Leadership Practices of Effective Rural Superintendents: Connections to Waters and Marzano's Leadership Correlates

Article excerpt

This study examined the leadership practices of seven rural superintendents, selected via a sampling strategy which identified disadvantaged rural districts that had experienced marked increased in test scores during the superintendent's tenure. Researchers examined how the practices of these superintendents were linked to Waters and Marzano's (2006) six correlates of effective leadership practices (which had not necessarily been developed using data from rural districts). A multi-case study approach was utilized involving a site visit to each of seven rural districts, including interviews with four individuals: the superintendent, one principal, one teacher, and one board trustee. Secondary sources included a review of board meeting minutes, school newsletters, school memoranda, and observations. Findings revealed seven core leadership practices, consistent with previous research on leadership, with one exception. The goal-setting in these rural districts was largely driven by the superintendent, not necessarily a formal, collaborative bottom-up process. Other effective leadership practices for these rural superintendents involved building support for reform through direct, personal conversations; using constructive confrontations to assist struggling students and teachers; removing low-performing teachers and principals; leveraging close working relations with building principals; taking a hard line in union contract negotiations; and realigning financial commitments to match district priorities focused on student outcomes.

In the era of accountability, raising student performance is now viewed by most public school superintendents as one of their most daunting tasks (Bryd, Drews, & Johnson, 2006). Previous scholarship reveals that superintendents of academically successful school districts share similar leadership practices and approaches. In particular, Waters and Marzano's (2006) meta-analysis of effective superintendents identified six leadership practices positively linked to improved student achievement. These include: (a) collaborative goal-setting that includes all the district's relevant stakeholders; (b) establishing non-negotiable goals for student achievement and classroom instructions; (c) aligning board support for the district's non-negotiable goals; (d) continuous monitoring of the district's progress in attaining its non-negotiable goals; (e) effectively utilizing resources to support the accomplishment of district goals, and; (f) superintendents providing defined autonomy to principals within clearly defined operational boundaries.

Waters and Marzano's (2006) correlates represent a basic skill set for district leaders intent on pursuing meaningful school reform. But according to Leithwood (2005), a basic skill set is necessary but not sufficient for leadership success. Leithwood insists that successful leaders must be able to respond effectively to the unique school contexts in which they work. He notes that superintendents are increasingly being called upon to deliver contingent responses to their context-specific challenges.

So while Waters and Marzano's (2006) correlates represent a set of common leadership practices for superintendents, these practices alone may not be sufficient to ensure a district leader's success in all manner of school contexts. Indeed, scholarly research increasingly emphasizes context as a critical factor in leadership success (Louis et al., 2010), with various contingency theories focusing on the link between the leader and the situation within which the leader is being asked to lead. As different contexts pose different challenges, successful leadership becomes a matter of matching the appropriate response to a particular challenge.

This concept of matching leadership practices with context-specific challenges has important implications as we attempt to better understand the work of rural superintendents. While Waters and Marzano's (2006) meta-analysis provides important insights, much of their work was grounded in an operational context more consistent with that of urban and suburban school districts. …