new values, practices, and policies that are responsible for sustaining the new change at the long term. In order to pass through this final stage, the change agent needs to strike the balance between the driving and restrictive forces through the creation of new institutions and positions. Schein (1995) strengthens these sentiments believing that organizations should comply with policies, processes, events, and tasks that promote the fulfillment of established objectives enabling the participants to freely interact form strong relations within and beyond the identified school districts.

Significance of the Study

Study displays a number of techniques and patterns that regulate superintendent’s actions aimed at improving the educational system. The acquired knowledge will help the researcher to highlight the major trends that make superintendents implement specific reforms. In this respect, the concept of change as envisaged by Schein (1995) greatly contributed to carrying out the identified objectives. Beside theoretical frameworks, the practical results of the study will also shed the light on existing problems in the sphere of educational management and leadership.

It is also worth mentioning that school leadership and management is a complex process that requires significant amount of time, capital, and human resources (Katz & Khan, 1978; Kowalski, 2000). Interpreting the above, superintendents have a lot of responsibilities and duties to take while attempting to investigate how they come up with executing their mandates. The selected methods for study will not only outline the strategies of studying the superintendents’ perceptions of changes to be effected, but also contribute to greater realization of the alternative solutions for introducing changes. Moreover, relying on the notion that change in academic realms involves a number of facets that revolve round sound leadership practices, it also provides a ground for educational stakeholders to better engage their superintendents in matters of policymaking and implementation (Portis & Garcia, 2007). Finally, the fact that prior studies on school leadership and management have not provided a framework within which superintendents go about imparting change heightens the expectations on this study. This study will create further perspectives and underpinnings for studying the main theoretical frameworks of how superintendents’ behavior and reaction effect the implemented change or shift that might be implemented in future.


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