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Research indicates life-long learning is essential for success of school superintendents

Beyond formal education, public school superintendents must continue to sharpen their skills and rely on knowledge obtained on the job to be successful, says Gary Ivory, an associate professor of educational management and development at New Mexico State University.

Gary Ivory, left, an associate professor in the New Mexico State University College of Education, discusses various aspects of his research with graduate student Sanaa Shindi, who is finishing up a master's in educational administration with an emphasis in higher education. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

"Preparation programs target proficiency, but we need to look at helping people become life-long learners and how to use different types of knowledge to be good leaders," Ivory said.

Ivory and colleagues Adrienne E. Hyle and Rhonda L. McClellan, both at the University of Texas at Arlington, conducted a qualitative study of small district (1,000 or less students) superintendents in the Midwest, southwest and west, and southeast, to determine the types of knowledge superintendents were most using to inform their decisions.

Ivory said that traditional types of knowledge are declarative and procedural - declarative being facts, while procedural is how to do things. However, the study indicated that superintendents are often using what the researchers defined as "hidden content knowledge." Ivory said there are three types of hidden content knowledge - informal or educated common sense, impressionistic or intuition and self-regulating or knowledge of how to handle oneself in a variety of situations.

Ivory said that it is important to preparatory programs to make their students aware of the need for these types of knowledge, but that it can be hard to actually emulate them in a classroom setting. This is why Ivory says professional development is critical beyond formal education, but that it should be broader.

"Superintendents have a lot of opportunities for professional development, but they focus on declarative and procedural knowledge. We think school leadership can be improved if we offer them more opportunities to grow as problem solvers," Ivory said.

Ivory indicated that this will be an important consideration as the leadership of public school systems continues to get more complicated.

"Our society is asking for and needing better and better education out of its public school systems, but because we are a diverse democracy and we have different views on how we should accomplish this, leadership of school systems is becoming more complex," he said. " We are asking for better learning under more difficult conditions, so the role of the superintendent and the need for life-long learning is more important than ever."

Ivory and his colleagues recently discussed their work on a blog talk radio program hosted by the University Council for Educational Administration (UCEA), a consortium of higher education institutions committed to advancing the preparation and practice of educational leaders for the benefit of schools and children. A link to the archived broadcast is available at