How Superintendents Effect Change


For many decades school district leadership has been the focus of a vast body of research work (Bredeson & Kose, 2007; Cuban & Usdan, 2003). This phenomenon has been occasioned by the urge among educators and policymakers to establish what these leaders can do to foster changes in school districts or reform aspects of educational programming. Superintendents effect changes by means of reforms and, what is more important, successfully mitigate nearly turbulent, bureaucratic, inescapable, and unpredictable environment which they are involved in (Begley, 2004; Kowalski, 2005; Portis & Garcia, 2007; Starratt, 2004). Superintendents can recruit and train talented and promising instructors to produce positive changes to school performance. They can motivate the staff to invest greater efforts aimed at the improvement of the organizational work. Finally, they can adopt and implement structural and educational reforms to facilitate the quality of a learning process. In this respect, school administrators often take different roles, such as judges, communicators, managers, or as teachers.

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School superintendents have changed over the years from the mere instructional leaders they used to be to the multitasked administrators who operate in complex and ever dynamic socio-political and cultural environments engulfing school districts (Alsbury, & Shaw, 2005; Canales, Tajeda-Delgado, & Slate, 2008; Portis & Garcia, 2007). It is conventionally acknowledged that school district superintendents are the persons at the pivotal position for implementing any form of school reforms (Alsbury & Shaw, 2005; Babb, 2008; Barnett, 2004; Murphy, 1994). Many studies concur that superintendents assume leadership roles in their respective districts (Carter & Cunningham, 1997; Reeves, 2002; Thomas & Moran, 1992; Waters & Marzano, 2007). As leaders, they are responsible for the day-to-day implementation of all policy matters as directed by local, state, and federal educational requirements (Reeves, 2002). Similar sentiments are shared by Katz and Khan (1978) and by Kowalski (2000) that school leadership and management are complex processes that require maximum dedication from the superintendents particularly in initiating and implementing change.

Specifically, few attempts have been made to demonstrate how school superintendent effect change, with extant research only dedicating their efforts on describing the various roles played by school superintendents as change agents, including management (Babb, 2008; Bjork, Kowalski, & Browne-Ferrigno, 2005; Bredeson & Kose, 2007; Carter and Cunningham, 1997; Weiss, 2003), arbitration (Alsbury & Shaw, 2005; Martinez, 2007; Bjork, Collier, & Glass, 2005; Marzano, Marzano & Pickering, 2003), teaching and mentoring (Babb, 2008; Callahan, 1966; Fusarelli & Fusarelli, 2003; Kowalski, 2003; Kowalski, 2004; Kowalski, 2005), and communication (Jenkins, 2007; Reeves, 2002; Wallin & Crippan, 2007; Thomas & Moran, 1992; Waters & Marzano, 2006). In contrast, role characteristics are more congruent with functions and spheres a superintendent is involved in, but not tasks and reform stages he/she enforces. Distinctions between roles and spheres of involvement play the key role in developing clear understanding of techniques and strategies to be used for achieving goals successfully and effect changes.

Though some existing studies extensively describe the environments within which superintendents operate, it is only wise to assert that the highly dynamic education sector has considered some of them to be irrelevant. For instance, it has been advanced that school superintendents work under very temperamental environments characterized by conflicting opinions from different levels of educational stakeholders (Hentschke, Nayfack, & Wohlstetter, 2009; Starratt, 2004). To enlarge on this, school environment is now being challenged by pressures and concerns competing for their resolution and attention that makes conflicts inescapable. Today, the established environment seems to require advanced accountability demands and more resolute decisions (Starratt, 2004). In this regard, changes that have engulfed the contemporary society in general and education sector in particular have brought about discrepancies between what present studies advance and how school superintendents as leaders effect changes within their districts. Unfortunately, little empirical evidence is found concerning how school district superintendents go about imparting change at a time when the educational sector just like many other sectors, is going through a period of rapid restructuring courtesy of the mounting pressure from educational stakeholders. This being said, there is need for carrying out a focused and impartial research work to investigate how these administrative officers effect change in their respective school districts.

It is important to understand how superintendents can introduce any changes and influence on their fulfillment. The increasingly oppressed environment makes school district leaders consider reforms as a challenging task due to the lack of resources for accomplishment. In order to properly face this challenge, superintendents are often driven by a great commitment to social justice and an assumption that students can significantly improve their educational level when receiving sufficient support and motivation.

