Study: Superintendents leave jobs in large school districts within three years

4 Dec

Moi wrote about school superintendents in Life expectancy of a superintendent: A lot of bullets and little glory:

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

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….

Education week has an article about a California study which examined superintendent turnover.

Sarah D. Sparks is reporting in the Education Week article, Study: More Churn at the Top in Large Districts:

Running one of the nation’s largest school districts typically comes with prestige and pay that draw would-be educational superstars, but also pressure and political complexity that cause them to burn out far faster than leaders of the majority of districts.

A study published in the December issue of the American Educational Research Journal finds in 90 percent of 100 California districts studied, 43 percent of superintendents left within three years—but 71 percent of superintendents left the largest 10 percent of districts, which include those of 29,000 or more students, during that time….

While superintendent turnover has not received as much focus from researchers or policymakers as teacher or principal turnover, stability at the central office has been linked to a greater likelihood of success for new education initiatives, which typically take five to seven years to mature.

One analysisRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader of more than 2,700 districts by the Denver-based Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning, or McREL, found that a one standard deviation improvement in the quality of a superintendent, as measured by researchers’ criteria, was associated with a 9.5 percentile-point gain on state tests for the average district, and that student achievement growth was linked to longer tenures of district leaders…

A dysfunctional school board topped the list of reasons superintendents moved, the California study found. While the researchers initially separated the board’s internal functioning from its relationship with the district’s chief executive, “it turns out the school boards who function well together … are also the ones who are working well with their superintendents,” Mr. Grissom said.

While the study did not find a link between low test-score growth and superintendent turnover, Mr. Domenech of the AASA said poor executive and school board relations can become a self-reinforcing cycle with turnover.

“A board will hire a superintendent, but then in a period of three to five years, that board turns over,” he said, “and that superintendent is not the one they hired and there isn’t the same loyalty.

“In districts where you see the superintendents come and go, in some cases every year, those are dysfunctional because there’s never the length and the tenure necessary to make changes that are sustainable,” said Mr. Domenech. A superintendent for nearly 30 years, he previously led districts in Fairfax County, Va., and Long Island, N.Y.

Hiring From Within

The power of continuity may help explain one hopeful finding in the study: Nearly three out of four leaders hired from within the district were still there three years later.

“The ones who are hired from within are not just a little more likely to stay; they’re a lot more likely to stay,” Mr. Grissom said. “That finding was pretty stark.”

That makes sense to Mr. Domenech, who said homegrown leaders often have local roots that keep them in place. And they are already familiar with a system that can take a year or more for a newcomer to learn, he said.


Why Superintendents Turn Over

  1. Jason A. Grissom and
  2. Stephanie Andersen

+ Author Affiliations

  1. Vanderbilt University
  2. Washington University in St. Louis

Although superintendent turnover can hinder district reform and improvement, research examining superintendent exits is scarce. This study identifies factors contributing to superintendent turnover in California by matching original superintendent and school board survey data with administrative data and information hand-collected from news sources on why superintendents left and where they went. Among 215 superintendents studied beginning in 2006, 45% exited within 3 years. Using a multinomial framework to separate retirements from other turnover, the authors find that factors such as how highly the school board rates its own functioning and the superintendent’s performance and whether the superintendent was hired internally strongly predict non-retirement exits 3 years later. Short-term district test score growth, however, is uncorrelated. Superintendents who move migrate away from rural districts toward larger, higher-paying districts in urban and suburban locations.

Published online before print October 10, 2012, doi: 10.3102/0002831212462622 Am Educ Res J December 2012 vol. 49 no. 6 1146-1180

  1. » AbstractFree

  2. Full Text

  3. Full Text (PDF)

No institution can possibly survive if it needs geniuses or supermen to manage it. It must be organized in such a way as to be able to get along under a leadership composed of average human beings.

Peter Drucker


Urban Superintendents, Characteristics and Tenure

Factors Impacting Superintendent Tenure

Superintendent Tenure

Where information leads to Hope. ©                  Dr.

Dr. Wilda says this about that ©

Blogs by Dr. Wilda:


Dr. Wilda Reviews ©                                     

Dr. Wilda ©                                                                            

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: