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A Quest to Define Competencies for Top School Leaders

by Jim Schott
professor emeritus, National Louis University

Seven years ago, I decided to write a book about the leadership and management competencies superintendents and other top school and district leaders might need to be successful in today’s world. And the first thing I did was contact Dr. Linton Deck.

Deck was one of most intelligent and knowledgeable educational leaders I had ever met. He was a voracious reader who knew so much about almost any subject or topic one might raise. He was always interesting and ready to tell a great story—as well as some good clean jokes. And he continuously was on a mission to discover new information and ways to use it.

The book idea began for me one afternoon while I was reflecting on an experience I had some 30 years ago in developing an evaluation system to assess my own performance as superintendent of the Orange County Public Schools (OCPS) in Orlando, Florida. The latter was my tie-in to Deck. He was the superintendent there who had hired me as his deputy superintendent of instruction and the person I followed in that position.

During nearly my entire tenure as superintendent, I had served on the Florida Council for Educational Management (FCEM) under the leadership of Florida’s then-deputy commissioner of education, Cecil Golden. One of the goals of FCEM was to enhance the quality of instruction in all schools by minimizing the impact of politics and increasing the role of competence on the development, selection, and evaluation of principals in Florida’s 67 school districts.

The committee included persons appointed by the legislature as well as the governor. I was appointed initially as one of the members by then-Governor Bob Graham. It included both educators and business persons from around the state who studied published research and other professional literature as well as conducted interviews of various experts. We also financed a few studies to identify key principal competencies based on information derived from high-performing school leaders.

Based on my FCEM experiences, I decided to do my own research to identify position roles, responsibilities, and competencies required to become a high-performing superintendent. I asked my associate superintendent for personnel at the time, Royce Walden, to help me research this topic as well as develop an evaluation tool based on the results that the school board might use annually in assessing my performance.

I thought such a process should be a part of the overall program planning, budgeting, and evaluation process we were using in the district. I also believed a more formal and objective performance assessment would be in the best interest of both the district and me.

Walden and I decided on a process to identify superintendents in Florida and nationally who appeared to be successful based essentially on what we learned about their districts’ academic achievements, their professional reputations, and recommendations regarding their successes from other superintendents in the state and throughout the country. I was then a member of the Large City School Superintendents (LCSS) organization and the Florida Association of District Superintendents (FADSS) and had relatively easy access to members of both.

LCSS’ membership at the time included the 50 largest school districts in the United States and Canada. Taking advantage of those relationships, Walden asked selected Florida superintendents what they thought their most important roles and responsibilities were and what competencies were needed to be successful in fulfilling them. I did the same thing with selected superintendents from the LCSS.

In addition, I periodically got feedback from two very experienced and highly competent deputy superintendents: Don Shaw, who headed up instruction, and Bob Cascadden, who oversaw the area of operational and support services. They had both worked with numerous superintendents over the years, knew me well, and were very willing and able to assist.

Once Walden and I gathered and analyzed the data from these various sources, I finally developed an initial draft of a proposed evaluation system and sent it to each member of the school board for their review and comments. We eventually agreed to a new assessment process that included considerations of our district’s strategic plan and my efforts in leading its implementation.

The plan itself incorporated the goals and objectives of all departments and schools. The document I ended up with contained expected roles and responsibilities of a superintendent, and I was assessed on my capacity to fulfill them (with the underlying assumption I had the competency to do so). My evaluation included assessing the success level in pursuing three to five agreed upon annual outcomes of our strategic plan as well as an overall assessment of my competency levels demonstrated in doing the necessary work.

I sent Deck a copy of the list of roles and responsibilities I had developed and asked him to think about them. I told him I thought they might still be relevant. In the meantime, the Orange County Public Schools’ board of education was searching for a new superintendent.

I received a call from a citizen who asked me what kinds of questions I might ask candidates for the position. I then contacted Deck and asked him, “If you were a school board member, or on such a superintendent selection committee, what key questions would you ask a candidate?”

