Core Values of the Superintendency

The need for discovering, formulating and articulating values to shape personal and professional behavior by Paul Kelleher

Today, more than ever before, a superintendent’s key responsibility is to define the relationship between the board of education and the organization it represents. All other leadership responsibilities—curriculum, instruction, staff and finance—can be delegated to some degree, but shaping this vital relationship cannot be entrusted to anyone else.


The ways in which superintendents execute that responsibility defines, states and, most importantly, models their own core values.

Much of the variability, uncertainty and controversy that school systems experience today comes from outside the organization, yet it is often our board of education members who embody and express much of that turmoil. As superintendents, we must judge the extent to which this external “energy” can be constructive for the school system and the extent to which it can be destructive. These judgments often must be made in public, on the spur of the moment.

Because of the difficulty in achieving consensus and ensuring a smooth working relationship among the school system’s diverse constituencies, including the board of education and the public, the superintendent’s ability to clearly articulate and act consistently around a set of core values is critical to the success and stability of the school system.

Leading by Example

A board member, in response to disappointing district test scores, advocates that the school system abandon its flexible ability-grouping practice and return to tracking.

In this situation, most of us would hope that another board member would rise to the defense of the current progressive practice. But if the board is silent, the responsibility falls to the superintendent to decide whether to state clearly and decisively why such a change is not called for and why.

By confronting and opposing the board member’s position, you have met your leadership responsibility and defended your core values. However, you also may be left feeling uneasy because that action placed you squarely in the middle, between the organization and the board.

Our core values are our only guides in making the decisions for which we must live with the consequences. During my 20 years in the superintendency, I discovered and confirmed for myself through time, experience, frustration and heartache, a set of core values that I could articulate with authority, conviction and clarity.

Defining Priorities

In the spirit of shortening this odyssey for others, I offer some of those core values. This is not intended as an inclusive list.

• Agreed-upon goals and objectives of the board, the superintendent and the organization should define everyone’s priorities and guide everyone’s decisions.

In the face of crisis or controversy, it is easy for everyone to lose perspective about what’s important. Even the most conscientious board members can determine new priorities for the superintendent and the organization during troubling times.

The board may decide that the new problem or issue is more important than already- identified priorities. Or the board may realize that the urgency of the moment should not deter from important organizational efforts already under way.

It is the superintendent’s responsibility to provide perspective and to remind everyone of long-term goals and commitments.

• Evaluation of individual staff members must follow established procedures.

The evaluation of staff members should follow an established, professional process and not be brought into the public arena.

Unfortunately, inexperienced board members may allow their personal feelings about individual administrators or teachers to color their evaluations. The superintendent must ensure that board members understand that evaluations are based on performance and nothing else.

Board members’ or the community’s public criticism of individual staff members is never appropriate. An angry parent or a disgruntled community member may have little regard for the damage that irresponsible public comments can cause staff members, their families and their careers when such allegations are carried in local media.

If the board president does not put a stop to such defamation, the superintendent must do so. At least once during each of my superintendencies I interrupted a community speaker who was complaining about an individual staff member to explain why such public allegations were not appropriate and to invite the speaker to meet privately with the board chair and me.

People accepted these limits in each case. Board members came to respect them and staff members were grateful that they did not have to fear public vilification.

Answering Criticism

• Reactionary statements must not go unanswered.

Courtesy, a commitment to open-mindedness and open communication, or concerns about political vulnerability may cause us to let reactionary statements that imply racism, sexism or prejudice go by without response.

Such statements also may express outdated or discredited educational ideology, such as the belief that intelligence is fixed or that the purpose of schooling is to sort and classify student achievement along a bell-shaped curve.

In not publicly addressing these kinds of statements, we tacitly affirm attitudes that undermine our mission and vision.

I have twice confronted racist comments in public meetings and believe that as a moral leader in the school community, I had no choice but to challenge these speakers. In both cases, my willingness to speak up enhanced my subsequent leadership in the school community.

• Being a team means that we do not allow anyone to be “hung out to dry.”

Boards and superintendents accomplish very little directly. Our greatest impact occurs through the efforts of others who commit to us and our goals to the extent that they know we will support them even if they make mistakes.

This support should not be blind, but neither should responsible criticism lead to public finger pointing. Most problems that arise, even as a result of someone’s mistake or miscalculation, can be more fairly addressed in the context of the next performance review cycle.

The most damaging effect of public finger pointing is the staff’s increased fear and decreased willingness to take risks—a reaction that is antithetical to what school improvement requires.

Another damaging effect, however, is the level of distraction that public scapegoating can produce. In one school district in which I worked, public turmoil including the “blame and shame” game characterized board meetings before I arrived. Some staff and community members clearly were stimulated by the weekly carnage. Most reported being appalled by it. But it riveted everyone’s attention and dominated all school conversations, sometimes to the exclusion of important educational issues.

These preoccupations were consuming staff time and attention that urgently needed to be focused on the compelling educational challenges that we faced. As I tried to stabilize the situation and calm things down and as I worked with the board to change how they conducted business, I recall telling my administrative staff that I would not participate in any more discussions about board of education behavior and motives and I recommended they not participate either.

Legitimate Contact

• Board members’ authority is collective and should only be asserted in the board room.

