A Comparison of Core Competencies of School Leaders

May 24th, 2018 | Category: Research in Education
By Robert K. Wilhite, Daniel R. Tomal, Craig A. Schilling, and Jeffrey T. Brierton

In many ways, the job of the superintendent is similar to any chief executive officer in any other organization. As executive leaders, they work with budgets, facilities, management, contracts, evaluations, community relations, disgruntled constituents, and attend endless meetings. But what are the unique roles and core competencies of school superintendents? How do these roles and core competencies differ from school principals? And how do these roles and core competencies support the improvement of the organizational culture and overall performance of the school district? How do school superintendents come to serve as chief learning leaders?

Based on the review of literature on leader core competencies, the Educational Leadership Constituent Council (ELCC), the Professional Standards for Educational Leaders (PSEL), and the authors’ own experiences, a list of school leader core competencies was created. A study based on these core competencies was also conducted. The purpose of the study was to obtain the opinions of current public school leaders (superintendents and principals) to determine the most valued core competencies for these positions.

The research questions for this study were:

1. What are the most important core competencies for superintendents for public schools?

2. What are the most important core competencies for principals in public schools?

3. Is there a significant difference in the importance of the core competencies between superintendents and school principals?

The participants in this study consisted of forty-two K–12 public school leaders which included sixteen public school superintendents and twenty six public school principals in selected elementary and secondary schools in northeast Illinois. The respondents held school leadership positions in Chicago-area suburban school districts. They were defined as school leaders working full time in the official role of either a superintendent or principal. The participants came from diverse economic, cultural, ethnic, gender, and academic backgrounds.

Core Competiencies

Descriptions

1.

School governance

Collaborating and working with district school board members.

2.

School law

Understanding laws impacting district leadership and operations

3.

Instructional leadership

Being a proactive, involved leader in improving district instruction.

4.

Resource management

Managing financial, facility, and human resources and regulations.

5.

Vision leadership

Leading and motivating staff for improved performance of school initiatives.

6.

Change leadership

Leading and managing school change and improvements.

7.

Communication

Communicating to school district staff and stakeholders.

8.

Strategic planning

Developing and setting educational goals.

9.

School data management

Interpreting and using school data and assessment information.

10.

Community relations

Developing and working with school community members, parents, etc.

11.

Diverse learner strategies

Providing effective instruction for diverse students.

12.

Collaboration

Building collaboration and teamwork.

Table 1.1 Core competencies of school leaders.

A two-part questionnaire was used in this study. Part one consisted of a list of the twelve core competencies in which the respondents were asked to rate the competencies based on their importance for performing the job of the superintendent or principal (see table 1.1). The survey instrument consisted of twelve core competencies that were validated through a series of expert reviews.

The twelve school leader core competencies were also linked to the Educational Leadership Constituent Council (ELCC) and the Professional Standards for Educational Leaders (PSEL) (see table 1.2). Each of the core competencies was mapped with these standards based upon degree of association. All core competencies were covered within the standards and there appeared to be comprehensive coverage.

School Leader Core Competencies

ELLC Standards

ISLLC Standards

School governance

1, 4, 6, 7

1, 4, 5, 6

School law

5, 6, 7

5, 6

Instructional leadership

1, 4, 6, 7

1, 4, 6

Resource management

3, 5, 6, 7

3, 5, 6

Vision leadership

1, 2, 4, 5

1, 2, 4, 5

Change leadership

1, 4, 6

1, 4, 6

Communication

1, 3, 4, 6, 7

1, 3, 4, 6

Strategic planning

1, 2, 4, 6, 7

1, 2, 4, 6

School data management

1, 2, 4, 5, 6

1, 2, 4, 5, 6

Community relations

1, 4, 6, 7

1, 4, 6

Diverse learner strategies

1, 2, 4, 5, 6

1, 2, 4, 5, 6

Collaboration

1, 3, 4, 5, 7

1, 3. 4, 5

Table 1.2 Comparison of the school leader core competencies and ELLC and ISLLC standards

The second part consisted of an open-ended question that asked the respondents to describe any other core competencies that were important for a superintendent or principal serving in public schools. Respondents were also given additional space for other comments. In some cases, follow-up interviews were conducted with the respondents to gain further information concerning the core competencies and responsibilities of the positions.

The idea of clarifying core competencies is not new but has received increasing attention in the wake of growing accountability and legislative reform. This is particularly true as districts come to grips with both identifying specific competencies desirable in superintendents and recognizing that when superintendents are not successful, it can come at great cost to the district. More importantly, school boards and superintendent-preparation programs will need to identify the technical core of the superintendent’s work in order to optimize their readiness and performance.

Researchers can also help craft effective tools to link school superintendents with the technical core of their profession and reinforce a school administration’s knowledge base; so that the professional-learning-community model can produce greater student achievement, deeper learning, and greatness as an expectation embedded in the twenty-first century school.

It can be argued that for more than a decade, four questions remain at the center of the discussion and drive conversation about superintendent preparation and the identification of core competencies:

1. Are instructional programs and student learning a result of school superintendent’s skills in organizing staff and allocating financial resources?

