What Superintendents Do Daily (Part 1)

In this blog over the past few years, I have posted accounts of a day in the life of a principal and what some teachers do daily. But I have not looked at what district superintendents do at work.

In this three-part post, I will present what I have found over the years of what superintendents did daily on the job over a century ago, 85 years ago, 40 years ago, and the work schedule of contemporary superintendents.

Getting a picture of what superintendents do every day, then and now, is useful in understanding the multiple roles that superintendents perform with the school board who hire and fire them, interactions with teachers and principals, parents, local politicians, and the unpredictability of their work. The high expectations that educators and non-educators have about superintendents arise from these many daily tasks they have performed for over a century. In the last post, I will also offer one superintendent’s views of the impact of a superintendent’s job on one family.


William Chancellor, a former superintendent who served in large and small cities wrote what a typical day looked like for the school chief in a district at the beginning of the 20th century.

1. Inspected school building. Sent messenger for painter to repair window glass. Notified chief of police to follow up street “hoodlums”who broke glass.

2. Read mail; business letters from places large and small: correspondence with colleges; teachers’ applications, requests for subscriptions to help national charities, calls to give addresses here and there, generally gratis; answered mail.

3. Talked to mayor about next year’s appropriations.

4. Looked into a new textbook.

5. Visited a school; sent one child home who had apparently an infectious disease, discussed salary with a discontented teacher.

6. Dictated circular letter to board of education regarding educational and financial matters.

7. Saw a textbook agent.

8. Ate lunch; interrupted by call from mother of sick child.

9. Read and signed letters of reply to morning mail.

10. Called at business place of board member, saw two politicians there; discussed three R’s as usual.

11. Held grade meeting; gave sample lesson on mensuration [branch of geometry that deals with measuring area and volume]

12. Visited by Catholic sisters from parochial school, regarding truants.

13. Read afternoon mail; sent notes regretting absence from office to following callers: Presbyterian minister, carpenter to discuss repairs in a school building, mother of child suspended from school for misconduct.

14. Made a statistical table.

15. Ate dinner; caller on school matters came at seven o’clock,

16. Went to evening engagement and was called on to speak.

17. Read an hour and retired for the night.

Chancellor commented that this was an easy day. Were it a “hard day”, one would need to “add a board or committee of the board meeting, a formal public address or the making of a test.”

1928: National survey of administrators

In that year a national survey of 663 principals and superintendents in various-sized districts reported on which tasks were performed and how frequently. Four of five superintendents reported that they did the following;

*Go to the post office

*Deliver messages to teachers

*Draft special reports to state and U.S. Bureau of Education,prepare annual reports for school board

*Prepare letters of sympathy

*Conduct visitors through schools

*Examine school work sent to office

*Prevent salesmen from canvassing schools

*Answer questionnaires

*Gather school publicity data

*Adjust complaints of parents

*Consider applications, examine credentials, consult with principals in selecting teachers for district

*Secure substitute teachers

*Suggest professional books and articles for teachers

*Investigate criticism of teachers

*Assist teachers to find lodgings

*Attend summer school

*Visit schools elsewhere

*Talk before community groups

*Attend church social functions

Both lists of what superintendents do can be found in Larry Cuban, The Managerial Imperative and the Practice of Leadership in Schools (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1988), pp. 125-128. See: ED304758-1


The next post will document a day I spent as Superintendent in the Arlington (VA) schools nearly 40 years ago.


Filed under school leaders

13 responses to “What Superintendents Do Daily (Part 1)

  1. Suzanne

    Part of what’s so interesting about this question–what did (does) a superintendent do–is knowing, from E. D. Hirsch’s wonderful The Schools We Need, and Why We Don’t Have Them, about the rapid spread of the latest in progressive educational thinking already in the 1920’s. Someone, somewhere, for some reason (unclear to me) wanted to do away with old-fashioned teaching (like the age-old teaching of reading via the phonetic approach) and replace it with ‘the latest’, and thus we (eventually, when the teachers trained properly had retired) got such nonsense as the Look-Say method and its descendants… I suppose that there were superintendents who wanted the latest developments from the ed schools in their districts. New technologies, but same kind of process, these days.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for taking the time to comment, Suzanne. I believe that some historians of education have laid out very nicely how educational progressivism spread in its rhetoric but hardly made an impact on what teachers did in their classrooms. A fine history is David Tyack’s One Best System. Another is David Labaree’s Someone Has To Fail. They will give you a very different picture than E.D. Hirsch’s The Schools We Need. If you can look at these books, your questions about superintendents, progressivism, and teaching will change.

      • Suzanne

        Thank you for replying to my comment.

        I will try to read the books you mention, to see what is (I gather) an opposing view to Hirsch’s.

        I’m afraid I was being a bit disingenuous in my comment, though.

