School & District Management

The Current State of the Superintendency: 4 Things to Know

By Stephen Sawchuk — March 11, 2022 4 min read
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Like John Dewey’s teaching theories, “A Nation at Risk,” and the 1965 passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the COVID-19 pandemic will go down in history as a major inflection point for K-12 education.

Among the players it has most affected: superintendents, the leaders of the nation’s diffuse school systems. They have had to pivot to endless changes in masking and health policy. They’ve faced disruptive school board meetings, as fractious national politics have come home to roost. They are now in charge of spending a wave of federal cash meant to help students catch up academically.

In light of these pressures, Education Week took a look at the state of the superintendent force. We wanted to understand whether turnover would increase and whether it would affect certain demographics. We wondered what implications it would have for school boards—whose most important job is selecting and evaluating the superintendent. And we wanted to see where things stand for women leaders, who have faced some of the most intense criticism.

Here are 4 big takeaways from this reporting, plus plenty of links for you to explore our findings in more depth.

1. At least in some settings, superintendent turnover is higher.

There is no year-over-year national superintendent data collection to answer the question about turnover, but analysts are now constructing clever workarounds to get at some estimates. Their general conclusion: It is higher in the most-populous districts.

One estimate looking at just the 100 largest school districts found that turnover rates over the 2020-21 and 2021-22 years approached 25 percent. The RAND Corp, meanwhile, also found that turnover was higher in urban districts from fall 2020 to fall 2021, at about 18 percent, but seemed more stable elsewhere.

(For comparison’s sake, estimates of “normal” turnover are rough, too. They fall in the range of around 13 percent to 16 percent annually.)

2. Superintendents are definitely considering leaving, though many are likely to stay

Just like teachers, many superintendents say they’ve considered leaving the profession. And as with teachers, what’s not as clear is how many will follow through.

The findings, from a variety of different surveys—of various sample sizes and designs—are probably best interpreted as a symptom of frustration and exhaustion at dealing with the momentous health, political, and social changes of the last two years. Two surveys found that about a quarter of superintendents said they were looking for a way out or another job. In a third survey, more than 60 percent said they’d at least had thoughts about quitting their current jobs.

The data suggest an amplified desire for connection among those holding the difficult top job. AASA, the Superintendents’ Association; the Council of the Great City Schools; and other nonprofits like the Louisville, Ky.-based Schlechty Center all operate cross-state networks for superintendents. There’s room for additional ones that help meet superintendents’ needs for a friendly ear, professional support, and the opportunity to compare strategies, leadership experts say.

“There is still a window of opportunity. What can we do to make sure district leaders with experience can feel more successful in the role? How do we keep them in seats to support students and avoid massive turnover?” said Ben Court, the director of strategic research for the District Leadership Forum, a network run by EAB, a consulting group.

3. Hiring great superintendent talent is getting more complex

A combination of more places looking to hire and the changing nature of the pipeline mean hiring district leaders is highly competitive. School boards will need to consider greener talent, conduct some internal soul-searching about vision, and probably be prepared to open their wallets.

Hiring experts and those who work in leadership-pipeline programs predict that more districts may have to turn to deputy superintendents or other district leaders with less experience, because superintendents in stable districts are less likely to leave those at this point.

They recommend that school boards model good governance in order to get the widest pools possible; that they consider women candidates, who often hold the right degrees but are disadvantaged in searches; and think about innovative contracts that explicitly recognize the challenges of the job.

4. The pandemic has put the challenges faced by women superintendents into stark light

From racist emails and foul language to threats, the job over the last two years has been particularly difficult for women. They’ve faced gendered criticism about their leadership capabilities above and beyond what many male leaders have had to field.

And as superintendent turnover has increased, boards in big cities appear to be hiring men at a disproportionate rate—threatening what’s been slow progress to bring more women into the field. (A little more than a quarter of superintendents are women.)

“It is shocking, and should be sounding the alarm for everyone who believes in basic equity,” said Julia Rafal-Baer, a co-founder of the ILO Group, a woman-led education policy and leadership organization.

The reasons for these patterns are complex, but researchers point to longstanding problems, including less access to mentors, biased hiring, and even the women leaders’ unwillingness to apply for the job because they perceive a lack of support. There’s also some indication that the patterns could be tied to factors like district size, state credentialing criteria, and demographics of the schools in the districts they tend to lead.

Now is a good time to consider how contracts can better prioritize a work-life balance, good board relations, and other factors likely to appeal to women candidates, say those who study the issue.

Coverage of leadership, summer learning, social and emotional learning, arts learning, and afterschool is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

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