Dr. B.C. DeSpain, National Forum Journals, www.nationalforum.com


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Dr. B.C. DeSpain, National Forum Journals, www.nationalforum.com

Dr. William Allan Kritsonis, Editor-in-Chief, National FORUM Journals, www.nationalforum.com

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Dr. B.C. DeSpain, National Forum Journals, www.nationalforum.com

  1. 1. NATIONAL FORUM OF EDUCATIONAL ADMINISTRATION AND SUPERVISION JOURNAL VOLUME 28, NUMBER 1, 2010-2011 LEARNING FROM THE BEST: A STUDY OF AASA’S SUPERINTENDENT’S OF THE YEAR Ben C. DeSpain West American College of Acupuncture & Oriental Medicine Robert L. Marshall Walden University Chablis P. DeSpain ABSTRACT The AASA National-Superintendent-of-the-year program is twenty-five years old. For the past eight years we have been conducting an annual survey of these public school superintendents who are selected by their colleagues to represent their respective states in the national recognition program. The survey instrument continues to undergo refinement as we gather data in an effort to glean from this group of leaders the lessons they have mastered in their careers. This is the first publication of the research effort. he Annual National Superintendent-of-the-Year program, sponsored by the American Association of School Administrators (AASA), has now completed its first quarter century of recognizing its brightest and best. As the recognition program enters its twenty-sixth year, it appears that the program is becoming more successful with each passing year in truly recognizing those school leaders who are among the very best serving children and community schools throughout the nation and even beyond. Each statewide superintendent organization annually selects a representative who is identified as the State Superintendent-of-the-Year. This individual automatically becomes the nominee from his/her state for T 48
  2. 2. 49 NATIONAL FORUM OF EDUCATIONAL ADMINISTRATION AND SUPERVISION JOURNAL the national award, conferred each year at the annual conference in February. In addition to the state nominees, there are also selections from the U.S. Territories and from the Dependant Schools operated through the Department of Defense. While the exact number fluctuates, there are usually about fifty-two to fifty-four nominees. Each nominee presents a portfolio of his/her experiences to a review committee which selects four finalists who are identified before the annual conference. All state nominees attending the national conference are recognized at the annual conference and the four finalists are introduced and have their career highlights noted. The National Superintendent-of-the-Year is then identified from this group and announced. It is a poignant moment for the thousands in attendance. Origin and Development of the Study Beginning nine years ago, two of us initiated a study via a survey instrument “to gain a broader understanding of leadership practices and the persons who engage in that practice,” as we wrote in the introduction to that first survey. That initial effort was aimed at collecting demographic data, information on personal reading habits, and other select activities of the lifestyle of the superintendent. After three years of this somewhat limited-in-scope effort, we determined that this group of school leaders was not the subject of study by anyone else. We determined that we should formalize our efforts and make considerable changes to probe more areas. As a result, the instrument underwent a major revision and significant expansion. Our investigation addressed three primary objectives which continue, after five years, to serve as a compass for our annual effort: “1) to conceptualize the activities and actions demonstrated by these successful school leaders beginning in the early years and moving into adulthood, 2) to identify past/present reading habits of educational leaders, and 3) to collect preliminary information for follow-up research regarding employment practices and the accountability movement.” (Introduction to the Study)
  3. 3. Ben C. DeSpain, Robert L. Marshall, and Chablis P. DeSpain 50 Along the way, the initial colleague moved back to public education to become a superintendent and a new colleague was added along with a willing spouse. Each year has seen minor adjustments to the survey instrument, often at the suggestion of those who participate each year. Thankfully, we have always enjoyed over a 70% response rate and on occasion more than 90% of the population has given time from their busy schedules to respond to our survey which is now administered on line with the use of Survey Monkey. Today the instrument contains sections collecting: 1) demographic data, 2) historical data on residence and family during elementary, middle, and high school, 3) personal activities engaged in during the school age years which were sponsored by the home, community, or school, 4) reading habits and preferences, 5) a personal assessment section dealing with perception of self and style, and how they handle criticism and, 6) five questions calling for short written responses. The five questions are very telling and provide considerable insight to the heart and soul of these extraordinary leaders. One asks the respondent to recall and describe the first experience when they realized they were or wanted to become a leader. The second question asks them to list the most important elements they expect to find in an outstanding leadership candidate’s professional file. The third question addresses the most important “things”—qualities, characteristics, responses— they want to find in the first moments on an initial interview with an outstanding educational leadership candidate. The fourth question asks the person to give their impression of “the accountability movement” and its impact on their performance as a school leader. Finally, the last question asks the respondent to give a list of their “must read” books for educational leaders. The Results A word of caution concerning a lingering, though diminishing issue, should perhaps be injected at this point because it has been mentioned each year by a very limited number of the respondents. We offer it here to simply acknowledge its existence and provide a
