What Does a School Superintendent Do?

Teachers & Principals | 04/19/2012

Anne Martens
Former Marketing & Communications Director

Anne is the former Marketing & Communications Director for Stand for Children Washington.

Washington state has 295 local school districts, and each school district is managed by a superintendent that is hired by and reports to the local elected school board.

But what do those 295 superintendents do?

What does a school superintendent do?

The superintendent is the top executive ("CEO") in the school district.

The superintendent implements the school board’s vision by making day-to-day decisions about educational programs, spending, staff, and facilities. The superintendent hires, supervises, and manages the central staff and principals. 

Superintendents must work with school leaders -- principals -- to serve the needs of students and meet the district goals.

The superintendent must also respond to the demands of all the other constituencies and interest groups in the district: teachers, students, parents, staff, advocates, and the community at large. She or he must consider how to use the financial and human resources of the district in order to achieve the best results. While being mindful of competing demands, a great superintendent will be guided by what is best for all students.

Learn what a school board and principal do here.

What makes a great superintendent?

The non-profit organization Great Schools put together this list of what makes an effective superintendent:

  1. A great superintendent has a clear vision for the district. He or she works with the school board to set the vision, goals and objectives for the district, and then sees to it that the goals are achieved.
  2. A great superintendent is an instructional leader. He or she knows that the most important job of the school district is to make sure students are learning and achieving at high levels. He or she is knowledgeable of the best practices for maximizing student achievement and is supportive of teachers in the district.
  3. A great superintendent is an effective communicatorHe or she must make a concerted effort to communicate the needs and accomplishments of the district in a variety of formats: through written reports, communication with the media, public meetings and attendance at school events.
  4. A great superintendent is a good manager. He or she directs the administrators to accomplish the goals of the district, monitors their progress and evaluates their performance.
  5. A great superintendent is a good listener. He or she must listen and take into account differing viewpoints of various constituencies, and then make the best decision.
  6. A great superintendent is not afraid to take risks or make a commitment. An average superintendent might set goals that are vague or easily achieved, but a great superintendent would set bold goals that take effort and commitment, such as "The majority of third graders will be able to read by the end of the school year," and then put the programs and resources in place to achieve those goals.
  7. A great superintendent is flexible. He or she needs to be able to manage the politics of the job - to adapt to new board members, changes in state funding and changes in the school community while not sacrificing the district's vision. A great superintendent takes a collaborative rather than a confrontational approach.

What do you think of the list? Let us know in the comments. 

What does the school board do? What does a principal do? 

To better understand how our education system works, you should be familiar with the responsibilities of each decision-maker or decision-making body.

Read what a school board and principal do here.

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  • This is a good list. I would add a couple more characteristics. A great superintendent is honest. He or she must keep the commitments made to students and families. A great superintendent is consistent. The guiding principles don't change from case to case. A great superintendent is accountable. He or she holds him- or herself to the same standards set for staff.
    Charlie Mas

    April 19, 2012 4:02 PM

  • Thank you for your addition to the list of characteristics that make up a good superintendent...we support your beliefs 100% - If a Superintendent lacks the qualities you've listed, then none of the other characteristics will matter.

    March 3, 2018 1:19 AM

  • your missed one of the most critical but it too often gets overlooked as a primary reason for "gaps. It is "removes barriers to access to eliminate the opportunity gap.
    sharon taubel

    April 19, 2012 4:56 PM

  • The criteria of a great superintendent is an appropriate list; however, they are talking points that any superintendent candidate or existing superintendent would declare. Recognizing the need of these attributes is easy; implementing them consistently is the challenge. A critical and over arching component to effective leadership and management is controlled ego. Those who apply and secure top level positions have a level of confidence of their ability for they would not apply otherwise. What is detrimental is when that confidence and/or arrogance trumps the needs of the system. This behavior is far too prevalent and stifles academic growth and professional responsibilities of educators.

    May 26, 2012 9:09 AM

  • good place to learn

    March 3, 2014 11:22 AM

  • they do alot ;D
    sassy sue

    January 30, 2015 11:31 AM

  • What is the education for a superintendant

    April 19, 2015 11:06 AM

  • One thing that is consistently missing from educational agendas is how to get parents to be more involved with their children's education. Having worked both overseas and in the California public school systems I have found in both places that those institutions that require some form of parent participation always had a stronger student population in both academics and behavior. If you want better students you have to get the parents involved.
    Carmelo Farruggia

    January 10, 2018 3:31 PM

  • We completely agree, Carmelo, which is why we focus our organizing efforts specifically on amplifying parent voices. Thank you for reading and commenting! - Katie Gustainis (Marketing and Communications for Stand for Children Washington)

    January 10, 2018 4:04 PM

  • this helped

    February 13, 2020 4:44 PM