We discussed this for a considerable amount of time and came up with three areas—one dealing with purpose, another on core values and beliefs, and a third on the process of change. Over a period of about six months of discussions and reflection, those three initial questions evolved into fourteen. They became the focus of nearly a year of personal visits, email communications, and phone calls and resulted in an unbelievable learning experience for me.

As a practical matter, 14 questions are too burdensome for anyone to use in interviewing candidates for any job. One could spend hours just answering any one of them. We thought it would be possible, however, to construct case studies to elicit information on several of them at the same time, or even ask a candidate to share some of his or her decision-making or problem-solving experiences and dig into the responses to discover possessed knowledge and skills. In any case, our purpose was not so much to structure interviewing questions and activities to answer them, but to identify key roles, responsibilities, and competencies required of a superintendent to be successful.

In moving forward, we kept all of the questions and fleshed out a little more. We agreed that the questions should address basic knowledge, attitudes, values, and beliefs. We then decided competence may need to be determined through other means including references.

We began our list of questions with Deck’s initial three items. The extent to which someone could answer these questions would provide people with sufficient insight into their capacity to manage and effectively lead a school district. However, we were still realistic in our expectations of their practical use in a search for superintendents or other high-level district leaders. But we did think it might be possible to select from this list of questions those that were most relevant and of greater interest to an individual district. The 14 questions are:

  1. What does a future leader-manager view as the basic purpose of schools or other organizations and how does she/he describe purpose?
  2. What is the future leader-manager’s core value(s) and what belief(s) does she/he hold to be important?
  3. What does a future leader-manager understand about change processes and what explicit approach would she or he use to systematically improve programs, services, and products and enhance organizational operations?
  4. How would the future leader-manager describe her/his theories-of-use for decision making and explain multiple applications, and uses of those theories?
  5. What is the future leader-manager’s assumption(s) about political processes and the development and use of power in facilitating what happens in an organization and how does she or he address the differences between micro-political processes and behaviors and macro-political processes and behaviors and the utility of such recognition?
  6. What is the future leader-manager’s understandings regarding organizational behaviors and properties and what theories-of-use would she or he apply to understand and take advantage of understanding them in relation to goals and objectives of an organization?
  7. What does the future leader-manager recognize as manifestations of organizational culture and understand about the implications of culture for leading and managing?
  8. What does the future leader-manager understand about knowledge of self and its implications for how she or he leads and manages?
  9. What is the future leader-manager’s belief (s) and skills related to continuous improvement of organizational operations?
  10. What does the future leader-manager know about the allocation and reallocation of resources to fulfill organizational purposes in effective (getting the job done) and efficient (doing it as quickly as possible at the lowest financial cost) ways?
  11. What is the future leader-manager’s belief(s) and skill(s) related to the presentation of self and implications of those beliefs and skills for leading and managing?
  12. How would the future leader-manager apply her/his core values to practicing ethical personal behavior and influence positively organizational ethics?
  13. What is the future leader-manager’s definition of leadership as distinct from management and what implications does the definition have on day to day behavior as a leader?
  14. What does the future leader-manage see as her/his responsibility in developing the leadership capacity of all stakeholders in working with schools or any other organizations?

We took some time off at this stage of our potential book writing quest. Several weeks later, I called Deck and questioned him as to whether or not we were still relevant. This emanated from a surfacing, subconscious feeling that neither of us would go into an antique store for fear of someone putting a price tag on us—and worse yet, no one buying us.

Deck once again was quick to respond. “We have never stopped learning—times change, we changed.” I noted as I thought about it, we may be more relevant than others given the benefit of our views stretching over nearly seven decades, in a variety of institutions involving an ever-changing world context.

In response to a question I raised about the importance of effective behaviors in leading and managing a large organization, Deck said, “It not only includes being able to do one’s work well, but also paying attention and working on the right and necessary things.”

This brought us back to re-examining the list of roles and responsibilities I used to guide my work as superintendent and their accompanying goals. We did reorganize the list into six domains and accompanying goal statements. We decided to amend the list in numerous ways and we incorporated goal statements for each domain that all begin with “To fulfill the purpose.”

