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What’s the Best Background for a Superintendent?

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — May 15, 2013 3 min read
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The school district in Wake County, North Carolina, which is the largest in the state and encompasses the Raleigh metro area, named four semi-finalists for its superintendency last week, according to the Raleigh News & Observer. The school board’s chair, Keith Sutton, said that all four of those candidates are “veteran educators.”

The district will release the names of finalists publicly for the first time since 1995. The board hopes to have a new superintendent in place by the time Stephen Gainey, the interim superintendent, leaves in July.

I wrote about the search for new district leaders in 17 noteworthy urban school districts, including Wake County, for last week’s issue of Education Week. Each of those searches brings up its own set of questions. In Wake, one is whether districts are more or less interested in candidates for the superintendency who have not worked in school districts before.

The last permanent superintendent in the Raleigh area, Anthony J. Tata, was a nontraditional candidate (a former brigadier general) trained by the Broad Academy. He was dismissed by the district’s school board, which was politically divided, after twenty months last fall, and is now leading the state’s department of transportation. The school board now in charge is different than the one in place when Tata was fired.

When we spoke a few weeks ago, Keith Sutton, the chairman of the school board, said that while the board would not rule out a candidate who has been a successful superintendent elsewhere, it would prefer to hire “someone who has an education background, someone who’s been an administrator.”
Of course, the traditional/nontraditional question is not the only thing at play in Wake or in any big district. But I was curious about whether there were any patterns in superintendents’ backgrounds.

For years now, the pipeline of superintendents has contained both traditional educators and those who have come to school systems from the military, business, and elsewhere, says Kenneth Wong, a professor of education at Brown University. “There are a lot of superintendents coming through alternative certification programs like the Broad Academy,” he said. “My sense is that it’s likely that these searches are going to continue to rely on this mixed pool.”

At least in Indianapolis and Prince George’s County in Maryland, those leading the search said they are open to leaders with less direct education experience. According to the Indianapolis Star, both traditional and nontraditional candidates have already applied for the job in Indianapolis.

Mike Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, said that overall, “in the last 15 years, the number of traditional versus nontraditionals, insiders versus outsiders, has stayed generally pretty consistent, with the exception that there’s been a slight increase in number coming from inside of their own district.”

But Dan Domenech, the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, said that he had noted a slowdown in the hiring of nontraditional superintendents, “primarily because the nontraditional superintendents haven’t had any greater success than traditional superintendents.” He also said, however, that it can be hard to lure the best people in the district to such a challenging and public job.

I also spoke with Neerav Kingsland, the executive director of New Schools for New Orleans, and Andy Smarick, a partner with education consulting firm Bellwether. Both suggested that struggling urban districts need a different kind of leader altogether—one who’s intent not on “fixing” the district, but on reducing the size of a central office and changing its role to give schools more autonomy. Kingsland calls this kind of leader a “Relinquisher”, and says that this kind of strategy is different even than what districts have seen from so-called nontraditional leader. As of yet, however, there is no “Relinquisher’s Academy,” and it’s not clear what the market for one would be.

But, as we begin to hear who will be running the districts featured my article this week, it will be interesting to note whether Domenech’s observation holds true—that districts are looking more to veteran educators to fill top leadership spots—or whether we see a new round of “nontraditional” folks—or whether we see something else altogether.

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.