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February 1, 2001
Vol. 58
No. 5

Research Link / Setting Standards for the School Superintendent

How do we evaluate aspiring school superintendents and continue to develop their vital leadership capacities? The first step is to evaluate the job.
In 1999, the Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium (ISLLC) contracted Educational Testing Service (ETS) to develop an assessment that states could use to license aspiring school superintendents. Two important sources of information guided the development of the test. The first was a job analysis, The Profession of School Superintendents: An Analysis of the Responsibilities and Knowledge Areas Important for Beginning School Superintendents (Latham & Holloway, 1999), and the second was The Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium Standards for School Leaders (Council of Chief State School Officers, 1996).
ETS conducted a job analysis study to identify responsibilities and knowledge areas that are important for beginning school superintendents. The first step was to ask job experts—superintendents and professors from school leadership preparation programs—to define the job domain. These experts concluded that the domain consists of nine broad categories and that these categories are further defined by 124 responsibility statements and 123 knowledge statements. We formatted these job categories and statements as a survey, which we mailed to all superintendents in Missouri and North Carolina, the two states funding this project.
Approximately 50 percent of the two states' 318 participating superintendents responded. They confirmed the importance of the nine categories and supported the importance of the 124 responsibility statements and all but four of the 123 knowledge statements. The survey data allowed us to rank the order of the nine job domain categories judged important to beginning superintendents, from most to least important: fostering school board relations; developing and maintaining an effective school and district staff; facilitating student learning; collaborating with and involving the community; providing organizational resources and operations; developing, implementing, and evaluating curriculum and instruction; providing professional development for school and district staff; maintaining group processes; and understanding and responding to the larger political issues.
The job domain categories, based on the Standards for School Leaders (Council of Chief State School Officers, 1996), consist of indicators (knowledge, performance, and disposition statements) that define standards reflecting best practices for effective school leadership. The six standards describe the roles of the superintendent: facilitating the development of a shared vision of learning; sustaining an instructional program conducive to student learning; ensuring a safe, efficient, and effective learning environment; collaborating with families and community; acting with integrity, fairness, and ethics; and understanding the political, social, economic, legal, and cultural context of the district.
The recurring themes that run through the standards and their indicators mandate that school leaders focus on such crucial issues as teaching and learning, collaboration with stakeholders, and articulation of a shared vision for education and the school. ETS developed the School Superintendent Assessment and administered the first test on October 21, 2000.

Corroborating Research

The ETS research provides information about what superintendents do and how these tasks are linked to national standards for leadership. Susan Black (1998) reports on this work and emphasizes that schools are, first and foremost, learning communities and, thus, school leaders should be deeply knowledgeable about child and adult development. Further, she believes that school leaders need to collaborate with stakeholders when guiding a school to become a true community of learners.
Using job analyses and a national body of standards for school leaders, we can create both evaluation and professional development opportunities for school leaders. According to Theodore Kowalski (1998), evaluating a superintendent is a crucial task that needs serious reform. He recommends that the performance evaluation of a superintendent be conducted annually; that the evaluation be formal, objective, and ethical; and that it be linked to district improvement. Kowalski emphasizes that the evaluation of the school superintendent should directly connect to the overarching goal of school improvement. Kowalski's research supports the notion that superintendent evaluation must be based on a well-defined description of the role of the superintendent and on the basic beliefs embodied in Standards for School Leaders.
Judith Berg and Bruce Barnett (1998) go beyond initial licensure and performance evaluation and advocate ongoing professional development for superintendents. Their research shows that practicing superintendents still want professional development, regardless of how long they have held their positions. This finding suggests that continuing support after a preparation program is necessary for superintendents to effectively deal with the demands and complexities of the job. Berg and Barnett found that although a number of university preparation programs have altered their content and pedagogy to provide meaningful training to aspiring superintendents, these leaders receive little attention to their professional development needs once they enter the profession.

Improving Leadership

It is now within our reach to train, select, and support school superintendents using a coherent model that is grounded in national standards and a firm understanding of the demands of the complex position. Our schools demand and deserve that we pay attention to evaluating and developing these educational leaders.
Sample Exercise from the School Superintendent Assessment

Sample Exercise from the School Superintendent Assessment

Currently, there are two elementary schools in the district. A New K–5 elementary school is opening in the fall. It will be necessary to determine which students will attend each of the three schools, requiring the formation of new boundary lines.

Identify and describe at least three critical factors that the superintendent should include in a recommendation to the board of education about the new boundary lines.

—Copyright 2000 ETS. Reprinted by permission from ETS.


Berg, J., & Barnett, B. (1998, April). The school district superintendent: Attention must be paid. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, San Diego, CA.

Black, S. (1998, June). A different kind of leader. The American School Board Journal, 185, 32–35.

Council of Chief State School Officers. (1996). The Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium standards for school leaders. Washington, DC: Author.

Kowalski, T. (1998, February). Critiquing the CEO. The American School Board Journal, 185, 43–44.

Latham, A., & Holloway, J. (1999). The profession of school superintendents: An analysis of the responsibilities and knowledge areas important for beginning school superintendents. Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service.

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