This issue is one with which I suspect all superintendents struggle. I confess that when I started my career, I had a rigid, unrealistic chain-of-command view of board member-staff member communication.

Over time, I came to accept that board members and staff members will talk with each other about board and school system-related issues whether I liked it or not. It is better to legitimize these communications than to try to squelch them and have them go “underground,” thus prohibiting you from knowing what is being said.

Individual board members, on occasion, can subtly misuse their authority without intending to—for example, when requesting information from a staff member or when suggesting to a principal or teacher a change in school or classroom practice or procedure. And staff members can allow and even encourage this behavior in order to strengthen a relationship with someone whom they perceive as powerful.

Nevertheless, superintendents have a key responsibility to ensure that board members and staff members know that board members have no individual authority in dealing with the organization.

• A superintendent has the right to be a learner and has the responsibility to model learning for others.

None of us has all the knowledge we need to understand the complex value-laden issues that we face in our jobs. Our personal learning—and, more important, our public modeling of the learning process—can be as important to the development of the organizational culture as our ability to articulate the outcomes of our learning.

For example, I mouthed the platitude “all children can learn” for years without really thinking about it. However, I had to confront my own beliefs about that statement in my last superintendency.

Our strategic planning team, of which I was a member, identified as its first goal that “100 percent of students would reach new state standards.” When we announced our plan, some faculty members challenged this statement as unrealistic, contending that 40 percent of the students would not and could not meet this standard. Should we not set a more attainable goal?

I felt uncomfortable and uncertain in the face of this response. I recall stating, with some hesitation, that any worthwhile goal will be difficult to attain. The 100 percent standard needs to be the ultimate objective toward which we strive, even as we may recognize that our progress toward it may be slow and incremental.

And how do we decide on a more “realistic” percentage? Should our goal be 90 percent or 70 percent? And then who decides which 10 percent or 30 percent of students we can allow to fail?

As I thought more about this issue and discussed it with others both inside and outside the organization, I realized that a more significant value was involved: the implicit belief of at least some among us that student achievement always will fall on some version of the bell-shaped curve, that native ability largely preordains achievement and that intelligence is fixed.

Through reflection and dialogue, I became more convinced that a major problem in many school cultures is the widespread but tacit agreement with these assumptions, the concomitant acceptance of an extremely broad range of student achievement, and the reality that children of color are overrepresented at the bottom of the range.

In the midst of my struggle with this issue, I had the good fortune to hear Lauren Resnick of the University of Pittsburgh, an internationally known scholar in the cognitive science of learning and instruction, and to learn about the research demonstrating that students can indeed “get smarter” in school through appropriately structured critical thinking and problem-solving activities.

With new resolve I began to publicly reformulate the challenge for our schools as narrowing the achievement range and moving the entire range upward, as enabling students to get smarter. I asked the rhetorical question, “How would most of us respond if we learned that students in the classes of a particular 10th-grade teacher of a mainstream, academic subject had all received a grade of A?”

I answered the question by predicting that most of us would conclude that the teacher was an easy grader with low standards. Yet if the teacher was fully successful—that is, enabling all students to meet rigorous standards—they all should receive grades of A. That we do not expect this outcome from instruction reflects our acceptance of failure.

By the time I completed my personal journey through this issue, I was no longer uncomfortable with our strategic planning goal.

Clear Expression

• Clarity and specificity above all else.

So much of our effectiveness in communicating core values depends on our clarity of thought and the corresponding clarity of expression. By their nature, values statements are general, even vague. It is easiest to talk about them with platitudes, jargon and “weasel” words like “almost,” “nearly,” “possibly” and “perhaps” that help us avoid making a full commitment.

Such phraseology also can mask our own failure to think clearly through an issue, as in my example above.

Vague, general language is not clear and incisive. More important, it does not connect with people’s experience. Thus it cannot provide the guidance and direction that core values statements must.

To be operationally powerful, core values must be stated as clearly and incisively as possible and annotated extensively with specific examples and stories from school experience.

For example, in the districts in which I worked, I strove to clarify with others a constructivist approach to teaching and learning. To the committed professionals who have internalized it in their teaching, constructivism has deep meaning. But unless stories clarify what constructivist teaching looks like in the everyday world of schools, it remains an abstraction to many others.

One of my stories involves a gifted elementary art teacher who is able to take sophisticated concepts of shape, form and color and make them accessible to young students. The evidence, of course, is the drawings and paintings that these young artists produce. It is obvious to anyone who views their works that they are more than just vibrant, colorful and happy as all children’s art is. These children’s drawings and paintings reflect real engagement with adult artistic concepts.

Heart of Leadership

Articulating core values so they become powerful guides to the day-to-day operation of schools is at the heart of effective school leadership. Formulation and articulation of core values is so central that each of Warren Bennis’ four competencies of leadership—management of attention, meaning, trust and self—are integral to it.

We must attract people to us and motivate them to join us (management of attention) before they will listen to us. We must be able to communicate values clearly (management of meaning) if we are to be effective. We must be perceived as reliably consistent and constant in our message (management of trust) if people are to risk following us. And we must have a clear sense of our own values (management of self) before we can do any of the rest.

Paul Kelleher, a former superintendent in New York and Connecticut, is chair of the department of education at Trinity University, 715 Stadium Drive, San Antonio, TX 78212. E-mail: paul.kelleher@trinity.edu