Achieving Success for New and Aspiring Superintendents: A Practical Guide


Mary Frances Callan & William Levinson

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    To superintendents and those aspiring to the position. Their leadership and the success of their students are essential to maintaining the strength of this country and our democratic process.


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    Prior to becoming a partner in a national consulting firm, I served twenty-four years as a suburban school superintendent. In my current position, I have worked with almost 300 boards of education in urban, suburban, and rural settings, assisting them in finding superintendents to lead their districts. I also provide governance training to superintendents and boards in a number of districts.

    My background gives me a unique perspective on the role of the superintendent. Today that work is more complex than when I was one. Superintendents still work with a broad constituency composed of students, staff, parents, elected and appointed officials, and the tax-paying citizenry. But there are fewer available resources and greater student needs and staff demands. Often the community, while supportive, does not think through solutions they offer to address district issues. As a result their responses fail to identify or anticipate unintended consequences.

    Superintendents also work in a society marked by technological advances that have resulted in 24/7 communications and rapidly expanding information. This influences what is taught and how students learn. In addition, anyone can say anything, irrespective of the facts, and have it appear in the mass media. Examples abound on community blogs. This makes it more difficult to find solutions to school community problems. Add to this an expectation of instant responses to e-mails or text messaging.

    The greatest challenge is providing exceptional instructional leadership. Every day, superintendents must address state and national accountability, standards-based instruction, and a greater diversity in the student population. The superintendency today requires educators who understand the complexity of the work and embrace these challenges.

    In this context, Achieving Success for New and Aspiring Superintendents could not be more timely or needed. In a clear, straightforward format, authors Mary Frances Callan and Bill Levinson provide guidance that helps ensure the success of superintendents. This book contains useful information on how to seek, assume, execute, and reflect on the work of a superintendent. The tips proffered throughout this book are based on the authors' experiences as successful superintendents. They also include examples from other superintendents working in a variety of settings. This book will assist readers in assessing the most appropriate response to situations they encounter.

    Effectively leading school districts is both a science and an art. As one pages through this book, the material presented contributes to a deeper understanding of the science of leadership. Guidance is provided on everything from the application process through negotiating a contract; transitioning to the position; working with staff, the board, and unions; communications; and the challenges facing superintendents in years two and beyond. The scenarios and examples illustrate the art of leadership. They underscore that the art of leadership is learned only by having a thorough understanding of its science.

    Superintendents who labor daily to make this a better world for their students, as well as aspiring superintendents who are seeking an opportunity to make their mark on public education, will find this book to be an effective guide. It will help them be successful in an increasingly challenging, yet rewarding profession.

    BillAtteaRetired superintendent, Glenview Public Schools (IL) Founding partner and chair, board of directors, Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates, Ltd. September 1, 2010


    Public education is the cornerstone of democracy. Its mission is to transmit the knowledge and skills needed for children to become productive and contributing members of society. Given the growing number of students who live in poverty, as well as a growing number of students whose first language is not English, this mission is even more critical.

    To meet it requires effective public school leadership that understands the relationship between high expectations, quality teaching, student learning, and accountability. This leadership also needs to know how to develop systems that encourage students to think, create, and contribute. Further these leaders need to see the connection between the success of our public schools and the economic, political, and democratic success of our nation.

    The need for effective leadership is compounded by the large number of superintendent openings across the country. There are more than 15,000 school districts in the United States, many led by baby boomers close to retirement. School administrators, who traditionally form the pool for superintendent applicants, also are retiring. Add to this teachers and other school staff who are retiring and taking with them years of experience. While this presents a unique opportunity for restructuring, filling these positions with capable and competent educators is a daunting task.

    Due to the large number of vacancies, more people are hired with little or no experience as a superintendent or even as a district office administrator. Once hired, many receive little or no mentoring or coaching. Some new superintendents view asking for assistance as a sign of weakness, while school boards are often reluctant to include the cost of coaching in the district budget.