2. Do NCATE (CAEP), AASA, and PSEL standards-driven preparation programs produce superintendents with superior instructional leadership skills and dispositions?

3. What skills and leadership dispositions propel some superintendents toward greater success than others in improving instruction and student performance?

4. Do leadership practices of school superintendents, as measured by Leadership Practices Inventory (LPI) by James Kouzes and Barry Posner, and other self-report leadership measures, relate to the quality of instruction and student performance (Achilles, 2001)?

The survey offered in this article is yet another attempt to push that conversation forward and clarify the definition of the core competencies essential to service as a school superintendent in the twenty-first century.

Definitions for the core competencies were created to assist the respondents in defining each of the core competencies (see figure 3.1). In some cases, interviews were conducted with teacher leaders in helping to clarify the core competencies and definitions. A standard Likert scale (5 = most important and 1 = least important) was used. Also, the scale included the option of “0” indicating that the teacher leaders found the core competency to be irrelevant given they did not have job responsibilities in that area.

The survey instrument included identification of two types of school leaders—superintendents and principals. Respondents were asked to identify themselves as either a superintendent or school principal. All the respondents were acting in a full-time capacity and had no direct teaching responsibilities.

There were several limitations of the study that included non-random selection, low and disproportionate sample numbers, and the lack of differentiation of the school district core mission, and grade level (e.g., elementary or high school). All the respondents who were asked to complete the survey were very cooperative and helpful in providing opinions about their jobs and the overall roles and responsibilities in public schools.

The core competencies of all groups were rank ordered using descriptive statistics, and significant differences were calculated using a two-sample test of significance. The narrative comments were typed verbatim and compiled in each of the core competencies. All responses were kept anonymous and the original survey instruments were destroyed to further protect the identity of the respondents.

The results of the study for the superintendents indicated that they ranked as the top core competencies: school governance (4.86), collaboration (4.80), vision leadership (4.52), and strategic planning (4.47), community relations (4.61), and instructional leadership (4.45) (see table 1.1). The core competencies that were least valued for a superintendent included: change leadership (4.50), communication (4.49), resource management (4.20), school law (4.01), school data management (3.94, and diverse learner strategies (3.90) (see table 1.5).

Core Competencies

Mean

1. School governance

4.86

2. Collaboration

4.80

3. Vision leadership

4.52

4. Strategic planning

4.47

5. Instructional leadership

4.61

6. Community relations

4.46

7. Change leadership

4.50

8. Communication

4.49

9. Resource management

4.20

10. School law

4.01

11. School data management

3.94

12. Diverse learner strategies

3.90

Table 1.3 Rank order of superintendent core competencies.

These rankings were consistent with several of the comments in the second part of the questionnaire and interviews. Respondents commented that working with school boards was of critical importance. Some commented that they believed the role of the superintendent is to teach the board regarding issues facing the school district and that, in the best districts, the relationship between superintendent and the board is a hybrid relationship often moving between professional, personal, and political.

Other respondents warned that too often superintendents speak the language of collaboration but fail to follow up to ensure that all are actively engaged in the collaborative effort. They noted that in a perfect world, all would embrace the collaborative model. But, embedding measures of accountability, especially in the emerging stages of the PLC model, is critical to it being successful.

One principal spoke plainly on this topic saying, “What is not monitored becomes optional.” Another was more hopeful and indicated that once the school passed through the “emerging” stage of the professional learning community model, then effective practice became, “who we are not what we do.”

Many principals and superintendents had strong feelings about the political nature of school leadership. Comments such as “keep your friends close and your enemies closer,” “trust but verify,” and even “trust in God but everyone else must bring data” were not uncommon in conversations with respondents. In particular, veteran superintendents felt the need to be very politically astute and were fond of pointing out that board support was often short lived. One even went so far as to say that, “superintendents begin to lose their job the day they get it.”

A very common conversational theme with principals, superintendents, and interestingly enough, many new and emerging leaders, was the need for superintendents to passionately articulate a clear vision and plan for the school organization; to motivate, inspire, and lead from the front.” It also provoked comments about their wish for more specific training on how to develop the ability to so.

The core competencies that were most valued by the principals for a principal position included: change leadership (4.88), vision leadership (4.80), collaboration (4.76), strategic planning (4.72), communication (4.60), and diverse learner strategies (4.46). The core competencies that were least valued included: community relations, (4.14), instructional leadership (4.24), school data management (4.21), resource management (4.10), school law, and school governance (3.48) (see table 1.2).

While the rankings of the school leaders (superintendents and principals) were somewhat similar, there were two core competencies whose comparisons were statistically significant. The first one was school board governance (p< .01). The superintendents ranked this core competency as the most valued for the superintendent position (µ=4.86). The principals ranked this core competency as the last for a principal position (3.48). This might be explained because the superintendents need to work very closely with their boards while principals do so with less frequency.

