Education Week - May 16, 2018 - 12
How Often Do Urban Districts Change Superintendents?
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tendents last based on gender and
a school district's demographics.
* Women had tenures that were
about 15 months shorter than men.
* Superintendents in districts
serving the highest percentages of
students of color stayed less than
half as long as those in districts that
enrolled few students of color.
* Superintendents left nearly 3.5
years earlier in districts serving
students at the highest poverty levels. The average completed tenure
in districts where more than 76
percent of students were low-income
was 5.13 years.
* The larger the district, the
shorter the tenure. In districts with
more than 100,000 students, superintendents stayed on the job for 5
years on average, compared to 6.62
years in districts with fewer than
The analysis also revealed a striking finding about the graduates of
the Broad Center's three education
leadership programs: Superintendents affiliated with the Broad
Center had stays that were about
40 percent shorter, with an average
tenure of 3.5 years.
The report does not delve into why
superintendents leave, why women
have shorter tenures, or why turnover is higher in districts serving
large numbers of students of color
and poor students. But short tenure and high turnover in high-need
districts have major implications for
students and the field, said Becca
Bracy Knight, the Broad Center's
"If these are systems where there
are greater challenges, where students are relying on the public
education systems even more than
in some other communities, if they
are getting the quicker revolving
door, if they are getting more turnover at the leadership levels, that
cannot be good for the education
systems that they are in," she said.
Setting the Record Straight
And at a time when there is more
discussion about diversifying the
superintendent ranks, the data
suggest that female superintendents may face some of the same
challenges as their peers in other
" This is not just going to be
about more women stepping into
the role," Knight said. "There is
probably something about how we
are responding to women in these
roles that we may need to take a
Short tenures for women and superintendents in districts with high
percentages of low-income students
and students of color are "troubling,"
said Thomas Gentzel, the executive director of the National School
Many of those districts face funding challenges and external political
pressures that require a "unique
skill set." That often forces school
boards to rely on a small group of
candidates who have the experience
running similar systems.
But Gentzel bristles at the emphasis on the superintendent as the sole
leader in a district. The board and
the superintendent should be "copilots."
"One of the flawed premises," he
said, is "the assumption that the
superintendent is sort of the sole
driver of change and you need the
same superintendent in the role for
a period of time to effect the change.
The flaw with that, as I see it, is
that it puts the school board in a
position of just being a supporting
body ... and I think that's exactly the
The popular narrative that bigcity superintendents last just about
three years came from a 2014 survey by the Council of the Great City
Schools, the Washington-based advocacy group for the nation's urban
districts and the state of Hawaii.
The Council did a survey-53 of
its then 66 members responded-
and found that superintendents
were in their current jobs for an av-
There is a lot of talk
about this job being
a revolving door ... and
I think that affects the
expectations we have
for the job."
BECCA BRACY KNIGHT
Executive Director, Broad Center
erage of 3.18 years, while the average completed tenure was 4.5 years.
The first number gained traction,
while the second, which is more directly related to how long big-city
superintendents stay in their roles,
was virtually ignored.
The Broad Center analysis looking just at superintendent tenure
in the council's member districts
closely tracks what the council
found. Knight said it was important
to set the record straight about how
long superintendents were staying
on the job.
The misconception that big-city
superintendents are gone in a
flash may have affected the hiring process, the applicant pool,
and how both boards and districts
responded to new superintendents
once they started to make changes.
It could be difficult to get buy-in
from central office staffers who
may assume the new superintendent may not be around very long
and they'll have to repeat the same
process in a few years.
"There is a lot of talk about this
job being a revolving door-that
you can't stay in it very long-and
I think that affects the expectations we have for the job," Knight
said. "Sometimes that means we
can lower our expectations for the
job if people feel like a superintendent doesn't matter because they
12 | EDUCATION WEEK | May 16, 2018 | www.edweek.org
are only going to last a few years, or
how much change can really happen
if you're only here for a few years."
Understanding that "the average
tenure is actually six years, I think,
can change our expectations for
what can happen," she said.
Dan Domenech, the executive
director of the AASA, the School
Superintendents Association, says
that whether superintendents
stay for three or six years, that's
still too short a period of time for
a school superintendent to spend
in the role.
Still, he doesn't think that how
long you might last in the job is a
major consideration for candidates.
The biggest factor "to people applying for the job is that it's a very
difficult job, it's a political job, and
it's a tough challenge," he said.
THE CHURN AT THE TOP LOOKS DIFFERENT
Male superintendents outlast female schools chiefs
Sense of Urgency
Broad Center-affiliated leaders'
short tenures stand out, particularly because of the center's focus
on training school leaders to make
quick and dramatic changes to
boost student academic achievement. Some of those superintendents have been criticized for a
hostility toward teachers' unions
and failing to consult the community when making major decisions.
Several have faced public backlash
for closing schools, slashing budgets, and clashing with the boards
that hired them.
While some of those leaders have
had long tenures-Wendy Robinson,
for example, has led the Fort Wayne,
Ind., district since 2003-others
quickly exited their jobs, either because they were pushed out or they
went to other districts.
It could be that Broad's programs
attract candidates who approach the
superintendency with a sense of urgency, leading them to make tough
decisions that may not be well-received locally, Knight said.
Still, Knight said, the center has
begun making changes for candidates who would lead school districts. Among those changes: listening more to the community, being
thoughtful about how changes are
phased in, and thinking about sustaining the changes even when they
are no longer around.
With data collection ending in
September 2017, the report doesn't
capture turnover in a number of
districts, including the nation's
three largest. The report does not
count superintendents serving on
an interim basis who did not end up
being permanently hired for the job.
And another major limitation was
that there was no reliable method to
capture superintendents' race and
Despite the turnover in many
large districts, some systems have
held on to their schools chiefs for
more than a decade.
Those superintendents include J.
Alvin Wilbanks, who has been at
the helm in Gwinnett County, Ga.,
for 22 years, and Christopher Steinhauser, the superintendent of California's Long Beach school district,
on the job nearly 16 years.
The higher the poverty levels, the shorter the stay for superintendents
proportion of low-income students
More students of color in a district corresponded to shorter completed
tenures for superintendents
proportion of students of color
SOURCE: Broad Center analysis of superintendent tenure in the 100 largest school districts; 2003-2017.
Turnover at the Top in Chicago's Public Schools
Janice K. Jackson
Terry Mazany (interim)
2010 - 2011
SOURCE: Education Week