    In other situations, highly competent administrators fail to achieve their goal of serving as superintendent because they lack an understanding of how to prepare for the position. Some have no idea what to do once they are selected, failing to achieve a successful transition from their current position to that of superintendent. Still others lack an understanding of how to work with boards or unions, or to communicate with their constituents. The end result is that qualified people fail to become superintendents or fail to perform once hired.

    The complexity of the work and the loneliness of the position often come as a rude awakening for new superintendents. Some do not make it past their second year. Those who master the complexity of the role and do well are frequently recruited to better performing or higher paying districts, often with as little as two or three years of experience. This turnover, whether due to failure or success, causes a lack of stability as districts must again seek new superintendents.

    A growing number of aspiring and new superintendents recognize this and are asking for assistance. We decided to write this book after receiving numerous requests for assistance from new and aspiring superintendents. In reviewing those requests, we were intrigued that the majority did not focus on the theory of leadership or effective instruction but rather on how to put the theory into practice. As the noted Italian painter Giorgio Morandi wrote, “Nothing is more abstract than reality.”

    Our Purpose and Approach

    We present this book as a practical guide to effective practice, covering a wide range of topics important for the success of a superintendent. Included is information on how to prepare for the superintendent position, guidance in succeeding during the first several years, and help determining if and when you should seek a new position. What makes our approach unique is that we believe talented people who aspire to become a superintendent are far more likely to accomplish that goal and achieve success on the job if they understand the totality of the position. It is like being an artist who has a vision of the completed work and the tools necessary to accomplish it.

    School districts are complex organizations. Providing effective leadership to these organizations requires mastery of a wide array of leadership and organizational skills. Superintendents with vision and motivation who understand the inherent challenges of the position have a great advantage over those who do not. Our goal is to provide this advantage to our readers and help them be successful.

    The authors of this book collectively worked more than seventy-five years in public education. Thirty-seven of those years were spent as superintendents in districts ranging in size from 1,000 to 13,000 students. While we wrote this book for aspiring and new superintendents in districts of 500 to 20,000 students, the information contained in the book can be used by those serving any district. Calling on our own experiences and those of others, we included examples to illustrate the points being made. These examples are composites of situations that we experienced or that were shared with us. No example is an actual representation of a particular individual.

    Finally, we wrote this book because of our belief in the mission of public education. We have seen the positive effect of good leadership on students. We know such leadership is essential to meeting the diverse needs of the students we serve. It is our hope that this book contributes to good leadership practices and assists the wonderful women and men drawn to the superintendency.

    User Guide

    This book is a how-to primer for aspiring and new superintendents. Use it as a guide, not a set of instructions. If you are thinking of becoming a superintendent, read the entire book before submitting your first application. This will provide a broad understanding of the superintendent position and what leadership skills and knowledge are required for success. It will help you make decisions about what you need to do to prepare for this position.

    Throughout this book we emphasize that the primary responsibility of the superintendent is to ensure the highest levels of teaching and learning. But this is not a guide on instructional leadership. Rather it assists the reader in developing the systems necessary to be an effective instructional leader. For it is the structure of the district and the effective use of its resources that allow superintendents to meet the educational needs of students.

    Few books are all comprehensive. This book is no exception. For each subject we cover there are numerous books or articles that delve more deeply into theory, subject matter, and practice. Some of these sources are included in the resources section at the end of the book. Readers may use these resources, as well as classes and seminars, to deepen their understanding of all aspects of district leadership.

    Chapter Overview

    Throughout the book, topics are introduced and revisited depending on the context. For example, information about working with school boards appears in every chapter. Teaching and learning and communications are other topics frequently discussed.

    Chapter 1 “Becoming a Superintendent” presents information on understanding the roles and responsibilities of a superintendent: academic preparation, preparing for and completing the application process, the interview process, and achieving a fair employment contract.

