The New Alliance of Superintendents and Principals: Applying the Research to Site-Based Decision Making

Few school change efforts are able to succeed without the active involvement of the superintendent (Hill, Wise, & Shapiro, 1989). That statement would seem particularly relevant when related to the change currently being explored by an increasing number of educators - the decentralization of authority and decision making from state and district levels to the school. In the context of restructuring, and site-based management and decision making, Fullan (1992) warns that the school is still the unit of change, but also refers to Sirotnik (1987) who claims that "the school should be conceptualized as the center of change" (Fullan, p. 203). This suggests that while the school is the central and primary focus, it is surrounded by a series of contexts from the district to the state to the nation, and all of these environments impinge upon the school. Therefore, Fullan maintains, all the environments or levels of the system are profoundly implicated in restructuring and decentralization issues - "the classroom, the school, the school district, and beyond" (p. 204).

The concept of the school "centered" in its district context is central to the report from the research that follows. This article focuses on the ways superintendents work with principals to guide, support, and implement change in schools that contributes to improvement in student outcomes,

A review of the literature revealed few studies of superintendents' roles in instructional improvement. Access to research papers recently presented at professional meetings has been more fruitful; some of these studies have been published as monographs and books. A knowledge base, somewhat akin to that of principal as instructional leader, is growing. From this knowledge base of superintendents as leaders for learning, studies were selected for review,

The studies reported here are based on districts that accomplished higher than expected student achievement and/or increases in equity and quality of instruction. The districts were otherwise diverse (large and small, poor and not so poor, with great variety in student ethnicity), and each was studied to discover the role the superintendent played in achieving these outcomes. The researchers interviewed superintendents and their central office colleagues, principals, and teachers. They "shadowed" the superintendents' activities and made repeat visits. The data that are reported in the next section were based on disciplined, qualitative methods, were richly descriptive, and were compared by researchers, in some cases, with data from superintendents in ineffective districts,

In part one, this paper describes what superintendents in the districts studied were doing to promote growth in their principals and change in their districts. In part two, this writer applies the descriptions to site-based decision making, thus defining the potential alliance of these two administrators as they implement this significant change,

Superintendents in Effective Districts

Larry Cuban has been a superintendent, as well as a scholar and student of change. From his perspective, Cuban has identified three roles that effective superintendents must simultaneously enact: manager, politician, teacher (Cuban, 1985). In describing these three roles in the world of schools' executive leaders, Cuban used fire as a metaphor (p. 30): the manager of a school district must be a practitioner of fire prevention; the politician has skills that can control the blazes that will inevitably erupt; and the teacher "serves as the fire starter ... to alter the thinking and actions of board members, school personnel, and the community at large.".

All three roles can be recognized in the following three strategies superintendents used to realize instructional improvement: creating an atmosphere for change, communicating vision, and cultivating principals as colleagues. However, the major emphasis of the text in this section of the paper focuses on the superintendents' role of teacher and how they cultivated and developed colleagueship with principals to bring about change,

Create an Atmosphere for Change

"No ... effort studied caught fire without an active superintendent willing to ... attack the school system's inertia" (Hill, Wise, & Shapiro, 1989, p. 20). To encourage a mind set for change, superintendents challenged principals and other staff to generate ideas for innovation and improvement. They arranged for and reinforced idea sharing among principals, and supported their risk taking activities. Actions by principals for change, not for the status quo, were expressly valued by the superintendents (Paulu, 1988). In order to create an internal climate where district change could flourish, superintendents spent time and energy managing the issues external to the schools, that is, being sensitive to the community and being active in public relations. The community cannot be ignored, but must provide a harmonious environment for the internal context,

Communicate Vision

Almost all reports of effective school leaders include the factor of "vision engineering" and communication of the vision of an improved and more effective school district. The superintendents' reports were no exception. Paulu (1988) reports that superintendents initiated vision development through sharing a beginning picture with all constituents. They followed this by soliciting input and inviting principals and others to shape the vision and its attendant set of goals and plans. Hill and colleagues (1989) add that these executives increased the flow of information, keeping the vision, priorities, and emergent needs clear to all, especially to principals. Superintendents' visions are compatible with and support the values of the district. For example, if the community identifies thinking skills as a desirable student outcome, the superintendent might charge a task force led by principals to develop curriculum and instructional strategies that would enable students to review materials, observe phenomena, develop inferences, explore hypotheses, collect data, and draw conclusions. This vision of students as problem solvers, illuminated by the superintendents' rich descriptors, provides guidance and stimulus to the staff who will initiate further development and operationalization of the vision,

Cultivate Principals as Colleagues

The chief executives in effective districts directly participated in the selection and hiring of principals (Pollack et al., 1988). Some did this through interviewing prospective principals for the personnel pool. Others were closely involved in policies and procedures for hiring principals, to assure they had desired capacities and attributes. After hiring, superintendents were careful to be readily accessible to principals, with no organizational structures intervening. In some large districts, area or sub-area superintendents were closely allied with principals. A cultural characteristic common to these superintendents' districts and conveyed to principals was the belief that principals could increase student outcomes. These executives signaled to principals that curriculum and teaching were important (Peterson, Murphy, & Hallinger, 1987). In reinforcing the district's culture with principals, superintendents articulated district goals, set priorities and consistently established expectations (Coleman & LaRocque, 1990). Further, they developed plans for principals' growth that were also linked to school needs,

Providing for training and development of principals and all staff (Paulu, 1988; Pollack et al., 1988) was a factor given keen attention by effective superintendents. They also supplied technical and on-site assistance to support site administrators in the vision of district and school change and its goals. Development, growth, and change of knowledge and skills of staff required human (time, energy) and material resources. Superintendents recognized this and allocated resources to principals for their own growth and development, but also for the development of other staff (Pollack et al., 1988). In addition to supplying formal training and assistance, superintendents demonstrated new behaviors for their principals and modeled the change that was desired. For example, if "cooperative learning" was identified as an instructional strategy the district was promoting for school and classroom practice, the superintendent might organize a principals' staff meeting into cooperative groups and conduct the meeting through activities designated as cooperative learning strategies. In these several ways they acted directly with principals as their role model and teacher, helping them to understand and emulate new behaviors and skills,

And, like teachers, superintendents monitored progress. They did this through spending major parts of their time in school and classroom visits, explicitly articulating priorities and conveying what was important (Hill et al., 1989). They collected products of the schools' work, participated in school award ceremonies, and monitored change in principals', teachers', and students' knowledge, skills, and behaviors. They were active in principals' performance reviews (Pollack et al., 1988), supervising them and using student achievement results in principal evaluations (Murphy & Hallinger, 1986). They were directly involved in the technical core operations of their districts. They promoted the theme of "every child can learn" and principals were expected to realize this ideal in practice,

It is no surprise that these superintendents were effective in their change efforts with principals; their strategies parallel those gleaned from accounts of educational change projects (Hord & Czerwinski, 1991). What is surprising is the limited number of superintendents (and their boards) who define the superintendent's role according to Cuban's three functions. A majority of superintendents play the roles of manager and politician, but give far less attention to their teaching role,

If restructuring, decentralization, and site-based decision making are to be successful at the school level, the literature clearly suggests the need for direction and assistance from the district level and its chief executive. What does this mean for the superintendent's role in the change to site-based decisions? In the next section, this writer uses the three superintendents' strategies as a frame to draw implications from the research. The writer suggests ways that the superintendents' teaching role and behaviors might be applied to the implementation of site-based decision making,

Superintendents, Principals, and Site-Based Decision Making

An initial consideration in introducing and implementing site-based decision making is the atmosphere that is created in the community surrounding the schools, and within the school system itself. Superintendents who brought about change in their districts paid careful attention to this as well as to other factors,

An Environment for Introducing Site-Based Decision Making

The larger community needs to understand that the schools are seeking new ways to operate so that students will become more successful learners. With community support, change and improvement can be promoted in the schools and valued as characteristics of the school district. The community should be informed and made aware of the district's plan to decentralize decision-making structures as an effort for increasing effectiveness. Managing a program to develop the community's awareness and readiness is the executive's responsibility. In addition, a plan should be developed to invite and involve the community in active, participatory roles early in the process of adopting site-based decision making,

To stimulate interest in site-based decision making and encourage staff to study it for possible adoption in their schools, the superintendent sets the stage. Over a period of time, he or she acknowledges and rewards new ideas and creativity, supports principals and other staff to be risk-takers, and encourages them to try out new strategies. The executive honors those principals who try to improve and makes clear that working for improvement is a valued action. In this way the stage is set for introducing the new concept and exploration of decision-making structures,

