Superintendents and Student Achievement

Studies have shown consistently that the effectiveness of the school superintendent has a significant impact on student achievement. Good school superintendents not only set a positive tone for the entire district, they also hire, encourage and retain good principals who hire, encourage and retain good teachers.

McREL Study

Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL) examined the findings of 27 studies to determine the influence of school district leaders on student achievement. The studies involved 2,817 school districts and the achievement scores of 3.4-million students. The following 4 major findings emerged from the study, or meta-analysis.

Finding 1: District-level leadership matters

The McREL research team, led by McREL President and CEO Tim Waters and MCREL Senior Fellow Robert J. Marzano, found a statistically significant relationship (a positive correlation of .24) between district leadership and student achievement.

Finding 2: Effective superintendents focus their efforts on creating goal-oriented districts

MCREL researchers also identified five district-level leadership responsibilities that have a statistically significant correlation with average student academic achievement. All five of these responsibilities relate to setting and keeping districts focused on teaching and learning goals.

  1. Collaborative goal-setting

Researchers found that effective superintendents include all relevant stakeholders, including central office staff, building-level administrators, and board members, in establishing goals for their districts.

  1. Non-negotiable goals for achievement and instruction

Effective superintendents ensure that the collaborative goal-setting process results in non-negotiable goals (i.e., goals that all staff members must act upon) in at least two areas: student achievement and classroom instruction. Effective superintendents set specific achievement targets for schools and students and then ensure the consistent use of research-based instructional strategies in all classrooms to reach those targets.

  1. Board alignment and support of district goals

In districts with higher levels of student achievement, the local board of education is aligned with and supportive of the non-negotiable goals for achievement and instruction. They ensure these goals remain the primary focus of the district’s efforts and that no other initiatives detract attention or resources from accomplishing these goals.

  1. Monitoring goals for achievement and instruction

Effective superintendents continually monitor district progress toward achievement and instructional goals to ensure that these goals remain the driving force behind a district’s actions.

  1. Use of resources to support achievement and instruction goals

Effective superintendents ensure that the necessary resources, including time, money, personnel, and materials, are allocated to accomplish the district’s goals. This can mean cutting back on or dropping initiatives that are not aligned with district goals for achievement and instruction.

Finding 3: Superintendent tenure is positively correlated with student achievement

McREL found two studies that looked specifically at the correlations between superintendent tenure and student achievement. The weighted average correlation in these two studies was a statistically significant .19, which suggests that length of superintendent tenure in a district positively correlates to student achievement. These positive effects appear to manifest themselves as early as two years into a superintendent’s tenure.

Finding 4, a surprising and perplexing finding: “Defined autonomy”

One set of findings from the meta-analysis that at first appears contradictory involves building-level autonomy within a district. One study reported that building autonomy has a positive correlation of .28 with average student achievement in the district, indicating that an increase

In building autonomy is associated with an increase in student achievement. Interestingly, that same study reported that site-based management had a negative correlation with student achievement of (-) .16, indicating that an increase in site-based management is associated with a decrease in student achievement. Researchers concluded from this finding that effective superintendents may provide principals with “defined autonomy.” That is, they may set clear, non-negotiable goals for learning and instruction, yet provide school leadership teams with the responsibility and authority for determining how to meet those goals.

See full McREL report.   Click here to view a table from the Lighthouse Study comparing superintendents in school districts “Moving” towards improvements in student achievement and those who were “Stuck” with little evidence of improvement present.  The Lighthouse Study was conducted by the Iowa Association of School Boards.

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