Life expectancy of a superintendent: A lot of bullets and little glory

16 Dec

Just about anyone in education has a tough job these days, from the building staff to the superintendent. There is pressure to perform in an environment of declining resources. Lately, the job of superintendent of large urban school districts has been characterized by turnover. Thomas E. Glass in The History of the Urban Superintendent writes:

The twenty-first century finds one-third of America’s public school children attending one of ten large urban (large-city) school districts. By 2020 approximately one-half of public school enrollment will be clustered in twenty districts. The educational stewardship of a majority of the nations youth rests uncomfortably on the shoulders of a very few large-city school superintendents. Their success and the success of their districts may very well determine the future of American democracy.

Urban districts are typically considered to be those located in the inner core of metropolitan areas having enrollments of more than 25,000 students. The research and literature about large-city school districts portray conditions of poverty, chronic academic underachievement, dropouts, crime, unstable school boards, reform policy churn, and high superintendent turnover.

The typical tenure of a superintendent in the largest large-city districts is two to three years. This brief tenure makes it unlikely a superintendent can develop and implement reform programs that can result in higher academic achievement–let alone re-build crumbling schools buildings, secure private sector assistance, and build a working relationship with the city’s political structure.

The large-city superintendency is a position defined by high expectations, intense stress, inadequate resources, and often a highly unstable politicized board of education.
Read more: Superintendent of Large-City School Systems – History of the Urban Superintendent, The Profession, School Boards,

Characteristics of the Large-City Superintendent

Interim Seattle School District Superintendent Dr. Susan Enfield announced that she would not be a candidate for the permanent superintendent position.

Seattle Public Schools has posted the December 16, 2011, ” A message from the Superintendent” which is a letter from Dr. Enfield announcing that she will not be a candidate for the permanent superintendent position in Seattle. Here is a portion of Dr. Enfield’s announcement:

I am incredibly proud of the work our students, teachers, principals and staff have accomplished over the past 10 months. Seattle is fortunate to have such a team of dedicated educational professionals. The progress we have made is significant:

Seattle Public Schools students outperformed the state average in every tested subject in Grades 3-8;
• Our four-year graduation rate is up from 67 percent to 73 percent in the last year;
• Our overall school performance is increasing, with 27 schools increasing their overall performance level during 2010-11;
• Enrollment is on the rise; and
• Our city passed yet another Families and Education levy that will provide essential supports to our students.

While I am proud of what we have accomplished together, today I am announcing my decision to neither seek nor accept the permanent position of superintendent after my contract ends in June. This was not an easy decision for me to make given my commitment to Seattle and to our students. I wish the school board well in their search for a new superintendent, and will work with the new appointee to ensure a smooth transition for our staff, students and families. It is my sincere hope that the board will continue to build on our successes to date and continue the momentum we have built. I believe strongly that losing this momentum would be a disservice to our students and staff.

See, District Administration’s article, Superintendent Staying Power

The National Council of Professors of Educational Administration has an excellent module, Factors Impacting Superintendent Turnover: Lessons from the Field

Superintendent and School Board Relationships

While instructional leadership is integral to the role of superintendent, the increasingly complex political aspects of the job must be handled as well (Education Writers Association, n.d.; Hoyle et al., 2005). Superintendent relationships with school boards were found to be a decisive element of superintendent tenure (Education Writers Association, n.d.). Often, conflict with the school board is cited as a common reason for superintendents leaving a district and hence their attrition (Rausch, 2001). Allen (1998) observed that superintendents listed the relationship with the board as a second reason for involuntary non-extension of a contract, while board members listed relationships with the superintendent as the major cause…

Superintendent Pressures on Multiple Fronts

Most superintendents agree that current issues schools face are similar to those confronted in years past, but not in size or complexity (Orr, 2002). In today’s American public schools, superintendents must guide challenging, dynamic education systems, while appropriately responding to social and political pressures (Rohland, 2002). In addition, Rohland speculated that the high standards and people-intensive nature of school districts are primary reasons the job of superintendent is so demanding. Similar to other professions, ascension on the career ladder in education is associated with increased exposure to criticism (Jazzar & Kimball, 2004). Fullan (1998) opined that due to the complex nature of executive leadership itself, there will always be dissatisfaction among constituents with respect to the leader’s performance. If the number of teachers were multiplied times the number of students, parents, and community members, the possibilities for conflict and outside pressures are endless (Parker, 1996). Success for the superintendent lies in gleaning wisdom from attacks and criticism, without being defeated in the process (Harvey, 2003).

Additional Factors Affecting the Superintendency

Time, one of the superintendent’s most valuable resources, can quickly be exhausted by special interest groups’ demands and community pressures (Glass et al., 2000; Harvey, 2003). According to the Colorado Association of School Executives, (CASE) (2003) the role of superintendent is labor intensive, often requiring 80 or more hours a week. Glass and colleagues (2000) found evidence to support the widely-held belief that the job of superintendent has become increasingly complex, with salary and benefits insufficient for the level of responsibility and accountability demanded. However, superintendents polled by Cooper and his colleagues (2000) have surmised that improved pay and benefits would possibly attract and retain more qualified individuals in the superintendent profession. In regard to superintendent self-perception of effectiveness, lack of fiscal resources was cited as a major reason for inhibiting superintendent effectiveness (CASE, 2003) and for explaining why superintendents are leaving the profession (Glass et al., 2000). In the AASA survey (Glass et al.), superintendents described efforts to obtain sufficient fiscal resources as a never-ending struggle. Too many insignificant demands from various stakeholders and compliance with increased state-mandated reforms was also provided by superintendents as a key factor in hindering superintendent effectiveness.Reports of low superintendent tenure, some as low as 2.5 years (Natkin et al., 2002), have contributed to negativity and a sense of crisis (Cooper et al., 2000) surrounding the superintendency. Nevertheless, existing research does not definitively identify specific factors contributing to superintendent tenure and turnover. The success or failure of various superintendents in the field is a subject that is unclear (Hoyle et al., 2005). Therefore, the purpose of this study is to determine factors or combination of factors contributing to length of tenure and rate of turnover among public school superintendents….

People should be asking questions independent of the qualities of the current interim superintendent of what type of candidate Seattle Public Schools really needs? Then write a job description, and then look for a candidate.


Urban Superintendents, Characteristics and Tenure

Factors Impacting Superintendent Tenure

Superintendent Tenure

Dr. Wilda says this about that ©

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