January/February 2016

Leading into the future: Perceptions of school board presidents on essential knowledge and skills for superintendents

Jenny Tripses, Ph.D., is a professor and coordinator in the department of Leadership in Educational Administration at Bradley University. John Hunt, Ph.D., is professor emeritus of educational leadership at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. JoHyun Kim, Ph.D., is assistant professor of educational leadership at Texas A&M University, Commerce. Sandra Watkins, Ph.D., is a professor of educational leadership in the College of Education & Human Services at Western Illinois University.

Those responsible to ensure that all students receive an education that prepares them to be “career and college ready” recognize that achieving educational excellence is no simple matter. Dealing with challenges such as dwindling finances, unfunded mandates, and shifting student populations requires strong teamwork between school boards and school administrators.

Two years ago, the Illinois Association of School Boards and four professors who teach in administrator preparation programs teamed up to find out what Illinois school board presidents believe successful superintendents need to know and be able to do. As professors, we believed school board members had valuable opinions about superintendent characteristics that could inform graduate school superintendent preparation programs. We greatly appreciated IASB’s assistance with this research study.

The purpose of the study was to determine what school board presidents believe are the competencies and skills superintendents need to work successfully with school boards in changing environments. Information was also sought about what school board presidents believed were critical personal and social skills for superintendents.

All Illinois school board presidents were contacted to participate in an online descriptive research survey. Of the 869 Illinois board presidents, 31.8 percent (276) responded. An impressive 47.8 percent of the respondents had served 11 or more years as board members. This was an experienced group of school board presidents representing various district types and locations in Illinois. Among the 276 school board presidents completing the survey, 41.3 percent represented elementary districts, 15.6 percent represented high school districts, and 36.2 percent served unit districts. Another 6.9 percent concurrently served on elementary and high school boards. The percent of respondents from elementary districts was similar to the percent of elementary districts statewide; high school respondents were slightly over-represented and unit districts were under-represented (see chart, page 9).

The quantitative portion of the survey asked board presidents to respond to 29 questions on a five-point Likert scale. Respondents were asked to rate superintendent knowledge and skills from “unimportant” to “essential.” In broad terms, the school board presidents who responded to the survey agreed with the qualities included in the survey.

Statistically, differences in the responses of male and female school board members to the survey questions were significant. In all questions, female board presidents rated the necessity for knowledge and skills pertaining to the superintendency more highly than their male counterparts. The characteristics that female board presidents rated more highly than male were:

  • Establishing and communicating high expectations for effective teaching and student learning around the district’s instructional goals (out of 5 points: males 4.53, females 4.67)
  • Inspiring and modeling high expectations for staff, students, and school board members (males 4.49, females 4.72)
  • Ensuring that financial, human, and material resources are directed toward achieving the school district’s mission, vision, and goals (males 4.37, females 4.61)
  • Developing, monitoring, and sustaining effective teamwork among administrators, teachers, parents, and school board members (males 4.32, females 4.60)
  • Demonstrating self-confidence and transparency in leading the school district (males 4.32, females 4.53).

None of the top five characteristics are surprising in today’s public education environment (see chart, page 11).

1. Establishing and communicating high expectations for effective teaching and student learning around the district’s instructional goals

The most highly rated item deals with communicating high expectations for teaching and student learning. In an era of districts striving to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) under the old No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), the fact this item tops the list is to be expected. School board members and superintendents are aware of negative public scrutiny when schools or districts fail to make AYP. One Illinois school board president noted:

“Superintendents must demonstrate ability and willingness to attract, develop, and retain top administrative talent and set the tone and example for teaching talent selection and development.

2. Inspiring and modeling high expectations for staff, students, and school board members

The second item, while related to the top item, is a bit broader in scope. The superintendent is expected to inspire and model high expectations for staff, students, and school board members in all areas, not just academics. Essentially, the superintendent is expected to act as a district cheerleader and the district visionary. It may also be assumed that while the first item was primarily focused internally, with a few external implications, this second item reaches into the public domain. This is the type of superintendent behavior that not only inspires those within the district but also tells the public that this is a district on the move. One board president stated:

“Superintendents should early on work with the board to determine what goals are set for the superintendent. Then determine a measure of assessing to what extent the goals have been achieved within the timeframe agreed to by the board and the superintendent. The parties should meet on a regular basis to discuss progress on goal achievement and whether any adjustment to the goals or the timeframe for achieving the goals is needed. Effective communication to achieve a clear understanding between the two is crucial to this process. Transparency with the board is essential.”

3. Ensuring that financial, human, and material resources are directed toward achieving the school district’s mission, vision, and goals

Least surprising is the third item, which deals with ensuring that financial, human, and material resources are being directed appropriately. Especially in Illinois, where the state’s financial situation is questionable, board presidents’ concern in this area makes sense. Perhaps the only surprise is that it did not receive the highest mean rating. On the other hand, the fact that it was not is also somewhat encouraging, showing that board presidents are still concerned with academic achievement and overall high expectations. It’s not surprising that Illinois school board presidents rated knowledge of human and fiscal resources as critical, however, and one school board president gave specific advice:

“I would say the ability to understand the finances of the school and to succinctly relay that information to the board, allowing the board members to intelligently make financial decisions.”