    Chapter 2 “Transitioning to Your New District” discusses leaving your current position, learning about your new district, setting up your office, working with your new administrative assistant, and addressing issues that affect your personal life.

    Chapter 3 “Getting Started: Organizing to Lead” offers information on establishing needed systems, including meeting groups, schedules, and agendas; conducting effective meetings with your management team, teachers, and staff; managing extracurricular school activities; and working with consultants and legal counsel.

    Chapter 4 “Moving the District Forward” covers decision making, mastering the district budget, leading teaching and learning, goal setting and accountability, and superintendent and administrator evaluation.

    Chapter 5 “Completing Year One, Planning Year Two: A Continuous Cycle” discusses how to develop legacy goals, as well as successfully complete year one and effectively plan for year two.

    Chapter 6 “Working With a School Board” includes information on the basics of working with a board, informal and formal board communications, and preparing and managing board meetings.

    Chapter 7 “Working With Employee Groups” covers establishing relationships, an overview of the collective bargaining process, and issues affecting the collective bargaining process.

    Chapter 8 “Negotiating Agreements” discusses how to build on your knowledge about working with unions to be successful at the bargaining process. It covers what occurs at the bargaining table, from the preparation of openers through the ratification of contracts.

    Chapter 9 “Communicating: Enhanced Decisions” covers communication with parents and the public, working with the media, as well as communicating with staff, students, and other groups essential to the district. It includes how to address emergencies and the importance of customer relations.

    Chapter 10 “Looking Ahead” presents information on preparing for twelve challenges of years two and beyond, including factors to consider in determining whether to remain or leave the district.

    Resources. This section provides a listing of organizations, books, and resources that can support superintendents in their work.

    Every superintendent will have different experiences and different needs. We wish you the best as you begin your work to become a superintendent. In our opinion, no job is more crucial to the success of students and the continuance of public education in our country.


    It would be impossible to list everyone who influenced our understanding of the skills needed to succeed as a superintendent. Throughout our long careers we have been fortunate to work with many outstanding instructional leaders. Each contributed to our knowledge. We thank them all.

    We also want to acknowledge the guidance, support, and inspiration received in the writing of this book from many outstanding educators. Foremost among them is our publisher Corwin and Arnis Burvikovs, our editor. He assisted us in refining the book and strengthening its concepts.

    In addition we owe a debt of thanks to the following individuals. We list them in alphabetical order. Each knows the special role he or she played in our careers and the development of this book. Thank you.

    • Jennifer Abrams, author of Having Hard Conversations and national educational consultant
    • Barbara Austin, CEO, College Quest
    • Dr. Bill Attea, Hazard, Young & Attea
    • Mary Jane Burke, Marin County Superintendent of Schools, CA
    • Dr. Susan Cota, former chancellor, Chabot-Las Positas Community College System, CA
    • Dr. Donn Gilbert, retired assistant superintendent and chief financial officer, Gilroy Unified School District, Gilroy CA
    • Dr. Martha Kanter, Under Secretary, U.S. Department of Education
    • Dr. Dale Mann, author and president of Interactive, Inc.
    • Kathleen Ruegsegger, administrative assistant to the superintendent, Palo Alto Unified School District, CA
    • Dr. Gail Uilkema, AASA National Superintendent of the Year

    We also thank the many aspiring and new superintendents who reviewed chapters of our manuscript and provided invaluable comments and suggestions.

    Finally, to our family and friends, in particular Judy and Pat, a very special thank you.

