Ohio Appalachian Collaborative Blog

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Effective Practices of Effective Rural Superintendents

by User Not Found | Jan 22, 2014
By Mark Glasbrenner, Battelle for Kids

Recently, I read a research paper on the leadership practices of effective rural superintendents—Leadership Practices of Effective Rural Superintendents: Connections to Waters and Marzano’s Leadership Correlates by Mark Former, Louann Bierlein-Palmer, and Patricia Reeves. Districts identified in the study were disadvantaged, rural districts that had experienced marked increases in test scores during the superintendent’s tenure. These practices were examined in how they linked to other research1 on leadership practices of effective superintendents. The particular focus for the study was selected because most research on effective leadership practices involves urban and suburban superintendents. The research questions for the purpose of this study were:
  • Do Waters and Marzano’s six correlates represent a set of common leadership practices for effective superintendents who operate within a rural school content?
  • Are there leadership practices used by successful rural superintendents unique to their rural school contexts?
Results of the study include contextual challenges that are unique to rural superintendents, common leadership priorities of rural superintendents, and leadership practices of effective, rural superintendents.

In looking at the unique contextual characteristics of rural schools that require differentiated leadership, three contextual challenges distinguish themselves:
  1. A rural community is often defined by poverty and economic loss
  2. A rural superintendent is overburdened with a wide range of responsibilities
  3. A rural superintendent is “forced” to serve in a uniquely public role
From the study, common leadership priorities across the effective, rural superintendents were identified:
  1. Effective rural superintendents exhibited a relentless focus and pursuit that all students can and will achieve academic success
  2. Effective rural superintendents ensured each classroom will have a highly qualified teacher
  3. Effective rural superintendents continually worked on the creation and generation of resources
Leadership practices of effective, rural superintendents include:
  1. The superintendent establishes goals and expectations, and drives reform in the district
  2. Support for reform is built through direct, personal conversations
  3. Constructive confrontation: Interventions strategies are provided for struggling students and teachers
  4. Low-performing teachers or principals are removed
  5. The close working relationship with the building principal is leveraged
  6. The superintendent takes a harder line in union contract negotiations
  7. The superintendent realigns financial commitments to match district priorities
Do Waters and Marzano’s six correlates represent a set of common leadership practices for effective superintendents who operate within a rural school content?
When looking at the first research question, the findings are generally consistent with five of Waters and Marzano’s six correlates (see Figure 1 on page 10 of the research paper). There was one exception. There was no evidence to indicate that “formal”, collaborative goal-setting was a common practice in rural districts. Goal-setting is largely driven by the superintendent; not necessarily a formal, collaborative, bottom-up process. The effective superintendents in the study clearly established the goals and expectations, and then used direct, personal conversations to convince staff and community members to adopt these priorities as their own. Thus, goal-setting was more of a consensus building activity.

Are there leadership practices used by successful rural superintendents that are unique to their rural school contexts?
In response to the second research question, implications for other rural superintendents are:
  • Effective rural superintendents embrace concerns as opportunities
  • Effective rural superintendents are highly accessible
  • Effective rural superintendents focus on a limited number of priorities
  • Effective rural superintendents create resources to support needed academic reform
  • Effective rural superintendents value holding teachers and principals accountable in their performance
  • Effective rural superintendents provide defined autonomy to their principals
  • Effective rural superintendents possess special knowledge regarding the unique strengths and weaknesses of their building administrators
  • Effective rural superintendents make difficult decisions and withstand the short-term constituent wrath
  • Effective rural superintendents are cognizant of the concern that a greater push for academic outcomes could result in more students being pushed out of school
Urban and suburban effective superintendent leadership practices do have applicability to the rural superintendent. In addition, there are practices to be learned from effective rural superintendents who show more of an emphasis on people than business. For example, effective rural superintendents understand their rural context, adopt a more direct approach to make improving student achievement the district’s top priority, use personal conversations to move change forward, do not limit a principal’s authority, and create hybrid leadership positions. Where do you find effective rural superintendents? A good starting place would be the Ohio Appalachian Collaborative.

The link for the full version of the research study can be found at:

For more information on the work by Waters and Marzano, please go to:

1Waters, J. T., & Marzano, R. J. (2006). School district leadership that works: The effect of superintendent leadership on student achievement. Denver, CO: Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning