Although school superintendents are among the most influential people in public education, setting priorities for the nation’s school districts and executing major reforms, comprehensive data on them has historically been lacking—even the most basic data points.
Information about district leaders’ average tenure, demographics, and previous professional experience has generally been limited to surveys with relatively small sample sizes, analyses of individual states, or research about only the country’s largest districts.
The lack of concrete answers leaves the field wondering a lot about some of the most important people in K-12 education.
Now, as questions swirl about the extent to which there’s more superintendent turnover and how quickly the traditionally male-dominated field might reach gender parity, one researcher has endeavored to more definitively answer some of them, creating for the first time a longitudinal database of school superintendents across the country over the past four years.
Rachel White, an assistant professor in the University of Tennessee-Knoxville’s Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies, said she was inspired to undertake her project, in part, because she saw the need for that information. And, as a former member of a school board in Van Wert, Ohio, she recognizes the influence district leaders have.
So she and her research assistants over the past four years have taken a list of the nation’s approximately 13,000 school districts and, often painstakingly, gathered the names of their superintendents each year to track changes and confirmed their gender using sources such as media reports and school board meeting minutes. They’ve obtained statewide superintendents lists where available and scanned countless district websites.
“Without a national, longitudinal dataset of superintendents, there will always be an incomplete understanding of the accuracy of claims about turnover and the magnitude of the gender gap, and constraints on exploring variation in turnover and gender gaps across time and place,” White wrote in a paper published last month in the journal Educational Researcher, noting that it can be extremely difficult to get even state-level data.
In a recent interview, White added that understanding the superintendency is important, because district leaders are setting visions and making decisions about resources that affect the classroom.
“They do have a bully pulpit and they can be really powerful people, and if they’re making those decisions and wielding that power from the perspective of mostly white men—and we know they have certain experiences that are not better or worse—but we’re missing out on understanding and seeing the leadership that comes from the experiences of a woman or leaders of color,” White said.
There’s still much to learn, but thanks to White’s research, here are three new things we know about superintendents.
1. The superintendent gender gap has narrowed some, but not much
White and her research assistants have assembled one of the first, if not the first, nationally representative datasets examining superintendents’ gender. Previously, research was limited to small samples or state-level reviews.
White found that the superintendent gender gap has narrowed slightly over the past four years, but not by much. In 2019-20, men accounted for 74 percent of all superintendents, compared with 72 percent in 2022-23.
Put another way, in 2019-20, there were 2.9 men in superintendent positions for every one woman, a figure that dropped to 2.6 in 2022-23.
Her research also found that districts are just as likely to have a male superintendent with one of 15 first names as they are to have a female superintendent with any name.
Some states are closer to closing the gender gap than others.
White found that Vermont has a nearly 1-to-1 ratio of men to women in superintendent positions, while Utah has more than eight men for every woman superintendent.
Over the past four years, the states that made the greatest progress toward closing the gender gap were Kansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, North Dakota, and Ohio. The states that backtracked the most were Indiana, Nebraska, South Carolina, and South Dakota.
The nation is on track to reach gender parity at the superintendent level by 2035, White found. But if that happens, it’ll be the result of a small number of states evening the gap, she said.
The male dominance of the superintendency is even more striking given how female dominated the teaching profession is. More than three-quarters of teachers are female, as well as 56 percent of principals.
2. Districts were most likely to replace outgoing superintendents with a leader of the same gender
Superintendent turnover rates increased by almost three percentage points over the past four years, from 14.2 percent between 2019-20 and 2020-21 to 17.1 percent between 2021-22 and 2022-23, seemingly confirming anecdotal reports that superintendent turnover increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sixty-two percent of school districts did not have superintendent turnover across all four years, while 33 percent had one superintendent turn over and 5 percent experienced two or more changes in the superintendency.
The turnover created opportunities for women to assume more superintendent positions. Turnover grew at nearly twice the rate for men as for women over the four years White studied.
“Because women need to be replacing outgoing men to close the superintendent gender gap, this increase in turnover rate for men opened the door to narrowing the superintendent gender gap,” White wrote in her paper. “Nonetheless, among districts that experienced turnover, very few hired a new superintendent that was a different gender than their prior superintendent.”
Across all four years, 51 percent of districts that experienced turnover replaced an outgoing man with another man, and 11.1 percent replaced an outgoing woman with another woman.
The proportion of districts that replaced a man with a woman decreased over the course of the pandemic, from 22.1 percent between 2019-20 and 2020-21 to 20.8 percent in 2021-22 and 2022-23.
“The glass ceiling of the superintendency remains exceptionally thick,” White wrote, adding that men make up about three out of every four superintendents, “as they have since the turn of the century.”
3. Women tend to lead higher-needs districts
Across all districts and years, town and suburban districts had significantly higher superintendent turnover rates than urban districts.
Districts with larger populations of students of color were more likely to see a change in superintendent during the study period.
Women were more likely to lead districts with larger populations of students of color, English learners, and students in special education.
“Taken together, these results suggest that men left and women stayed in districts with higher proportions of students who have been intentionally segregated, underserved, and disenfranchised in America’s public schools,” the paper says. “And not only did women stay in districts with higher proportions of students who have been underserved and disenfranchised, but they were also most likely to be hired in these districts.”