    Publisher's Acknowledgments

    Corwin gratefully acknowledges the following individuals for their editorial insight and guidance:

    • Kenneth Arndt, Superintendent
    • Community Unit School District 300
    • Carpentersville, IL
    • Randel Beaver, Superintendent
    • Archer City ISD
    • Archer City, TX
    • Marie Blum, Superintendent
    • Canaseraga Central School District
    • Canaseraga, NY
    • Peter Dillon, Superintendent
    • Berkshire Hills Regional School District
    • Stockbridge, MA
    • Jill Gildea, Superintendent
    • Harrison School District #36
    • Wonder Lake, IL
    • Lynn Macan, Superintendent
    • Cobleskill-Richmondville CSD
    • Cobleskill, NY
    • Jill Shackelford, Superintendent
    • Kansas City Kansas Public Schools
    • Kansas City, KS

    About the Authors

    Mary Frances Callan, PhD, recently retired after serving fourteen years of her career as superintendent of schools in Milpitas, Pleasanton, and Palo Alto, California. She now coaches aspiring and new superintendents, assists with superintendent searches, and is codeveloping a curriculum to train aspiring and new superintendents. Earlier in her career she was a teacher, counselor, and administrator in a number of states, as well as overseas.

    Callan also serves on boards, including the school board of ICA Cristo Rey, the Board of Regents of Santa Clara University, and the Keenan Health Advisory Board. She is active with the Educational Records Bureau Board and other educational organizations, as well as a volunteer for local nonprofit organizations.

    In addition to the above, Callan has presented numerous workshops and given speeches to various profit and nonprofit organizations. Among other writings, she has co-authored publications, including two handbooks for Phi Delta Kappa's Exemplary Practices Series on Staff Development and Organization Development, and a book published by McGraw-Hill, Containing the Health Care Cost Spiral.

    She earned her undergraduate degree and master's in education from Santa Clara University and another master's and PhD from the University of California, Santa Barbara. She has attended summer institutes at both Columbia Teachers College and Harvard and is a member of the Association of California School Administrators and the American Association of School Administrators. Currently she resides in San Francisco, California, close to family and friends.

    William Levinson, EdD, recently retired after serving twelve years as the superintendent of the Tamalpais Union High School District, located in Marin County, California. He previously served eleven years as superintendent in three other California districts: Reed Union, Sonoma Valley, and Lafayette. His earlier career included elementary teaching and principal positions in New York, New Jersey, and California. He served as a Vista Volunteer in Florida, where he founded an after-school language development program for migrant laborer children using college students as tutors. Throughout his long career, he has presented workshops that assist teachers and administrators to further their careers.

    Since retiring, Levinson works with a national search firm and has conducted numerous superintendent searches. He provides coaching support to principals, aspiring and new superintendents, and nonprofit executive directors. He is codeveloping a curriculum to train aspiring and new superintendents, and he serves on a number of community advisory boards.

    He received his undergraduate degree and master's in special education from the University of Michigan and a master's degree in school administration and a doctorate from Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the American Association of School Administrators and the Association of California School Administrators. He resides with his wife in Marin County, California.

    Both authors may be reached at

  • Resources

    Throughout the book we emphasized the importance of intellectual curiosity and a commitment to lifelong learning. We also referred to the necessity of keeping current in all areas of educational leadership. What follows is a listing of some resources that may be of assistance to you. The list is by no means exhaustive. Your intellectual curiosity and continued learning will lead you to other sources.

    American Association of School Administrators (AASA)

    Membership is open to superintendents and assistant superintendents, both retired and active, as well as those in affiliated roles. Membership includes a subscription to The School Administrator and discounts to conferences. AASA is active in lobbying for K-12 education, coordinates activities with its state affiliates, and provides other services to members, such as liability insurance and legal counseling.

    State School Administrator Associations

    Each state has a school administrators association, and you can find yours on the Web. Most of them include periodicals with their memberships. Often these are the best source of educational job vacancies for the state. Many sponsor meetings, conferences, or workshops for members. Some may offer access to limited legal counsel or other general advice services, such as employment contract review. Like the AASA, they may advocate for districts at the state and federal level.

    National School Boards Association (NSBA)

    This organization is comprised of state associations of school boards. Many districts across the country hold affiliate memberships for the superintendent and board members. NSBA sponsors an annual conference, supports state affiliates, produces publications, and lobbies Congress on behalf of its members.

