Education Opinion

Do Superintendents Matter?

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — December 14, 2014 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Confounding findings from the recent Brookings Institution reported that superintendents could not be directly connected to student achievement. The report found that, “In the end, it is the system that promotes or hinders student achievement. Superintendents are largely indistinguishable.” The report concluded,

Superintendents may well be as important to student achievement as the popular perception, their portrayal in the media, and their salaries suggest, but there is almost no quantitative research that addresses their impact.

The Study
The Brookings study was based on 5 questions and was conducted in the states of Florida and North Carolina.

  1. What are the observable characteristics of superintendents, with a focus on their length of service?
  2. Does student achievement improve when superintendents serve longer?
  3. Do school districts improve when they hire a new superintendent?
  4. What is the contribution of superintendents to student achievement relative to districts, schools, and teachers?
  5. Are there superintendents whose tenure is associated with exceptional changes in student achievement?

The Findings:

  1. School district superintendent tenure is largely a short-term. The typical superintendent has been in the job for three to four years.
  2. Student achievement does not improve with longevity of superintendent service within their districts.
  3. Hiring a new superintendent is not associated with higher student achievement.
  4. Superintendents account for a small fraction of a percent (0.3 percent) of student differences in achievement. This effect, while statistically significant, is orders of magnitude smaller than that associated with any other major component of the education system, including: measured and unmeasured student characteristics, teachers, schools, and districts.
  5. Individual superintendents who have an exceptional impact on student achievement cannot be reliably identified.

Before the report becomes part of an argument that there is a diminished need and value for superintendents, we think other leadership attributes must be recognized.

It Is The System That Promotes Or Hinders Student Achievement
On the first page of the first chapter of his leadership classic, “On Becoming a Leader” Warren Bennis quotes John W. Gardner from his book “No Easy Victories.

Leaders have a significant role in creating the state of mind that is the society. They can serve as symbols of the moral unity of the society. They can express the values that hold the society together. Most important, they can conceive and articulate goals that lift people out of their petty preoccupations, carry them above the conflicts that tear a society apart, and unite them in pursuit of the objectives worthy of their best efforts.

The superintendent leads the system. That work is done in concert and with the support of the district’s governing body. The smallest of sentences in the results of the study reveals the most important factor "...it is the system that promotes or hinders student achievement. Superintendents are largely indistinguishable.” Perhaps this is exactly as it should be. The way the system works, how it operates and how it feels flows from, or at least through, the superintendent. We suppose there are better ways to measure the elusive qualities of leadership and their impact quantitatively, but this study did not set out to do so. Teachers, the professionals with greatest proximity to the students, are held directly responsible for the achievement of their students. In a new accountability system, the principals are held responsible for the successes and failures of their teachers. But to focus on the teachers and the principals belies the system’s impact and, accordingly, that of the superintendent.

The report suggests, perhaps, that the superintendent is the rudder of the ship, invisible, even to the researchers in this study. Without it, however, no captain or the mates can reach the desired port. They would be destined instead to the whims of water and wind, finding themselves in some uncharted territory with little control. Who has more impact the rudder or those rowing? Of course neither can be effective without the other.

It is through interdependent relationships that the system evolves, pulling upon energy, resolve, direction, and resources and resulting in effectiveness. Certainly, a superintendent who does not have the attributes necessary to provide successful leadership can negatively affect the actions of the rest of the system and result in poor student achievement. On the other hand, there are those superintendents who do have those attributes. Granted it is observation and only anecdotal, but we have seen remarkable superintendents build systems that flourish, as do their students.

The study did a good job of measuring what it set out to and the report explains their research journey well. But, we want to post a warning that the superintendency is the rudder, perhaps unseen, but significant just the same. Each role in our systems plays a part in the success of students. Each role. But the tone and energy of the district flows from the CEO. It is as true in education as it is in business. No job in schools can be accomplished without the other. If superintendents are filling the role described by John Gardner, we can’t image systems without them being a more successful option.

Bennis, Warren (2009) On Becoming a Leader. Philadelphia: Basic Books

Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.