        I assume that it’s long been due to the pressure of wanting to be regarded as a ‘real academic’ profession, with ‘research’ and ‘studies’ and groundbreaking new developments, etc., that the ed schools have kept coming out such schemes as replacing the age-old instruction in how to read with the ‘look-say’ method.

        (I’ll never forget Miss Solomon, in the first grade at Wood Acres Elementary in the fall of 1963, asking each child to repeat the word “Come,” which she’d written on the board; “You’re all reading!” she said, brightly; I was one of the last ones to be called on, and I seriously contemplated saying nothing. I’m ashamed to admit that I meekly said “Come” after all, though I knew I wasn’t ‘reading.’ Luckily, something clicked for me soon enough, and I learned to read in spite of this approach–which led to Miss Solomon assuring my mother, later that year, that I was ‘only pretending’ to read the children’s life of Helen Keller that I’d borrowed from an older cousin and had brought to school.) Apparently, educational psychologists had discovered that successful readers took in whole bunches of letters at a go–and so it would improve instruction of novices to get them away from sounding out letters individually!

        Not long ago, in a professional setting, I said that I was happy to keep using the teaching methods that worked so well in the past, in crafting my lessons. And the doctrinaire leftist from the administration who was leading the session rounded on me furiously and demanded to know how well those methods had worked on the students of the past who had been left out. This seemed, to him, to prove that a new age needs new instructional methods.

        Though it almost seems as though he’s afraid to see, now that many who were formerly left out have been included, whether those methods work with them or not. It looks as though he wants to ‘dumb things down,’ as if prophylactically.

        Fortunately, I think the subject I teach is not covered by the Common Core, and so with any luck it (and I) can keep flying under the radar, so to speak…

      • larrycuban

        Well, Suzanne, Miss Solomon had an effect on you with the “look-say” method. I can also better understand the allergy you might have to “progressive” methods propagated in ed schools, given the story you told about the “doctrinaire leftist.” Which is, of course, E.D. Hirsch’s position. One of the authors I noted is David Labaree who has written about progressivism in ed schools and also how those progressive ideas, then and now, do not often make their way past the classroom door. There are, as you well know, stellar teachers who practice teacher-centered and student-centered and help students learn. No best way to teach, as far as I am concerned. Thanks for taking the time to write back.

  2. Professor Cuban

    Forgive me for this response which is to an earlier blog entry rather than this one. If it isn’t too much trouble, will you please send your January entry on the struggle you had making decisions about school closings related to weather to Mayor de Blasio and School Chancellor Farina. That blog was important to me because as both a parent and teacher, I wouldn’t ever have listed this particular decision as a ranking struggle for a competent school administrator.

    You may or may not be aware that de Blasio and Farina are under attack right now over their decision to close schools in New York this past week.
    I think they could have deferred or, at least, limited the attack if they had read your blog before they spoke in response to the public anger over the school closing decision.

    The motive for this request comes from the fact that I feel a desperate need for the de Blasio administration to show that progressive politicians can govern effectively. The public outcry about the school closing is worrisome for a couple of reasons. De Blasio seemed irritated and defensive about the snow situation in an interview with Jon Stewart which I saw last night. Second, this is the wrong kind of decision to start off criticism of his administration. Dr. Farina responded inappropriately, too. If both had been less defensive and more open about the difficulties inherent in the decision, I think people would have been more understanding.

    Thank you.

  3. Suzanne

    A further response to Dr. Cuban (see above):

    I’m sure you’re not meaning to say that ‘progressive education has never really been tried,’ because of all the old-fashioned traditionalists who shut their doors and kept teaching ‘the old way’ !

    I know that my second-grade teacher, Mrs. Corrigan, was old-school enough that she did have us collecting words of similar phonetic type (i.e., all that ended with a similarly-sounded “ch” as in “church”), which I’m sure was useful to us as we progressed in literacy (that was the year, as I remember, of really learning to spell). Thank God for old-fashioned teachers, if they are replicating the good stuff that works. I’m certainly not opposed to them adding ‘new stuff’ to address needs that were not previously met, but to think that that requires an ‘out with the old’ attitude is silly.

    I don’t think there are many Mrs. Corrigans left, though; how many traditionalists could there be, after about 1970?

    I’m assuming Miss Solomon was doing her best to follow someone’s instruction to write a common word on the board that doesn’t follow the apparent ‘rules’ of English pronunciation (“Come”), thereby teaching the children (for their FIRST word, mind you) that ‘reading’ is akin to mindless repetition. If children know the common sound correspondences (not the ‘names’) of the letters, they can actually put together the sounds of C, A, T “cat” and really get it, in a useful and liberating way.

    But some expert had to come along and change how we thought about transmitting the alphabetic code to children; not sure why…

    But I think that “why” remains the most important question.

  4. This is fascinating. We don’t really have a super intendant equivalent here in Australia. Thanks for this three parter.

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