Beside external factors, most superintendents are often forced by internal incentives to act because of dissatisfaction with the current level of students’ progress. In particular, their motivations can be drawn from a sense of duty or from propensity to adhere to high quality professional standards (Barnett, 2005). Regardless of beliefs and assumptions, both factors can contribute to positive transformation of an educational system. In addition, certain superintendents consider that high teaching standards can be achieved only through the introduction of adequate funding to meet the needs of highly qualified teachers and provide students with diligent education.

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Statement of the Study Purpose and Research Questions

The purpose of this study is to examine how selected school district superintendents perceive they have effected curricular and instructional change. The study will utilize interviews as its only data collection tool to study superintendents who oversee multi-building districts and who have held their positions for five or more years. In achieving this, the study will be guided by the following research questions:

  • How do superintendents perceive that they effect change regarding teaching and learning at the building level?
  • What skills do superintendents perceive are required for effecting these changes?
  • How superintendents introduce strategies to introduce changes?

Study Method and Procedures

This study will examine superintendent perceptions of how they effect change in curriculum and instruction in an effort to enhance student achievement. In addition, the study will elicit superintendent perceptions of the skills needed to make those changes. Employing an exploratory, qualitative research methodology will be appropriate given its capacity to identify the superintendents’ perceptions of how they effect change. Creswell’s (2003) postulations concerning interviews and case studies suggest that a qualitative approach offers the best option for examining these perceptions.

Sampling and data collection

The study population will focus on school superintendents who oversee multi-building districts and who have at least five years of experience as superintendents. This group of superintendents will be the most appropriate for the study because they know the specifics of their educational establishments and have been in their positions long enough to have had the opportunity to effect changes in their districts. The sampling procedure will involve

  1. developing a list of potential interviewees and
  2. contacting potential interviewees and securing informed consent.

Developing a list of potential interviewees

Superintendents to be included in this study will be selected from those overseeing multi-building districts within a 50-mile radius of the researcher’s home. The goal is to interview 10 superintendents from this group, who were identified from lists maintained by the Illinois Association of School Administrators in Illinois and the Area Education Agency in Iowa. A review of these lists showed that there were 55 school districts within the desired geographical area. Those districts were sent either a general inquiry fax or an e-mail asking about

  1. the number and type of buildings in the district,
  2. enrolment,
  3. the name of the superintendent, and
  4. the years he or she had served in the superintendency either in that district or in other districts (See Appendix 1).

Of 94 districts, 55 responded. And of those responding districts, 14 met the study criteria (i.e., being a multi-building district that is led by a superintendent with at least 5 years of experience in the superintendency). These districts are listed in Table 1.

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The 10 superintendents listed in Table 1 with the greatest number of years in the superintendency will be sent letters explaining the purpose of the study and seeking their participation as interviewees (see Appendices 1 and 2). These letters will include a response on which the superintendents can

  1. decline participation,
  2. agree to participate, or
  3. request further information before making a decision.

If the superintendent agrees to participate in the interview, the researcher will contact the superintendent via e-mail asking when it is possible to arrange the meeting. If option some additional information about the interview and its results is required, there researcher should discuss the time for a telephone conversation regarding the superintendents concerns or questions. If responses are not got within 2 weeks, the researcher should find another way to contact the superintendent and get information. The table with the necessary information about the participant is in the back of the paper.

Receiving informed consent is an important condition for the given research to be started. To ensure information confidentiality, the selected superintendents’ will be assured that their personal information will not be revealed – only information relevant to the research problem will be collected from the participants (Kvale, 2008). The superintendents will be assured that the study will rely only on the information that they will be willing to divulge in order to enhance participation.


The interviews will be conducted at a time and place designated by the interviewees. Two rounds of interviews will be conducted. The first, initial round of interviews will be structured around six open-ended interview questions with appropriate follow-up questions as needed to assure that interviewee comments are understood. The six questions are:

  1. Tell me about yourself and your journey that led you to become a superintendent.
  2. As a superintendent, what changes have you been able to effect concerning teaching and learning in your schools?
  3. Tell me about each of these changes. How did you make these changes happen?
  4. Thinking back on your experiences making change happen in your district, what skills do you think superintendents need to be effective change agents?
  5. What conclusions can you make concerning your achievements and change you have effected? Reflecting back on your experience as a change agent in your district, is there anything you would do differently?
  6. Here are the main points that I have heard in our conversation (researcher summarizes her understanding of the key point). Do I have it right? Is there anything else you would like to add?