A Vision of Site-Based Decision Making

The superintendent has a dual obligation to the development of a clear vision of site-based decision making. First, to lead the discussion, he or she must have some rudimentary vision that can be offered to the staff as a catalyst for discussion. As he or she puts forth an initial vision or general image of the process, the superintendent invites staff to become part of the team to design the vision. In the shared design phase, there should be a clearer definition or description of site-based decision making, and the purpose for adopting it in the district should be articulated. The statement of purpose is coupled with a description of the effects that are sought by the design team: Is the purpose economy and efficiency, teacher professionalization, increased student outcomes, and/or others? It appears that districts that have not thoughtfully considered the purposes for using this decision-making system and the results desired from its use seldom generate identifiable results (Malen, Ogawa, & Kranza, 1990). Additionally, the vision description should include an explanation of how site-based decision making will fit into the district's scheme of things, with an articulation of boundaries, limitations, or parameters on decisions that can be made at the local school site,

Second, the superintendent vigorously continues to invite additions and revisions to the "first draft" of the vision, enlisting an ever widening array of constituents to shape the vision around a central core idea or set of ideas. Site-based decision making becomes clarified and enhanced by multiple inputs, as principals and other personnel become more intimately involved and interested. The increased flow of information at this time through open channels is valued by all constituents. Abundant communication keeps the attention on the vision and its priorities, and reduces anxiety in the staff about the "unknown." It is not unusual for the superintendent to be perceived as "hiding" something, if the district's concept and purpose for site-based decision making, its expectations of principals and other staff, and the support to be available to them, have not been thoughtfully considered, planned, and communicated. Being available to provide information personally, or by highly visible and credible assistants, is an additional dimension to developing and communicating the site-based decision-making vision,

The Guidance and Support of Principals

Superintendents can increase the likelihood of frequent and close communication with their principals by making themselves available to principals. They can reorganize the central office staff to remove layers of personnel between themselves and their principals. They then can use the improved proximity to work directly with their principals as facilitators of the change to site-based decision making,

To establish the expectation that principals will serve in the facilitating-leader role, the chief executive:.

  • shares these goals,
  • engages with the principals in an assessment of the school level administrator's strengths and weaknesses relative to guiding the school in site-based decision making, and
  • develops mutually agreed upon growth plans with and for the principal.

The principal's role is likely to be the most impacted by decentralized and shared decision making. Many principals will experience a high degree of discomfort relative to their role in adopting and implementing site-based decision making with their school. The superintendent guides the clarification of the expectations for the principal's role and provides support for achieving the expectations,

Superintendents provide support through the allocation of resources including materials, and time for training and planning. The superintendent arranges training and development based on needs jointly assessed by superintendent and principal. Not only is formal training for site-based decision making arranged for principals individually and collectively, but superintendents may attend workshops with principals, and model and demonstrate the principles and strategies expected of their school level administrators and other personnel as they implement the vision of site-based decision making. Training is provided to principals in single role groups, and also with their decision-making team and total faculty,

Additionally, the superintendent shares relevant journal articles, books, audio and video tapes for the principal's individualized perusal. Following the distribution of these materials, superintendents participate with principals in analysis and discussion. These interactions deepen meaning and add value to the materials. Principals are encouraged to circulate other materials they find useful about site-based decision making, not only to the superintendent, and their peers, but also to their staff,

Superintendents arrange for principals to meet together to discuss successes and concerns and to do collective problem solving. Some executives encourage and reinforce principals in exchanging visits to schools within and outside the district to observe the new process in operation. Such activities can expand knowledge, understanding, and skills development in site-based decision making,

The provision of training and development is vital to the principal's acquisition of expertise in putting site-based decision making to work in a school. Providing the information and training is not, however, sufficient, according to effective superintendents - they monitor to see how things are progressing. This assessment of progress is a means to detect problems and identify needs. Monitoring is a middle step that follows training and development, but also precedes follow-up assistance, coaching, and responses to needs. The purpose of monitoring is to discover the kinds of help and assistance that will support principals in achieving the capacity to manage site-based decision making effectively and productively in their schools. Celebrating successes, small or large, in private and public ways, is another way superintendents contribute to principals' site-based decision-making accomplishments,

