Superintendent and Politics Thesis

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Superintendent Politics

The Political Pressures Facing the Superintendent of Schools

The position of superintendent is one which, while affording its holder a degree of gravitas, authority and singular status, may also be personally taxing, professionally difficult and ideologically problematic. For its holder, the top office in a school district can be an extremely embattled spot, distinguishable by the various political pressures that can routinely, sometimes negatively, impact the way in which this individual may conduct responsibilities and see to the overall maintenance or improvement of school standards. In this discussion, we will consider the ways in which political pressure may manifest to effect either the budgetary realities facing the superintendent or the curricular demands incumbent upon him. Each of these topics elucidates the position as one in which the attainment of collective approval may be fleeting or even inaccessible, with the need to govern a school district or state system being directly effected by the ideas, actions and interests of a host of other parties. The political pressure there applied results in an executive position that, while more frequently appointed, bears many of the qualities of an elected office. The discussion hereafter will consider the challenging nature of the work and role of the superintendent, especially as the process and implications of administration are impacted by the politics of money, community and educational theory.Get full Download Microsoft Word File access
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Thesis on Superintendent and Politics Assignment

The difficulty of this position means that it can often be thankless, with the individual aspiring for career advancement in either education or politics often finding that the commonly insurmountable political dilemmas of this position make it ill-suited as a launching point for career improvement. This may be well demonstrated by the shortage of young school superintendents and the tendency for those that have risen to this position to remain there until retirement age. In fact, "of the 14,300 or so school superintendents nationwide, most started as teachers during the Vietnam War era and worked their way up the chain of command. An astounding 82% of superintendents have already reached retirement age, according to Cooper's study." (Danitz, 1) This is indicative of the ways in which increasing political sensitivity in the field has alienated many potential candidates who are wary of gaining the stigmas associated with the position's political hardships.

One of the major consequences of the political realities facing school superintendents is what many educational professional and lawmakers alike have described as a pressing personnel shortage. The educational qualifications for the position are not prohibitively stringent, but do establish a program for quality assurance and proper filtering of candidates. To the point, "ny the 1980s, 82% of the states had promulgated laws or policies that required officeholders to complete a prescribed program of graduate study and subsequently obtain a state-issued license (or certificate) to practice." (Bjork & Kowalski, 1) There is indeed a system in place which is designed to produce observably reputable and qualified candidated.

However, the complexity of the position and the onus of blame which typically fall upon the superintendent have together rendered this a formidable position made thusly by a variety of implications that may not necessarily be in the formal job descriptions. Particularly, "often, qualified candidates find that salaries in the low six-figure range aren't sufficient compensation for having to confront political intrigue, lack of resources and declining student test scores on a regular basis." (Danitz, 1) This captures well the way in which political factors can impact not just the direction which one's work as a superintendent will take but indeed, whether one's work will even be dedicated to the position in question. At center of this issue, we reveal here, is the responsibility of the superintendent to present the budget. Though countless factors -- including the legislative policies of federal, statewide and local lawmakers; the availability of allocated resources; and the reigning economic conditions facing all three levels of government -- will go into the final budget proposal for a school year, it is unquestionably the superintendent that will be handed the blame for its failure to meet the expectations of all parties.

Still, the notion that there is a shortage of available superintendents as a result of the impossibility of meeting budgetary consensus does not truly tell the story, even if it is well-evidenced by hiring trends which are drawing attention toward less traditional candidates for the position. To the point, "the wave of nontraditional superintendents, people coming from the business, the military, or the political side to take over school systems, [is] very popular in the large urban districts." (Stanley, 1) In such contexts where shortages of resources, obstacles in meeting state or national testing standards, disciplinary problems and underqualified or underpaid educators, it is increasingly attractive to consider a candidate whose perception for large, bureaucratic organizational tasks will allow him or her to weather the complexities and frustrations of an array of forces pulling one in multiple directions at once. The perception that the nature of the position has been so dramatically altered by external pressures has produced a scenario where those candidates viewed as historically fit for the position are increasingly ill-suited for the rigors of its modern incarnation.

Indeed, there is an evolving history to the position which demonstrates it to have become increasingly loaded with relevancy to statewide political systems, with legislative and electoral affairs often bleeding into the educational context. The reflects a change in the way that the role of the superintendent is perceived in general. To this point, "the democratic leader characterization is anchored in both philosophical and political realities. In the 1930s, scarce fiscal resources forced school officials to engage more directly in political activity, especially in relation to lobbying state legislatures. Previously, the behavior of highly political superintendents was regarded as unprofessional. But such convictions faded when it became apparent that public schools had to compete with other governmental services to acquire state funding." (Bjork & Kowalski, 8)

This means that amongst those holding the position and those making hires, there is a clear imperative for an orientation toward these external elements to the direct administration of the school. As a result, it is necessary for the viable superintendent to be equally as skilled and knowledgeable in areas of public policy as in areas relating to the stewardship of educational faculty, the oversight of curriculum and attention to the standards being met within a school's academic and behaviors realms. In some contexts, in fact, this politicization has occurred to the extent that "depending upon the state, a state board of education or the governor appoints the state superintendent, and in some cases the voters elect the state superintendent. At best, a state superintendent serves education by acting as an advocate for local school districts while functioning as an agent of the state." (Edwards, 4) The result is a clear relationship between the role assumed by the superintendent and the various parties to which this individual is professionally or personally beholden.

The outcome is a job description that is rather complex, and in the most challenging districts and educational contexts, fully undesirable to the qualified candidate. Quite to this point and contrary to the belief by many that there is a real shortage of available superintendents to the overall hiring pool, more current research suggests that in fact, there is not an issue of personnel availability with which to contend, but an imbalance in the interest which candidates express toward some districts vs. others. According to a 2003 article on the subject, there are compelling reasons for many in the relatively specialized field to avoid those school systems which are known to apply undue pressures and inappropriately expansive public burdens on superintendents. To this extent, the research finds "that some districts have a history of 'churnin' superintendents, which contributes disproportionately to these districts having high turnover rates and a relatively small number of qualified applicants." (Glass et al., 264) This is not to dissuade us from the view that there is a relationship between the political realities of the position and the consequences as they have manifested in some districts. Quite to the contrary, it reinforces the notion that it remains a challenge for many districts to properly balance the notion of an effective and accountable superintendent with the presence of a sound educational structure, with a host of political consequences resulting from a failure to achieve this equation.

The superintendent must answer to a board of administrators itself constructed according to varying and often conflictive political intentions or designs. Accordingly, "the findings of the study suggest a relationship exists between the way board members define power and the type of motivation board members have for service." (Mountford, 704) The visibility and expected accountability of the district superintendent will often render this figure the focal point of interests and desires emerging from this array of figures. The result is a position beset by conflicting points and yet held to political responsibility for the effectiveness of policies and decisions impacting the schools.

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