    State School Board Associations

    As with state administrator associations, you can find the state school board association in your state by searching online. Services offered by these state associations may include hiring superintendents, reviewing and revising school board policies, school board training, individual school district consultants, communications, periodicals, and limited legal advice. They also usually offer annual conferences and workshops, as well as advocate at the state level on behalf of school districts.

    Educational Records Bureau (ERB)

    ERB offers an extensive array of tests for independent and public schools. Its Writing Assessment Program (WrAP) and Writing Practice Program (WPP), as well as other subject area tests, are helpful to public schools as the data is both disaggregated and benchmarked. ERB is developing computer adaptive tests. In addition to an annual conference, regional workshops are held across the country.

    American Educational Research Association (AERA)

    While this organization primarily focuses on university and college research in education and related fields, its publications can be of great assistance in learning about current trends in education and successful practices. Nonmembers may purchase its periodicals. Often superintendents, curriculum and instruction directors, or assessment directors in K–12 either belong to AERA or at least subscribe to its publications.

    Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD)

    ASCD focuses its membership services on best practices and policies for student learning. It is open to all educators, including board members. ASCD provides periodicals and sponsors conferences and workshops. It is an excellent source of staff development resources.

    Association of School Business Officials International (ASBO)

    ASBO is open to individuals employed in a business or administrative function in public or private schools. It provides a wide array of services, including workshops, publications, and career assistance. Most state school business organizations are ASBO affiliates.

    Periodicals and Newspapers

    In addition to publications offered through professional organizations, we recommend you read other journals and periodicals. Also, visit the websites of major colleges and universities that have educational programs to view their publications. Following are a few suggested periodicals.

    Education Week

    Education Week is a weekly paper that contains up-to-date information on all facets of education. It calls itself “American education's newspaper of record.” It provides job listings for vacancies across the country, as well as a yearly list, by month, of all education related conferences. It is part of Editorial Projects in Education, Inc., which also publishes other materials of interest to superintendents and educators. Its website contains information on all of its publications.

    Harvard Business Review

    This monthly publication is available in print or online. It often contains articles in fields related to education. Its articles on leadership are particularly useful. For example, the authors of Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns (McGraw-Hill, 2008) recently wrote an article titled “Meeting the Challenge of Disruptive Change” that discusses why so few companies can effectively innovate. This article provides a perspective that can apply to education.

    Harvard Educational Review

    Harvard Educational Review publishes educational research, as well as opinion about what is happening in the field. It hosts a blog on which current topics are debated. Harvard Educational Review is published quarterly and reaches a broad audience. It is frequently quoted by policymakers.

    This weekly memo is the equivalent of a nationwide clipping service for its readers. The articles come from a wide variety of publications. But do not forgo subscribing to other publications because you read this.

    Daily Publications

    Read a wide array of daily publications. Include local community and regional newspapers. Many can be accessed online. Depending upon their political points of view, superintendents often subscribe to either the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal. If possible, read both so you can gather news from an array of view points. Even in communities that are predominantly liberal or conservative, there are people with differing or contrary views.

    Books and Authors

    Reading is one way to stay current in the field of education and develop your knowledge. This means not only reading journals, periodicals, books, and articles on education, but also reading widely outside of education. Books on leadership, poetry, writing, psychology, philosophy, history, business, biographies, and even novels provide insights valuable to any leader. Lists of books often appear in the journals or publications of the organizations to which you belong. Newspapers like the New York Times contain extensive book reviews in the Sunday editions. What is important is to find those books or periodicals that help you better understand the context in which you work and assist you in that work.

    What follows is not a traditional listing of books. Rather it is a listing of some of our favorite authors and sources that you may find helpful. All of the works mentioned can be found by going to the websites of publishers, booksellers, or authors. We have grouped them under general headings. Use these as a starting place for your own exploration.


    The journals mentioned previously in this section contain book reviews and suggestions for reading. In addition, most every major university with a department of education has publications. For example, Harvard University Press (, Stanford University Press (, and Teachers College Columbia University ( are some of the preeminent publishers in education. Visit their websites and browse.

