The Evolution of a School Superintendent – A Brief History

School Superintendent History

Since the role of a superintendent was first created in the 1830s, it has drastically evolved to keep pace with the rapidly changing needs and demands of society. Here is a look at how the role of superintendent has evolved throughout the years.

1830s-1860s: Clerical Role

The earliest known local school district superintendent positions date back to 1837. During this time, some of the larger cities began hiring superintendents. These roles were created by the local school boards to handle some of the daily challenges they faced.

Up until the 1870s, the primary duties district superintendents performed were implementing mandated state curriculum and supervising teachers. The power that superintendents held in early years varied by district, but for the most part, researchers agree that it was limited and most were relegated to performing clerical and practical tasks.

1870s – 1890s: Master Teacher Role

Between 1870 and 1910, many rural school districts began consolidating into larger districts and it was becoming difficult to manage the numerous state and federal demands placed on them. By the end of this time period, most city school districts had a superintendent, whose job it was to oversee the day-to-day operations of the district. 

In 1865, the National Education Association created a Superintendent’s Division which further solidified it as a profession. Rather than being consumed with clerical work, superintendents began to gain power in the educational world. They were often seen as “master” teachers and most were responsible for supervising and training teachers. Many superintendents also published different research and journal pieces. Although superintendents had influence as educators, they avoided the perception of being a manager or politician.

1900s – 1920s: Manager Role

At the turn of the century, school boards and political elites began to demand that superintendents incorporate scientific management in their administration. This effort was supported by scholars and many universities quickly began offering graduate degrees in school management.

Under immense pressure, superintendents’ work heavily revolved around budget management and operations standardization. They also became much more involved with personnel and faculty management. By the 1920s, the role of superintendent had completely transformed from master teacher into business manager.

1930s – Early 1950s: Political Leader Role

In the wake of the Great Depression, many political leaders and community members began to call into question the role of superintendents. The concept of “business manager” became heavily debated and many protested the powers superintendents held. In the early 1930s there was also more competition for federal funding forcing school officials to lobby for funds.

Financial stress and backlash from professional educators and communities prompted a shift in the role of superintendent. 

Superintendents soon began to take on the role of democratic leaders and became one of the most influential individuals in a school district. They were often occupied with balancing the needs of their school district and community while facing pressure from interest groups and policy makers.

Late 1950s – Early 1980s: Applied Social Scientist Role

During the mid-1950s, the role of superintendent transformed once again. With the first wave of baby boomers starting school and the end of school segregation nearing, enrollment was up and school districts faced unique challenges that many did not feel superintendents were capable of handling. 

During this same time period, there were also millions of dollars being invested in researching social sciences as it relates to school administration.

The world was changing and traditional school board members were being replaced by parents and community members who were advocates for students. Students began to receive more rights and the public began to lose trust in school leadership. 

In turn, superintendents lost some power and were expected to take a scientific approach to problem solving and decision making. It also became an expectation that superintendents would be aware of sensitive issues such as poverty, racism, and drugs. An emphasis was placed on schools being socially just and productive.

Late 1980s- 2010s: Communicator Role

By the 1980s, the superintendent role was changing again as we transitioned from a manufacturing society into an era of information. Rapid technological advances were taking place and with a renewed public and political interest in public schools, educational reform began to take place. 

By the end of the 1990s, the federal government began setting state standards and assessments, and students with disabilities were introduced into mainstream schools.

Throughout this time, superintendents began to take on the role of a communicator. They began to reshape the culture of school districts and increase communication with stakeholders for strategic planning, fundraising, and much more. 

Topics of conflict began to be discussed openly with internal and external stakeholders and an emphasis was placed on relationship building.

Today and Beyond

Today, superintendents wear many hats. We are in the information era and being a communicator is an essential role that superintendents will continue to play in coming years. Technology has increased communication expectations tremendously with social media. 

Being visible to the community and easily accessible is more important than ever to develop strong relationships with the media, parents, teachers’ unions, and other stakeholders.

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