  4. 4. 51 NATIONAL FORUM OF EDUCATIONAL ADMINISTRATION AND SUPERVISION JOURNAL perspective on the matter as it has become less an issue with each passing year. Perhaps the “accountability movement” itself has hastened the demise of this matter more than any other thing. We speak of the comments of a few superintendents who have taken time to remind us of what we already had experienced firsthand from our years as public school leaders. Namely, that the annual selection of the Superintendent-of-the-Year in some states has been little more than the honoring of one of the favorite “Good Ole Boys” by his (and on rare occasions, her) colleagues. While that may still occur on occasion, there is absolutely no question on our part that the overwhelming majority of the state selections each year are among the finest and most able leaders from the many hardworking public school servants in America. Their answers and their grasp of the issues are simply stellar. We applaud them, their efforts, their dedication, and their justified selection and recognition by their peers. Related Applicable Studies It has already been noted above that this eight year effort is the only study of this select group of superintendents. There have, and continue to be, studies including many doctoral dissertations which focus on school superintendents. Many of those focus on the tasks of the position, job satisfaction, key responsibilities, critical issues, length of tenure in a position, etc. Our efforts were and continue to remain focused on the personal attributes, habits, and driving forces motivating the individual and how he/she came to discover and develop those skills and habits essential to their success as a leader in public education. A review of the literature revealed that there were efforts to study superintendent’s attitudes and characteristics in earlier studies. Some of those studies offer a benchmark for our efforts in this study. In a 2007 study of attitudes of Wisconsin Superintendents toward No Child Left Behind (NCLB) (Allen and Leverich, 2007) reported that only 27% of the respondents agreed with the statement, “NCLB has
  5. 5. Ben C. DeSpain, Robert L. Marshall, and Chablis P. DeSpain 52 improved the quality of education in my district.” The 63% rate of response from the superintendents of the 267 school districts across the state led the researchers to conclude that most superintendents expressed opposition to NCLB and want changes in the law. The superintendents also believed that only a few of the sanctions offer any hope to improve educational quality. In a 2006 meta-analysis of 27 identified research reports conducted since 1970 on the effect of superintendents on student achievement, researchers (Waters and Marzano, 2006) at the Mid- continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL) produced four major findings. The key findings were: 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) Effective superintendents appear to provide school leaders with “defined autonomy.” In a 2008 study of superintendents in Illinois, conducted in cooperation with the Illinois Association of School Administrators (Berg, 2008), many interesting questions were posed which offered real insight into the careers of the subjects. Additionally, there were several queries which obtained demographic data, personal information, and professional activities and opinions on a wide range of topics. This study reported that the mean number of years served as a superintendent by the respondents was just over 7 years. Another question addressed the age of the respondent which was 51.2 years. One gender question revealed that the respondents were 24% female and 76% males. No questions in this study, as is typical of a large number of studies reviewed, addressed the type of community the respondent served (rural, urban or suburban) or whether the respondent had worked outside the field of education prior to becoming a school administrator. Neither were there questions in any of the studies which sought information on family background, siblings, or activities engaged in during elementary, middle, or high school. Questions were also missing about reading habits, teacher perceptions of the respondent as they were growing up, their thinking
  6. 6. 53 NATIONAL FORUM OF EDUCATIONAL ADMINISTRATION AND SUPERVISION JOURNAL process as compared to classmates, whether they had a mentor early in their life, how they got along with others, and how they handled criticism. These types of questions and the responses received, the researchers believe, offer great insight into the success of this unusual group of school leaders. Responses on Commonly Shared Questions One of the short answer questions in our survey was also asked in one of the studies identified above. That question presented in the earlier study asked: “Has NCLB improved the quality of education in my district?” The response in that survey was positive from 27% of the superintendents. While our survey asked the question as a qualitative question: What is your impression of “the accountability movement” and how is it impacting your performance as a school leader? A sample of the positive short answer responses received is provided as follows: • Accountability is both necessary and acceptable. NCLB has made my job a little less enjoyable. • Makes me focus on every little thing trying to cover all the bases—rather stressful at times. Closing the achievement gap is very important. • The moral intent is noble—the actions taken to achieve the intent are flawed. I use the moral intent to hammer home the importance of closing the achievement gap. • I have no problem with being held accountable. I simply want our society and the decision makers to place as much emphasis on public education as they do entertainment. • Accountability is necessary and has made a positive impact. • I spend more time thinking about improving student achievement than I did in the past. We are constantly working to improve data systems so we can adjust instruction for youngsters who are not making progress.