I. First Domain: Policy, Politics, and Governance—All organizations must deal with policy, politics and governance

  1. To fulfill the purpose of schools and their mission by working with the school board in its policy development and overall accountability roles.
  2. To fulfill the purpose of schools and their mission by leading the micro-political processes that bind the board and the chief executive in developing and focusing on a joint vision, purpose, and mission.
  3. To fulfill the purpose of schools and their mission by implementing a specific change model and process for reforming them.
  4. To fulfill the purpose of schools and their mission by using a rational decision-making process based on value driven choices designed to serve the customer first and avoid choices based on organizational and personal convenience.
  5. To fulfill the purpose of schools and their mission by ensuring the board and staff meet all requirements for recruiting, selecting, orienting, developing, and evaluating personnel; and negotiating and implementing the collective bargaining contract.
  6. To fulfill the purpose of schools and their mission by identifying and communicating the standard of care needed to protect the district from civil and criminal liability for negligence and harassment of any kind and to protect the constitutional and other legal rights of students and staff exemplifying lessons of good citizenship.
  7. To fulfill the purpose of schools and their mission by engaging with the board and staff in the political process to influence and change public policies at the local, state, and national levels to better serve the interests and needs of children and youth.
  8. To fulfill the purpose of schools and their mission by defining appropriate roles for community and business leaders to contribute to important district program and policy development efforts and provide needed information and training to participate effectively.
  9. To fulfill the purpose of schools and their mission by using collaborative processes in working with the board, staff, and community to address district and school needs and by involving all in the district strategic planning processes—by listening, soliciting information, seeking advice, and sharing its contents and results.

II. Second Domain: Learning—All organizations must deal with the central reason for their existence

  1. To fulfill the purpose of schools and their mission by developing a district and school culture conducive to creating student-centered schools.
  2. To fulfill the purpose of schools and their mission by using research to guide the selection and implementation of effective teaching and learning strategies for all students.
  3. To fulfill the purpose of schools and their mission by using a curriculum planning and development approach that reflects a clear understanding of local, state, national, and international needs and trends; the free enterprise system; and democracy to address the short- and long-term learning needs of children and youth.
  4. To fulfill the purpose of schools and their mission by addressing the issues of curriculum alignment, sequencing, integration, and the use of valid, reliable, and broad portfolio measures of student success.
  5. To fulfill the purpose of schools by utilizing a system of accountability that includes both program and individual formative and summative evaluations and a continuous adjustment of instructional, leadership, and management activities to meet emerging needs.
  6. To fulfill the purpose of schools and their mission by considering alternative curriculum and instructional designs, behavior management models, and student and program assessments, including making evaluation modifications for different learners.
  7. To fulfill the purpose of schools and their mission by maintaining an updated system for gathering and analyzing data to drive instructional decisions, including establishing learning goals and objectives.
  8. To fulfill the purpose of schools and their mission by leading the development and delivery of differentiated instructional programs and strategies to meet the needs of a diverse student population.
  9. To fulfill the purpose of schools and their mission by implementing an effective model(s) to meet the needs of ESE and ELL students; and ensuring the legal requirements of all state and national funding sources are met.
  10. To fulfill the purpose of schools and their mission by using teaming, professional learning communities, and other cooperative strategies to enhance teaching and learning and management operations of the various businesses of schools as a function of meeting the instructional needs of students.

III. Third Domain: Technology—All organizations must deal with new and emerging technology

  1. To fulfill the purpose of schools and their mission by identifying critical data and information needs for both instructional and operational management programs and make technology (software, hardware) acquisition decisions based on such plan.
  2. To fulfill the purpose of schools and their mission by encouraging the use of various technologies to drive and enhance both teaching and learning as well as support and management operations; and analyze and use data in a balanced approach to reconciling program competing goals and objectives for limited resources.
  3. To fulfill the purpose of schools and their mission by insuring the use of national and state standards for teachers, students, and leader-managers.