The second round of interviews will be conducted after transcripts from the initial round have been coded and analyzed. The purpose of the second interviews will be to clarify themes or issues mentioned in the first round.

The interviews will proceed as a conversation, along the lines described by Kvale (2008). The first question, though not dealing with change per se, will help to open the conversation, fostering rapport between the interviewer and the interviewee before questions dealing specifically with change are introduced. The final question allows the interviewer and the interviewee to have a conversation about main points that emerged in the interview.

The interviews will be conducted on a face-to-face basis in venues convenient with the busy superintendents’ daily schedules. To encourage the participation, the superintendents will be given the opportunity to choose the venues for the interviews (Creswell, 2003). The researcher will have practiced research and questioning techniques before engaging in the actual interview (Kavale, 2008; Maxfield & Babbie, 1995). Interviews will be recorded and transcribed.

Although according to Kvale, the interviewer is totally immersed in the interview, it might be important for the interviewer to take a couple of notes during the interviews and consider personal opinion. As a rule, the time during the interviews passes very quickly, and it is hard to catch all pieces of information. This is why the interviewer should be attentive to the answers as well as to the reactions of the superintendents. The interviews under consideration aim at disclosing the main theme such as the role of the superintendents personal involvement into the process of changes in the organization. To achieve better results, the interviewer should demonstrate personal interest in the chosen theme discussion so that the interviewee can feel comfortable and share interesting details on the case. Such attitude to the organization of the interviews should be rather effective.

Data Analysis

One of the most critical aspects of this methodology is the transcription of the interview data. Although, Kvale utilizes a lack of standard techniques for qualitative research interviews, he uses five standard main methods to be used for the analysis of the interviews defined by Kvale (2008).

In this project, it seems to be a good idea to use his “meaning condensation” method because it requires the researcher to identify key ideas that emerge in the interviews and organize those themes into meaningful patterns or categories(Kvale, 2008, p. 106). The condensation method gives the interviewer a chance to reduce the text of the interview into create series of brief but meaningful statements that reflect the key ideas introduced by the interviewee. The condensation method employs the following steps:

  1. The interview will be transcribed and read by the interviewer to understand the essence of the whole text, the message introduced by the interviewee, and the emotions inherent to a particular situation.
  2. Several natural themes and patterns of the interview have to be determined. The researcher will review the data by writing notes in the margins of the transcript to grasp a sense of meaning on the whole. The researcher will spend more time to identify and condense different key ideas, concepts and short phrases in the text. The researcher will pay close attention to the words used by superintendents. For instance, the emphasis can be placed on negative or positive connotations of synonyms applied in the conversation.
  3. Once the condensed concepts are drawn, it will be necessary to further move to labelling down important condensed patterns that were defined by the participants and data collection process. These patterns will be printed, cut, and sorted into like patterns and themes to examine the statements of different superintendents. The required theme will be introduced in the simplest possible way.
  4. The meaning condensed units identified earlier have to be interrogated in accordance with the main purposes of the study under consideration. The answers that define the importance of change promoted by the superintendents have to be analyzed.
  5. Finally, this step will include collecting the created themes and patterns through reading, revising, highlighting and interpreting a set of units referring to the same category.

All the above-mentioned steps should be taken into consideration in the particular order. The results and effectiveness of the analysis will be doubtful in case some changes take place, this is why each piece of information got from the interviews should be evaluated accordingly. Kvale introduces an effective way to simplify the information, and his meaning condensation method is a winning detail of this research.

Study Limitations

This study will seek to investigate how local school district superintendents’ effect learning and leadership change. For this purpose, the study should engage a large number of participants from a wide geographic area in every state in the US. However, due to limitations of resources the study sample will only comprise 10 participants selected from the Davenport-Bettendorf-Moline-Rock Island area within a 50-mile radius area, which is an important geographical restriction. This can be considered a significant weakness provided that the few multi-building unit and K-12 school districts covered in this area may not exhibit similar features to all other school districts across the US. Relying on information collected from only ten superintendents may not provide a clear picture on how superintendents go about effecting learning and leadership change in their respective school districts. Due to the fact that the selected group fits the established criteria, the accuracy of information needed for the research will not be distorted and, therefore, it will be sufficient for defining how superintendents’ effect change.


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