  7. 7. Ben C. DeSpain, Robert L. Marshall, and Chablis P. DeSpain 54 • I always felt I was accountable to my community. It does not impact my performance at all. • About time, helps keep the organization focused on the right targets. • Movement has many positive aspects and some areas that need improving. It has helped me stay focused. • First, I hold myself accountable and then those around me to accomplish our mission. • Accountability has forced all of us to rethink the way we approach our work and the work we are doing for student learning. It has refocused the conversation around data and student achievement. • Mostly, it is a very good influence. It has sharpened my leadership focus and focused my professional attention. • Get it done, accomplish the mission. That is the only answer. The above responses were all judged as positive by the researchers. Such responses were received from a surprisingly large number of the superintendents. Where the Wisconsin study of Allen and Leverich (2007) found only 27% responding positively, our study revealed that 71% of the respondents were positive. In fact, even among comments judged negative we found some strong support for the concept but negative on the failure to adequately fund and the approach to testing. It is perhaps worthy of noting that this percentage has been growing over the last few years, but this is the first time it has exceeded 70%. The meta-analysis of 27 reports done by Waters and Marzano (2006) identified at least one finding that has relevance with this current study’s findings as revealed above. The second finding of Waters and Marzano was that “Effective superintendents focus their efforts on creating goal oriented districts.” The comments presented above seem to mirror their findings from earlier studies. We have already stated that we accept that the selected superintendents are selected, in large measure, for their success and effectiveness.
  8. 8. 55 NATIONAL FORUM OF EDUCATIONAL ADMINISTRATION AND SUPERVISION JOURNAL When the data from this study were compared with the Illinois study by Berg (2008) on the three comparable questions, the results were somewhat similar. For example: on the question concerning age, the Berg study found the Illinois superintendents had a mean age of 51.2 years. Our study revealed that 20% were between the ages of 46- 55 and 80% were 56 years or older. Further, The Illinois study found that the mean number of years the respondents had been a superintendent was 7.1 years. This study asked for information on the length of the service in the current position as superintendent which was 8.6 years. The last similar question related to the gender of the superintendents. The results of the gender question were the same on the two studies with each being 24% females and 76% males. Findings Not Presented by Other Researchers The data from the 2008 survey of the Superintendents-of-the- Year covers a wide range of topics. Space here does not provide the opportunity to discuss all of the findings but we will offer some of the more revealing information. This year’s (2008) State-Superintendents- of-the-Year (covering February 2008 to February 2009) had 3% serving in districts of less than 1000 students, 14% in districts of 1,001-2,500, 43% in districts of 2,401-5,000, and 40% in districts over 5,000 students. 26% of the districts were categorized as rural, 17% as urban and 57% as suburban. The typical respondent in this survey had been an educator 34.7 years, had been an assistant superintendent and superintendent for a combined total of 17.5 years. Of the six (6) respondents who had careers outside education, the average length of those careers was 6 years. The range was from 2 years to 22 years among this group, with the 22 year career being in the military.