No one superintendent is likely to be able to supply to principals all of the guidance and assistance for site-based decision making that are described above, especially in large urban districts. Some superintendents engage their cabinet and other central office staff with them in a team to support principals. Other superintendents re-arrange their own roles and delegate the management functions to other central office staff, so they can allocate more time to the teaching role, and to working with their principals. However the structure is designed, the extent to which principals are nurtured and supported is likely to correlate with the comfort and capacity they obtain. The introduction of site-based decision making is, as already stated, anxiety producing. Many school administrators are not experienced in it, and significant help is needed. A simple and familiar example may be helpful,

Not many young, or older adults, have been introduced to the use of an automobile without a vision or mental image of themselves smoothly driving down streets and highways. Not many have contemplated using a car without information about the auto and its parts, and without development of an understanding of how particular parts work together for the user (driver). Many would-be drivers experience group training in a class; many have personalized teachers who model and demonstrate driving, and then ride by the learning driver's side as a short experimental trip is taken. The teacher observes carefully to predict or detect trouble or potential dangers, to provide information, advice, and guidance. Use of the car is seldom provided without parameters or guidelines for its use (how far or how long one may drive, what destination is permissible, etc.),

The teacher or coach does not terminate this role after one driving episode. Rather, training and practice continue with monitoring and corrective feedback from the coach until the novice becomes reasonably expert as a driver. The coach applauds effort, improvement, and accomplished use in driving,

The necessity of substantial information, understanding, and skills development through training, practice, and useful/constructive feedback makes sense in the case of using a car - as it should in using site-based decision making. What often escapes attention is the requirement to support the use of new tools and ideas, in the educational practitioner's context. Without support, the demise of most educational innovation is no surprise. The good news is that superintendents understand this and play a significant role with their principals in the adoption and implementation of changes that are planned to achieve their district's vision,

Note: This article was initially presented by the author as an address:

October, 1991 at the Texas Association of School Administrators conference on School-Based Management: Effective Strategies for District Leaders, titled "The New Alliance of Superintendents and Principals: A Report from the Research," and

an article:

Hord, S.M. (1992, Winter). The new alliance: Superintendents and principals team up to improve student outcomes. Insights, pp. 20-23, published by Texas Association of School Administrators, Austin, Texas.


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  • Fullan, M.G. (1991). The new meaning of educational change. New York: Teachers College Press.
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  • Malen, B. Ogawa, R.T., & Kranza, J. (1990). What do we know about school-based management? A case study of the literature - A Call for Research. In W.H. Clune & J.F. Witte (Eds.) Choice and Control in American Education, Volume 2: The Practice of Choice, Decentralization and School Restructuring. London: Falmer Press, pp. 289-342.
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  • Peterson, K.D., Murphy, J., & Hallinger, P. (1987). Superintendents' perceptions of the control and coordination of the technical core in effective school districts. Educational Administration Quarterly, 23(1), 79-95.
  • Pollack, S., Chrispeels, J., Watson, D., Brice, R., & McCormick, S. (1988). A Description of District Factors That Assist in the Development of Equity Schools. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, New Orleans.
  • Sirotnik, K.A. (1987). The school as the center of change (Occasional Paper No. 5). Seattle, WA: Center for Educational Renewal.

Credits and Disclaimer

Issues . . . about Change is published and produced quarterly Southwest Educational Development Laboratory (SEDL). This publication is based on work sponsored by the Office of Educational Research & Improvement, U.S. Department of Education under grant number RP91002003. The content herein does not necessarily reflect the views of the department or any other agency of the U.S. government or any other source. Available in alternative formats.

The Southwest Educational Development Laboratory (SEDL) is located at 4700 Mueller Blvd., Austin, Texas 78723; 512-476-6861/800-476-6861. SEDL is an Equal Employment Opportunity/Affirmative Action Employer and is committed to affording equal employment opportunities to all individuals in all employment matters.

This issue was written by Shirley M. Hord, Ph.D., Senior Research Associate, Services for School Improvement, SEDL.

Published in Issues ...about Change Volume 2, Number 1, The New Alliance of Superintendents and Principals: Applying the Research to Site-Based Decision Making (1992)