    In addition, Corwin (, Jossey-Bass (, McGraw-Hill (, and Sage ( are some of the major educational publishing companies. Often these sites provide detailed information about the author or book. For example, McGraw-Hill, the publisher of Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns (2008), has information on its website about podcasts with the main author, Clayton Christensen. is also another wonderful source to find books. One can browse the website for hours, moving from subject to subject.

    There are also authors like John Dewey, Michael Fullan, Jonathan Kozol, Gene Maeroff, Robert Marzano, Debra Pickering, and Harry Wong whose books continually remind us how to be good educators and why we are in the field.

    Outside of education we also have recommendations by areas of interest.

    Writing and Speaking

    If you want to improve your writing and speaking style read Christopher Lasch's Plain Style: A Guide to Written English (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002), Peggy Noonan's Simply Speaking: How to Communicate Your Ideas With Style, Substance, and Clarity (Regan Books, 1998), and Edwin Newman's Strictly Speaking: Will America Be the Death of English? (Warner Books, 1975). These are some of the best books written on the subject. Writers and speakers often refer to them and the influence they have had on their work.

    Quotes and Inspiration

    If you are looking for good quotes and inspirational stories read poetry. W. H. Auden, e. e cummings, T. S. Eliot, and Walt Whitman are good places to start. You can also search the Web for inspirational quotes and find annotated books of quotes from numerous authors for specific occasions. Often biographies yield wonderful quotes, as do the speeches or writings of individuals like Maya Angelou, Marian Wright Edelman, or Eleanor Roosevelt.

    Sometimes you will find a unique book on your travels. One, I Have Not Seen a Butterfly Around Here: Children's Drawings and Poems From Terezin (The Jewish Museum in Prague, Tenth Edition, 2006) is a beautiful and inspirational work that provides new insights into children faced with unspeakable horror.

    Leadership and Conflict

    Books abound on this subject. Many come from the field of business, and what is in one year may be out the next. This is an area where reading biographies and history can be important. Try authors like Thomas Friedman, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Bill Moyers. Their writings on the contemporary scene often provide better insight to good and courageous leadership than do books specifically addressing the topic.

    In John O'Neill's The Paradox of Success (Penguin, 1993) and Leadership Aikido (Harmony Books, 1997), O'Neill writes from the perspective of an educator, businessman, and psychologist. Jennifer Abrams's Having Hard Conversations (Corwin, 2009) talks about how to successfully discuss difficult issues with colleagues and subordinates. Finally, look to the classics. William Shakespeare's plays still hold wonderful insights into human nature, leadership, and conflict.

    Contemporary Issues

    Some books also provide different perspectives on the world and, ultimately, the youth with whom we work. Read Robert Putnam on the growing isolation in society, Neil Howe and William Strauss on the generations and the needs of each in the workplace, Glenn Singleton or Fred Brill on equity issues, or Malcolm Gladwell, who provides interesting insights that apply to education and leadership.

    Other sources of information include art and natural history museums, movies, documentaries, concerts, and children's literature, including graphic novels. Availing yourself of these learning experiences will develop your contemporary cultural literacy. It will allow you to connect with a wide number of constituents and better understand students' learning needs. We also recommend you talk to superintendents—both experienced and new—and find what books they consider of interest.


    These listings are but a brief overview of sources available to you. Once you begin exploring, you will find others that enrich and guide you. Enjoy the time you spend doing this. As the educational leader of your district, you are the model for lifelong learning. It is also a wonderful way to relax and place your work in perspective.

    The Corwin Logo

    The Corwin logo—a raven striding across an open book—represents the union of courage and learning. (Corwin is committed to improving education for all learners by publishing books and other professional development resources for those serving the field of PreK-12 education. By providing practical, hands-on materials, Corwin continues to carry out the promise of its motto: “Helping Educators Do Their Work Better.”

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