Superintendents left their roles in about 1 in 5 of the nation’s 500 largest school districts last school year—a sign that stressors that have destabilized educational leadership in recent years have not abated.
Of those districts, 107, or 21.4 percent of them, lost a leader during the 2022-23 school year, according to a new analysis by ILO Group, an education consulting firm.
That high level of leadership churn continues a pandemic-era trend: About half of the 500 largest districts replaced a superintendent between March 2020 and September 2022, some multiple times, ILO Group previously found.
The transitions come as districts face urgent work in learning recovery, student engagement, employee morale, and the impending deadline to spend federal COVID relief aid.
Volatility in leadership can set those efforts back, said Julia Rafal-Baer, ILO Group’s CEO.
“Leaders have an enormous responsibility in these roles,” she said. “Our kids’ success requires having stable, focused leadership.”
The ILO Group data echoes others’ findings on turnover among district leaders.
Rachel White, an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, also found an uptick in leadership departures after her team collected and analyzed four years of data from the nation’s more than 13,000 districts.
Superintendent turnover rates increased from 14.2 percent between 2019-20 and 2020-21 to 17.1 percent between 2021-22 and 2022-23, they found.
In polls, school and district leaders have identified increased public scrutiny and divisive politics as causes of heightened stress.
Eighty percent of superintendents responding to a May survey by the RAND Corporation and the Center on Reinventing Public Education said their jobs are “often” or “always” stressful. And 88 percent of respondents cited “the intrusion of political issues and opinions into schooling” as a source of stress at work.
Recognizing the importance of steady district leadership, states and educational organizations have launched programs to help prepare future superintendents and to support and mentor those who are new to the job.
For example, the Council of the Great City Schools, an organization that works with large school systems, launched a program in January to prepare senior-level urban district leaders to take over the top job.
“We want them to be successful,” former Dallas superintendent Michael Hinojosa, who leads the program, told Education Week at the time, “and we want them to have staying power.”