4. Developing, monitoring, and sustaining effective teamwork among administrators, teachers, parents, and school board members

The fourth competency area was related to the superintendent’s responsibility for developing, monitoring, and sustaining teamwork among various constituencies. Schools have certainly shifted from a “closed door” scenario to one in which teachers work in team situations. Administrators must work with teachers, parents, and school board members in order to effectively run a school district with all of the challenges existing in today’s educational environment. One Illinois school board president put it this way:

“I think the single most important skill that a superintendent needs is a strong sense of teamwork, openness, and collaboration. Our board is only effective because everyone is willing to listen; no one person has all the right ideas. It is very important for board members and superintendents to fully understand their roles. The superintendent needs to let the board set the strategic direction and the vision, and the board needs to let the superintendent run the show and stay out of the proverbial weeds.”

5. Demonstrating self-confidence and transparency in leading the school district

The final item among the top five is the need for a superintendent to demonstrate self-confidence and transparency in leading the school district. Both traits are extremely important in today’s world. Much can be accomplished by a superintendent with the skills to remain calm and with the ability to reassure staff, parents, and community the district is on an even keel and on the correct path. The transparency issue is somewhat related to the previously mentioned skills in teamwork. Gone are the days when a superintendent could operate in secrecy or in a vacuum. Today, most individuals are more inspired by openness and invitational behavior. One Illinois school board president noted that superintendents who can master the following will likely demonstrate self-confidence and transparency:

“The ability to problem solve so that after hearing multiple seemingly dissimilar points of view, the superintendent can pull out the common threads to identify something that most or all can accept … Techniques for handling rogue board members (I’m sure there must be some), the thought process behind when it is worth taking a principled stand and losing a vote, when it’s OK to accept a 4-3 win, and when it is better to rework a proposal to get 6-1 or 7-0 even if it takes more time.”

The results were clear that school board presidents value superintendent expertise in all items included in the survey. As in all complex undertakings, and especially those that involve developing and sustaining board/superintendent relationships, the devil is in the details. Research also reports that superintendents and boards must do the following:

  • Pay close attention to shared vision based upon high student achievement;
  • Monitor not only progress of efforts to raise student achievement but also the processes used by superintendents and boards to increase student learning;
  • Tend to the professional development needs of educators throughout the district as well as their own; and
  • Allocate resources strategically.

Superintendent expertise that includes highly developed team leadership and interpersonal skills was important to the Illinois school board presidents.

A significant difference revealed in this study was gender. Female board presidents as a group rated the competencies as more important than male board presidents. One way to view this finding might be to teach future superintendents to consider differences of perception based upon gender. We regard this as a limited approach and instead recommend that superintendent preparation focuses on the need to continuously understand and employ practices that value different opinions and bring groups to develop courses of action to accomplish common goals.

Effective teamwork, interpersonal skills, and leadership skills in group processes are implied but not explicit, in standards that mandate superintendent preparation program design. Our recommendation is that superintendent preparation carefully considers how these competencies can be taught and developed. Some students enter preparation programs with these skills, others do not. As one board president noted, “A superintendent needs to be extremely well-rounded and well-organized. The ability to keep the entire picture at the forefront while also watching all the small parts helps the programming go more smoothly.”

Superintendent/school board teams which develop visions based upon high expectations for student achievement, work to align and sustain efforts to achieve goals, present as a united team, maintain accountability measures, allocate resources based upon goals, understand school improvement, base decisions upon data rather than unsubstantiated stories from constituents, and work hard on their own professional development should experience progress in their districts. The work involved is very difficult. Superintendents without the understanding and necessary skills to constantly work with boards will encounter difficulties. That’s a tall order for both superintendents and boards.

Preparation programs have to provide future superintendents with the necessary skills to lead diverse groups as school boards tend to be. Understanding the difficulties involved, one school board president noted, “The primary goal for a superintendent to be successful with a school board is ethics. I personally have been through all aspects of a district. We hear rhetoric like transparency, empowerment, and more. I believe actions are more important than the words spoken. Boards are a mix of education levels and personalities, which need to be understood and not manipulated. A board member relies on the integrity, completeness and honesty of the information given.”

The findings of this research reveal that, among participating Illinois board presidents, female board presidents hold establishing and modeling high expectations and devoting financial, human, and material resources along with focused development, monitoring and sustaining effective teamwork necessary to achieve those expectations, more highly than male presidents. The last significant difference related to gender responses in this study relates to the superintendent’s level of self-confidence and transparency. Other researchers have noted gender differences between male and female board presidents and or superintendents. While we recognize the importance of these findings, we also contend that the broader implication is to prepare future superintendents to not only be aware of gender differences within the context of other kinds of differences, but also to focus to a greater extent upon the necessary skills to identify differences in perception as part of the context related to developing high performing superintendent board teams.


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Tripses , J., Hunt, J. Kim, J., Watkins, S. Leading into the Future: Perceptions of School Board Presidents on the Essential Knowledge and Skills for Superintendent Preparation Programs. NCPEA Education Leadership Review, Vol. 16, No. 2– November, 2015 ISSN: 1532-0723 Copyright © 2015 National Council of Professors of Educational Administration

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