Superintendents Content in Jobs, But Stressed, Too

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Today’s school district leaders overwhelmingly have positive relationships with their school boards, tend to be satisfied in their jobs, and think of themselves as effective, according to a survey of more than 1,300 superintendents nationwide released last week.

But many of the respondents believe the No Child Left Behind Act has had a negative impact on education. Many also describe themselves as experiencing “considerable” or “very great” stress in their jobs, which the study suggested was because of the federal law or such strains as tight funding and conflicting community demands.

The survey, conducted on behalf of the American Association of School Administrators, offers a snapshot of characteristics of the nation’s school district leaders. The report was written by professor Thomas E. Glass and Louis A. Franceschini, an educational researcher, both based at the University of Memphis in Tennessee.

The association, based in Arlington, Va., has surveyed its members about once a decade since 1923, but with the signing of the No Child Left Behind legislation into law in 2002, the group’s board of directors decided to conduct its first mid-decade report. The last survey was completed in 2000.

Conducting the superintendents’ survey every five years or so may become the norm in an era of fast-paced change, said Paul D. Houston, the executive director of the AASA. “We may need a more frequent look at the profession,” he said, explaining that the board’s thinking was that “we can’t wait 10 years to see where we stand.”

The survey was conducted in May 2006. E-mail and print questionnaires were sent to 7,958 superintendents with e-mail addresses on file with the association. By June of last year, 1,338 superintendents had responded. Mr. Glass said the sample offered a proportional representation of superintendents by district type and size.

‘Sense of Purpose’

About 93 percent of the respondents said they had “good” or “very good” relationships with their school boards—a sentiment that may seem at odds with well-publicized conflicts between superintendents and boards. But, the report noted, “contract buyouts, nonrenewals, and firings are public dismissals, and happen much more infrequently than portrayed in the media.”

District Chiefs’ Views of Changes Most Needed in NCLB Law

Randall H. Collins, the AASA president-elect and the superintendent of the 3,000-student Waterford, Conn., school district, said that he’s worked well with his boards ever since he became a superintendent 26 years ago. Good relationships, though, tend not to get much press, he said.

While 59 percent of the superintendents reported feeling “considerable” or “very great” stress in their jobs, 90 percent said they felt satisfied or very satisfied in those jobs. Considering how stressful superintendents seem to find their jobs, it’s surprising that they like it so much, Mr. Houston said.

“I do think superintendents are driven by a real sense of purpose,” he said. However, anecdotally, Mr. Houston said superintendents feel hamstrung by some of the mandates of federal education policy. The No Child Left Behind law calls for all students to be proficient in reading and mathematics by the end of the 2013-14 school year, and it holds schools and districts responsible for progress toward that goal.

But with the focus on those two subjects, “your latitude to create a well-rounded curriculum is being affected,” Mr. Houston said. In the survey, 40 percent said they would like NCLB to measure students on their academic growth over time.

The law also requires states to test students’ performance in reading and math annually in grades 3-8 and at least once in high school. Results must be reported by different student subgroups, including for racial and ethnic minorities, students receiving free or reduced-price lunches, and students who are learning English.

Demographic Shifts

“We needed the emphasis on how different groups are doing” under the NCLB law, said Jerry D. Weast, the superintendent of the 138,000-student Montgomery County, Md., district. “What we don’t need is the specificity, and the structure.” The federal government is too prescriptive in mandating how schools must show achievement, Mr. Weast said.

The report also highlights some of the shifting demographics of school superintendents. The survey respondents’ group averaged about 55 years in age, the oldest of any previous AASA survey group. While the age trend is worrisome because many district leaders are reaching retirement age, the demographics also show that the number of women entering the profession is growing.

About 22 percent of the superintendents responding to the survey are women, compared with 16 percent in the 2000 survey and 6.6 percent in a survey conducted in 1992. The proportion of superintendents who are members of racial or ethnic minority groups remained relatively low, at 6.2 percent in the new survey, compared with 5.1 percent in 2000 and about 4 percent in 1992.

Sarah D. Jerome, the current president of the AASA and only the second woman to hold that office, said that professional organizations are making efforts to reach out to educators with leadership potential who might not otherwise pursue the superintendency.

“Women sometimes don’t think of themselves in the next leadership role,” said Ms. Jerome, the superintendent of the 5,000-student Arlington Heights, Ill., school district. “But with the prompting, that then begins their thinking about it, and their preparation.”

Vol. 27, Issue 06, Page 7

Published in Print: October 3, 2007, as Superintendents Content in Jobs, But Stressed, Too
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