Brookings study: Superintendents might not be as important to student outcomes as others in the school system

7 Sep

In Life expectancy of a superintendent: A lot of bullets and little glory, moi wrote: 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
NPR reported about a Brookings study which indicated that superintendents might not be as important to student outcomes as others in the school system.

Eric Westervelt of NPR reported in the story, The Myth Of The Superstar Superintendent?

“We just don’t see a whole lot of difference in student achievement that correlates with who the superintendent happens to be,” says Matthew Chingos, a senior fellow at the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution. He’s a co-author of what’s likely the first broad study to examine the link between superintendents and student achievement.
Chingos and his co-authors, Grover Whitehurst and Katharine Lindquist, analyzed student test score data from Florida and North Carolina over a 10-year period. His conclusion: Hiring a new superintendent made almost no difference in student success.
Chingos explains the findings this way: “What percentage of differences in student achievement is explained by superintendents? It’s very small, about 0.3 percent.”
The report also says that student achievement does not improve the longer a superintendent serves in a district.
The work of Chingos and his colleagues shows that the “seize the day” school superintendent is largely a fiction. Too often, he says, they’re indistinguishable.
“There are not many examples of people in the data who shot out the lights.”
Chingos argues that the wider school system — including governance, culture, community, the local school board — proves far more important than the individual sitting in the superintendent’s office. “When you see a district that’s doing really well with a visionary superintendent, it may also have a very proactive school board, a very involved community and a whole bunch of other things,” he says.
“We know that the principal and the teacher are so powerful. It’s not the administrator,” says education writer and author Dana Goldstein, who said she was surprised by the study’s results.
Historically, she says, too many superintendents have been paper-pushing administrative overlords wedded to traditionalist views and averse to change. That has changed and evolved, Goldstein says. But not fast enough….

Here is the summary from Brookings:

Report | September 3, 2014
School Superintendents: Vital or Irrelevant?
By: Matthew M. Chingos, Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst and Katharine M. Lindquist
In recent years, research has confirmed that teachers, principals, and school districts have meaningful effects on students’ academic achievement. But what about the highly visible person in charge of the school district? As the highest ranking official in a district, the superintendent receives a lot of credit when things go well, and just as much blame when they don’t. But there is almost no quantitative research that addresses the impact of superintendents on student learning outcomes. “School Superintendents: Vital or Irrelevant?” provides some of the first empirical evidence on the topic.

In this report, the authors examine the extent to which school district effects on student learning are due to the superintendent in charge, as compared to characteristics of districts that are independent of their leaders. Analyzing student-level data from the states of Florida and North Carolina for the school years 2000-01 to 2009-10, the authors find that:
1.School district superintendent is largely a short-term job. The typical superintendent has been in the job for three to four years.
2.Student achievement does not improve with longevity of superintendent service within their districts.
3.Hiring a new superintendent is not associated with higher student achievement.
4.Superintendents account for a very small fraction (0.3 percent) of student differences in achievement. This effect, while statistically significant, is orders of magnitude smaller than that associated with any other major component of the education system, including: measured and unmeasured student characteristics; teachers; schools; and districts.
5.Individual superintendents who have an exceptional impact on student achievement cannot be reliably identified.
Ultimately, the authors conclude that when district academic achievement improves or deteriorates, the superintendent is likely to be playing a part in an ensemble performance in which the superintendent’s role could be filled successfully by many others. In the end, it is the system that promotes or hinders student achievement. Superintendents are largely indistinguishable.

Here are the comments from the National Association of School Boards:

NSBA Comments on Brookings Report on Superintendents’ Impact on Student Achievement
September 3, 2014
Alexandria, Va. (Sept. 3, 2014) – Whether school superintendents are “vital or irrelevant” is the focus of a newly issued report by the Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings. The premise of the report is that it fills the gap in the paucity of available data on the impact of superintendents on student achievement.
Extant research suggests that effective partnership between the school board and the superintendent is critical.
The report relies on a review of student-level administrative data from the states of Florida and North Carolina. The data shared reflect every student in grades 3-8 in North Carolina and 3-10 in Florida who participated in state assessments of reading and mathematics from 2000-01 to 2009-10.
Key findings of the report underscore the report conclusion that by and large, it is the system that promotes or hinders student achievement:
• A majority of superintendents have been on the job only a short time, on average three to four years;
• Longevity of superintendent service within districts does not improve student achievement;
• The simple act of hiring a new superintendent does not translate to higher student achievement;
• As compared to other major components of the education system, such as student characteristics, teachers, schools, and districts, superintendents account for only a small percent of student differences in achievement; and
• Individual superintendents who had an “exceptional impact” on student achievement could not be reliably identified.
The report raises the key question of whether district-level effects are attributable to district characteristics that include, but are not limited to, the make-up and reform orientation of the school board.
“What empowers student achievement is strategic partnership between the governing body, school boards, and the chief school administrator, the superintendent,” said National School Boards Association (NSBA) Executive Director Thomas J. Gentzel. “What is left unsaid in the Brookings report is that such partnership is central toward effective collaboration with principals, teachers, and parents.”
NSBA’s Center for Public Education report “Eight characteristics of effective school boards” found that effective school boards lead as a united team with the superintendent, each from their respective roles, with strong collaboration and mutual trust. In successful districts, boards defined an initial vision for the district and sought a superintendent who matched this vision. In contrast, in stagnant districts, boards were slow to define a vision and often recruited a superintendent with his or her own ideas and platform, leading the board and superintendent to not be in alignment.
# # #
The National School Boards Association (NSBA) is the leading advocate for public education and supports equity and excellence in public education through school board leadership. NSBA represents state school board associations and their more than 90,000 local school board members throughout the U.S. Learn more at:
Brookings report
Center for Public Education report
– See more at: NSBA Comments on Brookings Report on Superintendents’ Impact on Student Achievement | National School Boards Association

Strong leadership at the individual school level is essential for successful schools. Strong leadership requires not only accountability, but authority.


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