IV. Forth Domain: Communications and Community Engagement—All organizations must deal with issues of communications and broad-based engagement of publics served

  1. To fulfill the purpose of schools and their mission by listening, writing, and speaking and, in general, use multiple vehicles for communicating effectively with the board, staff, and community.
  2. To fulfill the purpose of schools and their mission by developing and implementing an effective internal and external communication system to inform and be informed.
  3. To fulfill the purpose of schools and their mission by supporting a collaborative spirit with and between board members—treating all as equal partners in the governance of the schools.
  4. To fulfill the purpose of schools and their mission by serving as the lead educational communicator for the district and presenting updates and participating in discussions with individuals and community organizations and agencies, such as ethnic and religious, service, child welfare, other government, arts and science, and news media.
  5. To fulfill the purpose of schools and their mission by celebrating diversity in the schools and throughout the community and engaging with representative groups and individuals to inform, learn from, and engage them.
  6. To fulfill the purpose of schools and their mission by working with community agencies, such as arts and entertainment, health services, Junior Achievement, homeless shelters, legal, juvenile justice—to develop partnerships to benefit all students.
  7. To fulfill the purpose of schools and their mission by growing volunteer services and partnership programs to insure broad based engagement of individual and community agencies in the instructional and non-instructional activities of the district.

V. Fifth Domain: Management and Operations—All organizations must address not just leadership but management issues

  1. To fulfill the purpose of schools and their mission by overseeing the management and operation aspects of the district and tie them into the schools learning communities—these include finance, food services, maintenance, custodial services, transportation, personnel, and risk management.
  2. To fulfill the purpose of schools and their mission by building a culture that recognizes the importance of all management and operations programs to the overall academic success of the students served.
  3. To fulfill the purpose of schools and their mission by implementing health and safety processes addressing issues such as health and safety concerns of all while using school facilities – including emergency and fire protection procedures and dealing with acts of violence, and in school and cyber bullying.

VI. Sixth Domain: Values and Ethics—All organizations must address the issues of right and wrong

  1. To fulfill the purpose of schools and their mission by earning the respect and support of the board, staff, and community through continuous learning, demonstrated knowledge, and honesty.
  2. To fulfill the purpose of schools and their mission by deciding on matters of moral indiscretion.
  3. To fulfill the purpose of schools and their mission by living and leading as guided by a code of ethics in part as expressed in various religious belief systems and state and federal laws and regulations.
  4. To fulfill the purpose of schools and their mission by living a purposeful personal and professional life in part as required by local, state, and federal laws and the rules, regulations, and other expectations of the board; and model and promote a strong sense of moral purpose.
  5. To fulfill the purpose of schools and their mission by focusing efforts on the interest and needs of the students, staff, and community and ensuring the resources of the district are never used for personal gain.

After several weeks of procrastinating and follow up emails and telephone calls, we decided finally to address the idea of competencies. Deck suggested we first to think about the “explication of the foundations of competence.”

Throughout most of our discussions, we did break down and analyze what superintendents should do and the assumed competence they would need to maximize their success. In response, I proposed a definition of competence to continue our reflection on its meaning.

I said, “Competence is the intellectual, social, physical, and emotional ability to do one’s job effectively.” We discussed how competence must be thought of broadly. It should be considered from a “total being” concept that includes high levels of knowledge and skills and a capacity to apply them to every day practical requirements of what one does.

After several uncomfortable moments of silence, Deck cleared his voice and got to the heart of the matter. He shared a simple but clear description—“It’s generally what it takes to get the job done.”

With new energy after a break in our work of several weeks, Deck later emailed me stating he thought we should expand our view a bit. He suggested we consider the district like any other organization as if it were a living entity.

We discussed how competence may be demonstrated in the behavior of an individual or expressed in the collective behavior of an organization and decided it might best be defined as, “The general capacity of a person or an organization to learn and adapt so as to acquire continuously the skills needed to perform a variety of tasks that result in the achievement of goals.” We then decided to use a briefer description of what we mean by competence. We settled on two words—“enabling capacity.”

We had no more discussions after reaching this conclusion. Deck had a long-term illness that made it impossible for him to continue. He did send to me a “slew” of books and papers to use as I saw fit. Less than a year later, he passed away. One of the last things he told me was very significant. He said of all the Domains we worked on the most critical is the Sixth Domain—values and ethics. Because he believed “if you don’t get those right” nothing else matters.