The political sophistication of district-transforming superintendents

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Alemán, Delfino Miguel

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The purpose of this study was to explore the perceived political sophistication of two selected urban superintendents: one who transformed the school district into a significantly improved school system and the other who successfully initiated school improvement measures. It was an attempt to understand and describe the political thinking, knowledge, skill, and participation of two unique superintendents. Contemporary educational leadership research has identified the actions and political skills of community-creating superintendents (e.g., Johnson, 1996; Owens, 1997). However, they are not anchored in the political science literature. Nevertheless, there is a vacuum in the educational community’s understanding of the urban superintendent’s political sophistication. The current economic, political, and social environment of large cities requires superintendents to have political expertise. Qualitative research methodology was used to investigate the questions of the study. The study’s approach was multi-site and multi-case. The study analyzed primary data from interviews with superintendents, school board trustees, city leaders, and other selected leaders. The data indicated that urban district-transforming superintendents have a sophisticated level of political expertise. They interpreted the political dimension of their position as a political symbol, contextual engagement, communication, child-centered advocacy, values-driven resource allocation, and pragmatic problem management. Furthermore, the data indicated that their political expertise has at its core a value for fairness, a care ethic and an agenda that calls for maximizing human development through quality education. The superintendents’ political sophistication roots have their origins in the family’s political culture and environment. The occupation-experience stage of their political socialization process was critical in the development of district-transforming superintendents. They viewed communication as a political skill category. Five distinct kinds of communication were identified. The data also indicated that political knowledge use was a political conceptualization category. Eight knowledge types were identified. The superintendents interpreted political strategy as a thinking/planning category. Nine strategies were identified. Outside of education, the superintendents engaged in two kinds of political activities: voting and contributing to election campaigns. Finally, recommendations were made for training and further research.