  9. 9. Ben C. DeSpain, Robert L. Marshall, and Chablis P. DeSpain 56 Early Family Demographics The demographic data from the early years of the respondents proved very interesting. Nearly 58% of the respondents were born and lived through elementary school in a rural residence, while 21% lived in a suburban residence and 21% in an urban residence. Only one participant (3%) did not have a two parent family from birth through elementary school. At the time of graduation from high school, 82% of the respondents still enjoyed a two parent family. A small percentage (3%-6%) had other family members living in the home (grandparents) until graduation from high school. Of the 34 respondents, 9% were the only child, 67% had 1-3 siblings, and 24% had 4 or more siblings. Home Sponsored Activities Within the school age years, respondents were asked to tell us which home sponsored activities, which school sponsored activities, and which community sponsored activities they engaged in during the elementary, middle, and high school years. Sometime from birth through elementary school 45% of the respondents took music lessons and some sports related lessons such as swimming. The same was true for middle school. In high school, those taking music lessons dropped to 20% while those taking sports related lessons (golf, tennis, swimming, etc) increased to 56%. From 35% to 38% of the group was involved in camping, boating, hiking, crafts, and collecting coins or stamps with a slightly smaller percentage engaging in hunting and fishing during the elementary years. By middle school the percentage involved in hiking, camping, and boating had grown to 56% and the number hunting and fishing had grown to 44%. The respondents reported that there are still many who have maintained the interests of their early years to this day.
  10. 10. 57 NATIONAL FORUM OF EDUCATIONAL ADMINISTRATION AND SUPERVISION JOURNAL Community Sponsored Activities Community sponsored activities also gained and held the attention of many future superintendents in their early years. Church activities captured the attention of 91% of the respondents from shortly after birth, and even today 61% report they are still actively involved in their local church. From 41% to 50% were also involved in little league sports programs, scouting, or summer programs sponsored by Parks and Recreation programs in their community. It is interesting to note that 20% of the respondents were involved in volunteerism as elementary age children, by middle school it was 32%, by high school it was 50 %. Even today as very busy adults, 60% are still volunteering their time in their community. No one reported having a mentor in elementary school but one did (3%) in middle school and 4 did (12%) in high school. Today, over 30% are involved in mentoring at least one person. The last area of consideration in this section is the number who worked part time during the early years. About 10% worked (mowed lawns, baby sat, etc.) in elementary. That increased to 44% in middle school and to 80% during high school. School Sponsored Activities School sponsored activities did not hold much attraction for these future superintendents during their early years. While a few did become active in things like band, choir, acting, or an academic club, the percentage was not above 12% of the group. Only teamed sports managed to attract as many as 28% of the group during their elementary years. By middle school that group had grown to 47% of the members, and 35% were involved in student government. By high school, 65% were playing team sports, 60% were in some type of leadership role, 47% were in student government, while 45% were involved in interest clubs or academic clubs, and 32% were active in school publications.
  11. 11. Ben C. DeSpain, Robert L. Marshall, and Chablis P. DeSpain 58 Reading Practices The original survey of this group of superintendents was primarily a survey of reading habits. Happily, we have kept and continued to probe that area of personal habits of these educational leaders. In this current survey, 92% of the respondents consider themselves “regular readers,” with an even higher percentage (94%) reporting they regularly read books, and 100% reporting they regularly read magazines/journals. (The 92% is perhaps an error on the part of one respondent who should have marked “yes” on being a “regular reader.”) Many among the group read fiction and nonfiction books with 43% reporting they prefer fiction and 57% preferring nonfiction. When asked how many books they read per year, the range was from 0 to 100 books with 15 books being the mean. While the range this year is not the largest in the history of the research, the mean of 15 books is the highest to date and is more than three times the low of a few years ago! Respondents acknowledged reading from 0 to 5 daily newspapers with the mean being 2 per day. Interestingly, only one respondent (3%) reported regularly reading books via the internet. About 33% reported regularly reading journals on the internet, and about 23% acknowledged they are a subscriber to an audio club where they receive books on CD or tape. All who are regular readers of books said they plan to read more after they retire. When asked a desirable or optimal number of books for a superintendent to read each year, the range was 3-45, with 14 being the mean and 12 being the median. Respondents were asked to rate on a scale of 1-5 (1 being low and 5 being high) how important the regular reading of books and journals was to their career. They responded with 3% saying a “2” while 9% rated it a “3”and 11% rated it a “4” and 78% gave it a rating of “5.” This represents a dramatic increase over the responses to this questions during the earlier years of this study when there were high
  12. 12. 59 NATIONAL FORUM OF EDUCATIONAL ADMINISTRATION AND SUPERVISION JOURNAL numbers who responded with a “2” or “3” and responses of “4’ or “5” were infrequent events. As noted above, there was a short response question concerning recommended books suggested by the participants as a “must read.” That list will be presented later. Self Assessment The participants were asked to reflect upon their own image and how others perceived them. We asked seven (7) questions which follow immediately with the response data. 1. Would your teachers have described you as an “intelligent young person?” 77% yes, 23% no. 2. Would your teachers have described you as a “strong student?” 57% yes, 43% no. 3. Were you considered a leader (formally/ informally) in your high school? 85% yes, 15% no. 4. Do you consider yourself to be a competitive person? 94% yes, 6% no. 5. Do you feel that you have the ability to “think differently than the crowd?” 100% yes! 6. Did/do you have strong mentors? 79% yes, 21% no. 7. Do you believe you have the ability to “get along well with other people? 94% yes, 6% no. Qualitative Questions In the final section of the survey, we asked seven (7) short answer qualitative questions. One of those questions has already been discusses—the one dealing with the accountability of NCLB. We shall list the remaining questions and provide a sample of the responses to each.
