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Superintendent of Schools

History, Importance in Education, New Expectations, An Evolving Role

The superintendent of schools is a position of wide influence but one that is narrowly understood. This, in part, stems from its history. Rarely has a position of such centrality grown in such a tangled way. Consequently, there has not been much written or studied about the superintendency, and to this day, not much is known about how it functions and why some people do it well and others do not. Further, because of the tremendous pressure on public education in the twenty-first century, the superintendent's role is changing and moving toward an uncertain future.

The superintendency can be divided into three periods of history. The early period began shortly after the genesis of public education during the 1800s and extends to the early part of the twentieth century. The professional superintendent period covered the first half of the twentieth century and began to end in the 1960s. The modern superintendency is still in transition.


The position of superintendent emerged a decade or so after the creation of public schools. Initially there were no superintendents of schools. First, state boards ran schools, and then local lay boards, both without the benefit of professional help.

Public education is the responsibility of the state. The Tenth Amendment to the United States Constitution states that "the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people." Education was not mentioned in the Constitution, and when interest grew in providing education, the states assumed that accountability.

The state legislatures passed laws for public education and allocated small amounts of money to help local communities with their education needs. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the lawmakers saw the need to have an accounting system for these funds and appointed volunteer committees to over-see the use of state funds. These committees eventually led to the formulation of state and local boards of education to carry out this function. In fact, Massachusetts, which is considered the home of public education because of the work of the educator Horace Mann, still calls its school boards "school committees."

As the number of communities that received funds increased, the time required of the local committees became burdensome. A paid state officer was designated to handle the accounting activities of state education funds as well as an increasing number of other responsibilities. This led to a full-time job and New York is credited with appointing the first state superintendent in 1812. Other states soon planned for similar positions.

With few exceptions, the state superintendents were positions of data collecting and distribution of state funds and had little influence on educational issues. State departments of education evolved with similar functions–establishing and enforcing minimum standards and equalizing educational opportunities through the distribution of state funds.

Many small local school systems formed as the population grew and communities expanded to the west. The state officer was not able to visit, inspect, and oversee all the activities of the new schools, and these responsibilities were gradually delegated to local communities, again usually through county volunteer committees.

History repeated itself: the task of overseeing the daily operations became burdensome and led to the creation of paid county positions to conduct this work. Prior to the Civil War, more than a dozen states adopted the county form of educational super-vision and had created county superintendents.

The actual creation of local boards of education dates back to Thomas Jefferson, who in 1779 introduced a proposal in the Virginia Assembly that the citizens of each county would elect three aldermen who would have general charge of the schools. The aldermen were to create an overseer for every ten school districts in the county. The duties included appointing and supervising teachers and examining pupils.

The local superintendency developed simultaneously with the state and county superintendencies. It was established by local initiative, not by constitution or statute, as state and county superintendents were. Some local superintendents supervised a single school district and others oversaw multiple schools.

Buffalo, New York, and Louisville, Kentucky, are credited with establishing in 1837 the first local superintendents. While the idea did not spread quickly, by 1870 there were more than thirty large cities with a superintendent. Until the 1870s local boards without legal authority to do so hired the superintendents. It was felt that local boards had the authority to operate schools and by implication they had authority to hire an individual to administer them.

In 1865 the National Education Association created a Superintendent's Division to serve this growing profession. This later became the American Association of School Administrators, which serves superintendents in the twenty-first century.

Importance in Education

The superintendency–a position that was created by local boards without statutory authority or support–emerged in the twentieth century as a central and powerful position in education. As the number of local districts grew and as the complexity increased, more districts hired superintendents. The high water mark came in the 1960s when there were more than 35,000 superintendents nationally.

Their power also increased and peaked at about the same time. During the first half of the century the superintendent became the most powerful individual in the school district and one of the most visible members of the local community. They were considered civic leaders who held their positions for many years and who wielded enormous authority over the daily life of the school system.

Lay boards were content to turn over the reins of power to these professional educators. The superintendent had little external interference in conducting the work of the school district and boards became secondary in the operations of the school districts. The role of the board of education was, in large part, to support and approve the work of the superintendent.

School districts became big businesses within their local communities, hiring hundreds and in the case of urban districts, thousands of employees and spending millions of tax dollars. Superintendents made most of the major decisions affecting the districts, and were normally supported by the local lay boards who saw their role as supporting this work. Acrimony and disagreements were rare.

By the 1960s the world started to change. The teacher associations, which previously had been considered professional organizations, became more militant and drifted towards the union movement. The advent of the civil rights movement spilled over into the schools with accompanying pressure for local districts to reflect a more "grass roots" quality; the white-collar board members were replaced by more activist parents and community members. The courts and the federal government became more involved. The passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) in 1965 marked a much greater interest on the part of the federal government in education and a series of court cases curtailed the schools' role in loco parentis (in place of the parent), authority that had previously been the standard. The civil rights movement and the antiwar movement generated greater student militancy, and schools were faced with dealing with expanded student rights and campus disruptions. This situation led to a dispersal of authority that had once been held by the superintendent, and much greater involvement and scrutiny by the public became the norm. School leaders were no longer trusted to conduct the affairs of the schools without significant external observation and criticism.

New Expectations

During the last quarter of the twentieth century, the country began to change its expectations for what the schools should deliver. For generations, the schools acted as a "sorting device" for society. The segmented society and economy demanded workers and managers, and schools divided their populations into the two groups. As the economy shifted from an industrial system to a more informational/high technology system, it required workers with higher skill sets. This challenge was compounded by federal legislation that placed the education of students with disabilities into the mainstream of schools. It was further exacerbated by the increased immigration of students from all over the world–many arrived without knowledge of English and, in many cases, without the benefit of formal education in their home country.

In 1983 the Nation at Risk report was issued by Secretary of Education Terrell Bell and released by President Reagan. The report indicated that the schools of America were caught in a "rising tide of mediocrity" and that serious reform was needed. Although the rising tide was really one of expectations that outstripped the schools' ability to deliver past their traditional role, the pressure on schools and subsequently school leaders became severe. This report was followed by a spate of others and by tremendous media attention that was given to the so-called crisis in schools.

This led to renewed political interest in schools. During the 1980s and 1990s states reasserted their role in education by setting state standards and assessment systems. Even the federal government, despite its lack of constitutional authority, became more aggressive to the point that candidates for president of the United States laid claim to the title "Education President."

This situation further undermined the authority of the superintendency, without alleviating the expectations for greater accountability from the role. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the role was no longer seen as prestigious or one where power existed, leading to a shortage in the profession.

An Evolving Role

Although it is not clear what the role will become in the future, it seems certain that uncertainty will be the hallmark of the job. That will require a different set of expectations for those entering the profession. The new imperative that "all children be taught" will call for greater educational leadership from the superintendent. Further, the uncertain political climate that now surrounds schools will require the superintendent to be proficient in politics and the art of persuasion. Much of the work will revolve around the ability to create and maintain relationships. The modern superintendent will not be a superintendent of schools whose job is to oversee and manage–he or she will be a superintendent of learning who will have to navigate an uncertain terrain with skill and finesse.


AUGENSTEIN, JOHN J., and KONNERT, M. WILLIAM. 1990. The Superintendency in the Nineties: What Superintendents and Board Members Need to Know. Lancaster, PA: Technomic.

CARTER, GENE R., and CUNNINGHAM, WILLIAM G. 1997. The American School Superintendent: Leading in an Age of Pressure. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

HOUSTON, PAUL D. 2001. "Superintendents for the Twenty-First Century: It's Not Just a Job, It's a Calling." Phi Delta Kappan 82 (6):428–433.


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