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October 2018


What does the research say are the competencies, roles, and characteristics of superintendents who are effective in their roles as education leader? What is the definition of an effective superintendent?

Ask A REL Response

Thank you for your request to our Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Reference Desk. Ask A REL is a collaborative reference desk service provided by the 10 RELs that, by design, functions much in the same way as a technical reference library. Ask A REL provides references, referrals, and brief responses in the form of citations in response to questions about available education research.

Following an established REL Northwest research protocol, we conducted a search for evidence- based research. The sources included ERIC and other federally funded databases and organizations, research institutions, academic research databases, Google Scholar, and general Internet search engines. For more details, please see the methods section at the end of this document.

The research team has not evaluated the quality of the references and resources provided in this response; we offer them only for your reference. The search included the most commonly used research databases and search engines to produce the references presented here. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance. The research references are not necessarily comprehensive and other relevant research references may exist. In addition to evidence-based, peer-reviewed research references, we have also included other resources that you may find useful. We provide only publicly available resources, unless there is a lack of such resources or an article is considered seminal in the topic area.


Bredeson, P. V., Klar, H. W., & Johansson, O. (2011). Context-responsive leadership: Examining superintendent leadership in context. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 19(18), 1–28.

From the Abstract:
"It is widely acknowledged that context matters, that it affects leadership practices. A large body of descriptive studies documents common elements in the work of school superintendents. What is less well known is how superintendents' leadership may be expressed very differently given the varying contexts in which they work. The purpose of this cross-national study was to identify the specific variations in context which influence superintendents' leadership, and to examine how superintendents respond to these variations in context."

Canales, M. T., Tejeda-Delgado, C., & Slate, J. R. (2008). Leadership behaviors of superintendent/principals in small, rural school districts in Texas. Rural Educator, 29(3), 1–7.

From the Abstract:
"In this study, 206 teachers, 35 school board presidents, and 37 superintendents/principals (n = 278) were surveyed regarding their views of effective leadership behaviors demonstrated by school leaders with dual role responsibilities through serving as both a school principal and as a superintendent in small rural school districts."

Chingos, M. M., Whitehurst, G. J., & Lindquist, K. M. (2014). School superintendents: Vital or irrelevant? Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, Brown Center on Education Policy. Retrieved from

From the Summary:
"In this report, the authors examine the extent to which school district effects on student learning are due to the superintendent in charge, as compared to characteristics of districts that are independent of their leaders."

ECRA Group. (2010). Effective superintendents: ECRA literature review. Retrieved from

From the Summary:
"ECRA reviewed superintendent evaluation standards from key voices and institutions in the field of education leadership, including standards developed by the American Association of School Administrators (DiPaola & Stronge, 2003) and the principles defined by Marzano et al. (1996) in Leadership that Works."

Forner, M., Bierlein-Palmer, L., & Reeves, P. (2012). Leadership practices of effective rural superintendents: Connections to Waters and Marzano’s leadership correlates. Journal of Research in Rural Education, 27(8).

From the Abstract:
"This study examined the leadership practices of seven rural superintendents, selected via a sampling strategy which identified disadvantaged rural districts that had experienced marked increases 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)."

Waters, T. J., & Marzano, R. J. (2006). School district leadership that works: The effect of superintendent leadership on student achievement [Working paper]. Aurora, CO: Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning.

From the Abstract:
"This study is the latest in a series of meta-analyses that Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL) has conducted over the past several years to determine the characteristics of effective schools, leaders, and teachers. The following four major findings emerged from the study: (1) District-level leadership matters; (2) Effective superintendents focus their efforts on creating goal-oriented districts; (3) Superintendent tenure is positively correlated with student achievement; and (4) A surprising and perplexing finding of 'Defined autonomy.' A bibliography of reports used in the meta-analysis is included."


Keywords and Search Strings: The following keywords, subject headings, and search strings were used to search reference databases and other sources: Superintendent, Leader, Role, Effective, Competencies, Competent, Definition

Databases and Resources: We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of more than 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). Additionally, we searched Google Scholar and EBSCO databases (Academic Search Premier, Education Research Complete, and Professional Development Collection).

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When we were searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

Date of publications: This search and review included references and resources published in the last 10 years.

Search priorities of reference sources: Search priority was given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published and/or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations, as well as academic databases, including ERIC, EBSCO databases, and Google Scholar.

Methodology: The following methodological priorities/considerations were given in the review and selection of the references:

  • Study types: randomized control trials, quasi experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, and policy briefs, generally in this order
  • Target population and samples: representativeness of the target population, sample size, and whether participants volunteered or were randomly selected
  • Study duration
  • Limitations and generalizability of the findings and conclusions

This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by stakeholders in Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington, which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Northwest. It was prepared under Contract ED-IES-17-C-0009 by REL Northwest, administered by Education Northwest. The content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.