  13. 13. Ben C. DeSpain, Robert L. Marshall, and Chablis P. DeSpain 60 How do you handle criticism of detractors or criticism as a whole? All participants responded to this question. Most answers were short and to the point but nearly all responses contained a key word. Words like “listen” and “learn” appeared in eight responses each. “Reflect,” “collect’” and “consider,” were also used three or four times each. Here are a few samples: • I listen carefully, consider what I hear, thank the critic and then decide what has merit and either use it to improve or move on. • Well, at times it hurts, but I learn from it. • Listen, respond politely, Look for merits of criticism and make appropriate changes, if any. • It always bothers me but I try to learn something from each experience. • Reflect on it and evaluate it for validity and future direction Please briefly describe the first time/experience during which you realized that you were a leader/wanted to be a leader/or would become a leader. Thirty four of thirty five responded to this query. Interestingly, all respondents could provide specific information on this probe. The events occurred during the elementary school years until after college. Elementary school was the time when 24%, (8) participants, realized they wanted to be a leader, high school had 46% (15) respondents realize it, college had 15% (5) individuals, and post college had 15% (5) individuals. A few comments are offered as examples of the responses: • College. Fraternity president. Dealt with a racial issue which was splitting the organization. • Elected 9th grade class president. • High school church youth group.
  14. 14. 61 NATIONAL FORUM OF EDUCATIONAL ADMINISTRATION AND SUPERVISION JOURNAL • I made myself a catcher in little league so I could see the field in its entirety. • When fellow students asked me for advice during my senior year in high school • I was in elementary school and selected captain of the school’s safety patrol. • Boy Scouts . . . U.S. Army, entered at age 19 as private. . left 22 years later as Lt. Col. What are the most important elements (content as well as style) which you expect to find in an outstanding educational leadership candidate’s professional file? Once again Thirty four responses were provided. Many excellent responses were provided which indicate that the respondents can select good leadership candidates. Examples follow: • Good academic credentials, evidence of collaboration with others, ability to make decisions, evidence of high moral character, and in the case of educational leadership, a commitment to doing what is good for children. • Listens well, knowledge of educational issues and strategies, experience as an educator, committed to the cause, strong interpersonal skills. • Strong teaching, character, integrity, work ethic. • Outstanding letters of recommendation, documented community service, successful educational experience, and evidence that the candidate had the ability to lead people. • I look for experience with curriculum and efforts to address student academic achievement. • Willingness and open to new learning. The sincere desire to grow and change to improve leadership skills. • Ability to listen, reflect and learn. The courage to accept input, decide, and act.