Core Competencies

 Mean

1. Change leadership

4.88

2. Vision leadership

4.80

3. Collaboration

4.76

4. Strategic planning

4.72

5. Communication

4.60

6. Diverse learner strategies

4.46

7. Community relations

4.44

8. Instructional leadership

4.24

9. School data management

4.21

10. Resource management

4.10

11. School law

4.08

12. School governance

3.48

Table 1.4 Rank order of principal core competencies.

Another core competency that was statistically significant was that of understanding diverse learning. The superintendents ranked this core competency last (3.90). The principals value this core competency much more and ranked it number six (4.46). This ranking difference might be explained by the fact that principals are in more direct daily contact with teachers and staff in educating diverse learners and thus feel the need to be proficient themselves. See figure 1.3.

For superintendents in districts with rapidly changing demographics, these data should serve as a wake-up call. The effective 21st-century superintendent can no longer afford to be uninformed about strategies for serving diverse learners. Much like teachers, superintendents, principals, and all levels of leadership in the district will need to closely collaborate on how best to meet the need of those learners traditionally underrepresented and underserved in our schools.

This study indicates that helping all school leaders to develop these core competencies can be beneficial. The need for authentic, practical leadership training cannot be overstated. To achieve this end, however, the modern superintendent has an ethical, moral, and professional responsibility to commit the school organization to offering meaningful professional-leader development opportunities for both building leaders and emerging leaders as well. Too often, these opportunities are squandered because professional-development funds are allocated elsewhere.

 

 

Core Competencies

Superintendent

Principal

 Mean

 Median

 S.D.

 Mean

 Median

 S.D.

School governance

**4.86

5

.61

3.48

3

0.96

School law

4.01

4

.65

4.08

4

0.88

Instructional leadership

4.46

4

.54

4.24

4

0.83

Resource management

4.20

4

.41

4.10

4

0.57

Vision leadership

4.52

4

.64

4.80

5

0.41

Change leadership

4.50

5

.73

4.88

5

0.33

Communication

4.40

4

.82

4.60

5

0.61

Strategic planning

4.47

4

.74

4.72

5

0.45

School data management

3.94

4

.59

4.21

4

0.67

Community relations

4.61

4

.63

4.44

5

0.76

Diverse learner strategies

* 3.90

4

.71

4.46

4

0.51

Collaboration

4.80

5

.41

4.76

5

0.45

*(p)robability<0.05
**(p)robability<0.01

(n) superintendents = 16

(n) principals = 26

Table 1.5 Comparison of core competencies between superintendents and principals.

The core competencies, as shown in this study, seem to offer a way out of the wilderness, however. They offer concrete application in the context of two sets of standards. More importantly, the idea that a paradigm shift is occurring is borne out by the rankings of these competencies. Both principals and superintendents rank collaboration, instructional leadership, vision, and strategic planning in top half of the competencies with the more traditional competencies in the lower half of the rankings.

What this may suggest is that the paradigm which placed high value on the more traditional managerial competencies is being replaced by those that impact culture; a culture that moves away from a teaching school toward that of a learning school. It suggests also that the concept of fostering collaborative, professional-learning-community cultures is becoming embedded in the mindset of current and emerging leaders.

If that is true, it may lead to the next evolution of the professional-learning-community model. Returning to the idea that the greatest loyalty is to the smallest team, visionary superintendents may finally be able to redefine the next evolution of the professional-learning-community model that will be known as the intentional-learning community. The school as intentional-learning community, a learning organization, folds all adult energy and practice into student mastery of knowledge and, most importantly, into skills to apply that knowledge.

It can even be argued that the rankings indicate that an emerging contrast between old-school and new-school thinking may be taking hold as illustrated in Figure 1.3.

While there are some anomalies in the competency rankings, such as school governance and diverse-learner strategies, there seems to be a clear prioritization of core competencies that indicate a shift to culture-oriented leadership; one that recognizes the need for a more strategic, even systemic, reframing of schools as true learning organizations (Senge, 2006).

With increasing frequency, literature on school organizational change is expanding its treatment of systemic school improvement. There is, or should be, an increasing cross-over of private-sector organizational-change theory and practice into public-sector change research and practice, and in particular, public education. Effective leadership demands that superintendents go beyond traditional definitions of district leadership. It demands mastery of the twelve core competencies by an intentional leader, within a thriving, intentional-learning community, using systems thinking as the organizational change model to achieve authentic, sustainable school improvement.

In summary, this study offers some hopeful implications as the role of the modern and effective superintendent shifts focus from traditional district leader to a true leader of learning. A focus on the core competencies in this study offers hope that current and emerging leaders alike recognize the linkage between the power of culture, the need for creating intentional learning communities, and the superintendent as the learning leader of those communities. LEJ

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Author Information

Robert K. Wilhite, Ed,D., is a Professor of Leadership, and Dean of the College of Graduate Studies at Concordia University Chicago
Daniel R. Tomal, Ph.D., is a Distinguished Professor of Leadership at Concordia University Chicago.
Craig A. Schilling, Ed.D., is an Associate Professor of Educational Leadership at Concordia University Chicago. Chicago.
Jeffrey T. Brierton, Ph.D., is an adjunct Professor of Leadership at Concordia University Chicago.

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