Ten Public School Superintendents' Perceptions Of How They Work

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Education (EdD)


Teaching and Leadership


School administration

Subject Categories

Elementary and Middle and Secondary Education Administration


This paper presents the findings of a qualitative study designed to develop an in-depth description of how ten public school superintendents view their work.

The sample group was randomly selected from the population of public school superintendents within a thirty-mile radius of Syracuse, New York, and represented a blend of city, suburban, and rural districts. The superintendents participating had held their positions for between four and thirty-one years at the time they were interviewed in the late 1970s. Prior to becoming superintendents, they had all taught, progressed to administrative positions (mostly principalships), and completed an educational administration graduate program.

Data were gathered primarily through unstructured but guided interviews, with a minimum of eight one-hour interviews held with each superintendent. Participant observation and review of documents were employed as supplemental techniques to broaden and deepen the understanding of the interview data. Data were analyzed through the constant comparative method, in which the data were logged and evaluated on an ongoing basis to identify tentative categories. These emerging categories were then weighed and modified throughout the study in light of additional data. This process of continual analysis resulted in the identification of a number of firm categories and sub-categories around which the data were organized for presentation in this paper.

The principal theme which was developed from the interview data was these superintendents' perceptions of their work as essentially involving coping with demands, restrictions, and mandates imposed upon them by the various groups that are significantly involved in the educational process (i.e., the community, the government, the board of education). By their own definition of leadership, these superintendents were not functioning as leaders, since the nature of their work was largely defined by these powerful external forces, to which their own goals, priorities, and larger vision had almost entirely been sacrificed. These superintendents had come to feel that coping effectively with the present adverse socioeconomic conditions and the pressures from these groups was in itself an accomplishment, and they saw little possibility of regaining meaningful control over the educational process.

Given the qualitative methodology employed in the present study and the small size of the sample group, the generalizeability of these findings cannot be stated with certainty. The findings are primarily intended, however, to contribute substantively to future research by raising relevant questions and identifying areas of serious concern about superintendents' work. The major questions and areas of concern identified in the study dealt with the generalizeability of the findings, the effectiveness of superintendent training, and the adverse conditions with which these superintendents saw themselves contending. In addition to the general questions raised, a number of specific corrective approaches are suggested which would appear to merit serious investigation in light of the present findings.

Besides their contribution to future research, the study's findings also have an immediate applicability as a tool for educating and informing educational administration graduate students and practicing superintendents. These groups could derive considerable benefit from the study's indepth depiction of how these particular superintendents viewed their work--the pressing issues, the restrictions, the skill requirements, the larger societal forces which may be shaping and impacting schools and the superintendency--in short, these superintendents' own comprehensive defintion of the dimensions of their work and their rationale for work as they do.


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