  15. 15. Ben C. DeSpain, Robert L. Marshall, and Chablis P. DeSpain 62 • Evidence of integrity, sound judgment, and active commitment to capacity building with and for others. • Integrity, analytical, ability to communicate, reflective, humble. . . What are the most important “things” (qualities, characteristics, responses, etc.) you find in the first moments of the initial interview with an outstanding educational leadership candidate? Thirty-four responses were recorded from participants. Examples follow: • Energy, enthusiasm, people skills, intellect. • Establishing relationships, thoughtfully addressing questions. • Confidence, open, personable, friendly, professional in dress, firm handshake, at ease. • Communication skills, energy, vision, and curiosity. • Dynamic, engaged, focused, high energy, interested and interesting, thoughtful. • Looks you in the eye. Is confident. Good listener. What books do you consider a “must read” for educational leaders? Thirty-three participants responded to this opportunity to select their favorite books for those aspiring to become school leaders. This is the last question on the survey and it provided familiar books and authors. Books from leadership authors and about leadership seemed to dominate but there were also books by writers like Michael Fullen, who is recognized for his work in instructional improvement. There were books written my Steven Covey, John Maxwell, Peter Senge, Patrick Lencioni, Howard Gardner, Jim Collins, T. L. Friedman, Ken Blanchard, and numerous others. The two leading books which were
  16. 16. 63 NATIONAL FORUM OF EDUCATIONAL ADMINISTRATION AND SUPERVISION JOURNAL on eleven lists and ten lists respectively were: Good to Great by Jim Collins and The World is Flat by T. L. Friedman. Summary Getting acquainted with this group and having the opportunity to speak to them and present these findings at the AASA Conference in Tampa in February 2008, was a delightful experience. They gave a genuine welcome and were interested to learn more about themselves. They exhibited gusto for life that was infectious. It is recognized by the researchers that this is a very small sample of the more than 13,000 School superintendents across the United States. Our purpose was never to try to infer any findings from this select group to the greater group. It was and remains our desire to try to discover some unique characteristics, common to this group that may have contributed to their success. Additionally, as students of leadership and both professors and practitioners of the art of leadership, we sought to learn from this group in order that we might better serve our students and mentees. Some remarkable finds were discovered and are presented here. 1. This group of school leaders became engaged deeply within their respective communities at an early age. They remain so today with over 60% still finding time to volunteer. 2. The members of this group are hard working and have always been committed to working as over 80% worked part time during high school. 3. No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has had a profound impact on the members of this group but most of it is perceived as positive. This finding sharply departs from the results of other larger studies.
  17. 17. Ben C. DeSpain, Robert L. Marshall, and Chablis P. DeSpain 64 4. A large percentage of the members of this group recognized their leadership gifts while still students with 85% being involved in a leadership role before leaving high school. 5. Nearly 80% of the members studied reported they were strongly influenced by a mentor, starting as early as middle school. 6. All the respondents, without exception, recognize that they think differently and nearly all think that they get along well with other people. 7. When considering the role and influence of the school, community, and home in the development of the members of this study as they grew up; it appears that there was a change in the significance of each as the child progressed through school. In the elementary years, it was the home, and then the community sponsored activities that held significance in their development with very little impact by the school aside from the formal curriculum. During the middle grades , it was the community and the home based activities sharing most of the load for impacting the development of the child, with the school starting to gain influence as students became interested in the sports program and student government. By high school, it was school sponsored activities that dominated the interest of the child with some considerable remaining interest in community based activities. There was, however a rather strong interest in home sponsored activities—such as swimming, camping, boating, hiking, fishing, hunting, etc— which remained for over 50% of the participants until now. 8. Perhaps it is the impact of the accountability movement, but the attitudes of this year’s participants and the responses they
  18. 18. 65 NATIONAL FORUM OF EDUCATIONAL ADMINISTRATION AND SUPERVISION JOURNAL provided, leads one to think that the “changing of the guard” is rapidly accelerating as the predicted wave of retirements and the ushering in of a “new breed” of school leaders seems to have arrived. They seem to indeed think differently, and appear more positive about the challenges of the future. REFERENCES Allen, R. & Leverich, J. (2007). The views of Wisconsin school superintendents about No Child Left Behind: 2007. Madison, WI: WEAC. Berg, R. L. (2008). The Illinois school superintendency: A summary report of the 2008 (2007-2008 School Year) Survey of Illinois superintendents. Springfield, IL: IASA. Glass, T., Bjork, L., & Brunner, C. C. (2000). The study of the American superintendency, 2000: A look at the superintendent of education in the new millennium. Arlington, VA: AASA. Waters, T., & Marzano, R.J. (2006) School district leadership that works: The effect of superintendent leadership on student achievement. Denver, CO: Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL).