Studies Cite Lack of Diversity In Top Positions

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Demand for district superintendents will be substantial in the next few years as a wave of top administrators retires, opening career doors for women and minorities to make gains in a profession in which they're still extremely underrepresented, two reports conclude.

For More Information

Both studies will be available later this month from the AASA publications office at (888) 782-2272, or online at

The national studies are scheduled for release this week at the annual meeting of the American Association of School Administrators in San Francisco. The first is a survey conducted each decade for the Arlington, Va.-based AASA that provides a broad range of data on the people who run the nation's roughly 14,000 school districts.

The second study, "Career Crisis in the School Superintendency?," was led by Bruce S. Cooper of Fordham University in New York City, and involved a survey of 2,979 superintendents from across the country.

According to the AASA study, "The 2000 Study of the American School Superintendency," retirements will create about 1,000 openings each year during the next decade.

"I would assume we're going to see a higher percentage of retirements in the next five years than we have seen the past few years, but we don't have the data to verify an immense crisis" that some observers have warned of, said Thomas E. Glass, an education professor at the University of Memphis and the lead researcher on the AASA report.

Others See Urgency

The study by Mr. Cooper, along with Fordham researcher Lance D. Fusarelli and Vincent A. Carella, an assistant principal at Somers High School in Lincolndale, N.Y., predicts that the demand will be more urgent.

Their survey found that 88 percent of superintendents believe the job itself is in a state of crisis, and that the average superintendent is 58 years old—possibly meaning a deluge of openings, and soon.

"We did find the universal sense of a crisis," Mr. Cooper said. "There is a real crisis, and I think it's something the country is going to have to work through."

The study led by Mr. Cooper shows a different average age for superintendents than the AASA study—58 years compared to 52.5. The difference may be that the Fordham study surveyed more superintendents in larger, urban districts, and focused on the problems in those districts, Mr. Cooper said.

The studies also differ on how many years the average superintendent has been in his or her current job: between five and six years in the AASA study, while Mr. Cooper and his team reported about eight years.

The AASA study found that some retirements might be delayed because most superintendents are happy with their jobs and say they will not seek early retirement. Even so, the superintendents surveyed reported that their level of job stress was extreme.

Opportunities for Women

Mr. Glass blames the news media for leading the public and educators to believe the role of superintendent is in desperate shape. His survey shows that isn't the case, he said, noting that 89 percent of the superintendents said their schools boards approve their recommendations at least 90 percent of the time. "Most school issues are very complex issues," he said, but local news accounts often gloss over those complexities.

Crisis or no crisis, both studies agree that the demand for superintendents will rise, that the representation of women and racial and ethnic minorities in the ranks of superintendents remains far too low, and that the smallest districts could suffer from a lack of well- qualified candidates in the future.

Paul D. Houston

"The average age is older, fewer are applying, and there are barriers to movement. Without some intervention, these present serious prospects," said Paul D. Houston, the executive director of the AASA.

And, while some districts in recent years have begun looking outside the pool of traditional educators for district leadership, the studies suggest that an insufficiently tapped supply of superintendent candidates may be found among educators who are women and members of minority groups.

"Definitely, the talent pool is among women. It's tapping into a new resource, which may be one of the effects of this shortage," Mr. Cooper said.

While the percentage of women superintendents has doubled since 1992, according to Mr. Glass' study—from 6.6 percent to 13.2 percent—an overwhelming majority of superintendents—87 percent—are male.

Minority educators have also made gains, but not nearly as much: They make up 5.1 percent of superintendents, compared with 3.9 percent in 1992, according to the AASA study.

"It appears that minorities are pretty much locked into minority districts. In my knowledge, there are very few minority superintendents in [predominantly white] school districts," Mr. Glass said.

Andrè J. Hornsby, the superintendent of the 26,000-student Yonkers, N.Y., district just outside New York City, said many well-qualified minority candidates hold jobs as assistant superintendents or principals, and often aren't considered for the top positions, though they could make fine superintendents.

"There are qualified candidates out there, but they may never make it to the final cut," said Mr. Hornsby, the president-elect of the National Alliance of Black School Educators. He was an area superintendent in Houston before moving to Yonkers nearly two years ago.

"Once you get a superintendency, it's very easy to get another one," Mr. Hornsby added.

Women of any race encounter similar obstacles, said Karen C. Woodward, the superintendent of the 10,700-student Anderson, S.C., schools.

Many experts and policymakers have long complained of the dearth of female administrators despite the fact that the majority of teachers are women. ("Women Superintendents: Few and Far Between," Nov. 10, 1999.)

Gender is less of a worry in hiring nowadays, Ms. Woodward said, although the AASA study shows most women superintendents say gender discrimination is a problem, while a much smaller percentage of male chiefs say it is a problem.

"The thing that's still disappointing is you'll hear people say, 'They had a woman superintendent last time, and it didn't work'. It's kind of an ingrained cultural stereotype. That's a lot to break through, to be real honest," said Ms. Woodward, who in July will become superintendent of the 17,000-student Lexington, S.C., district, in suburban Columbia.

She cited two factors that could help boost the numbers of women superintendents: encouraging women educators who could make strong leaders to consider moving up the ranks, and selling a management style that may be more comfortable for some women. "They tend to be more team members," she said, a management style that some school boards may want.

The study by Mr. Glass, along with education administration professors Lars Bjork of the University of Kentucky and C. Cryss Brunner of the University of Wisconsin-Madison shows that women superintendents are more likely to consider themselves as mentors, or to have had mentors in the profession, than men.

The study also shows that women more often consider policymaking a shared responsibility with school boards, and are slightly more likely than men to say they seek advice from citizens.

Vol. 19, Issue 25, Page 3

Published in Print: March 1, 2000, as Studies Cite Lack of Diversity In Top Positions
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