School & District Management

How Long Do Big-City Superintendents Actually Last?

By Denisa R. Superville — May 15, 2018 7 min read
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Since December, at least five big-city school districts have hired new superintendents.

Chicago. New York. Seattle. Los Angeles. Las Vegas.

Houston, left without a schools CEO when Richard Carranza departed after less than two years to run the New York City schools, will be on the hunt soon, too.

The District of Columbia is also in the superintendent market after an enrollment scandal forced out the still-new schools chief there.

It’s been a churn of K-12 executives that seems to reinforce a widely held belief: Urban schools chiefs barely make it past three years on the job.

But a new report from the Los Angeles-based Broad Center is debunking that misconception.

Big-city superintendents stick around for closer to five and a half years, and those who run the country’s 100 largest school districts, by enrollment, stay on average for 6 years, according to the Broad Center’s analysis of superintendent tenure in those districts between 2003 and September 2017.

And the current superintendents in the 100 largest districts have been in their role for close to four years, the report said.

The Broad Center, which is funded by the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, offers leadership and management training for current and aspiring superintendents and senior school district executives.

Its analysis of schools chiefs’ longevity revealed striking differences in how long superintendents last based on gender and a school district’s demographics.

• Women had tenures that were about 15 months shorter than men.

• Superintendents in districts serving the highest percentages of students of color stayed less than half as long as those in districts that enrolled few students of color.

• Superintendents left nearly 3.5 years earlier in districts serving students at the highest poverty levels. The average completed tenure in districts where more than 76 percent of students were low-income was 5.13 years.

• The larger the district, the shorter the tenure. In districts with more than 100,000 students, superintendents stayed on the job for 5 years on average, compared to 6.62 years in districts with fewer than 100,000 students.

The analysis also revealed a striking finding about the graduates of the Broad Center’s three education leadership programs: Superintendents affiliated with the Broad Center had stays that were about 40 percent shorter, with an average tenure of 3.5 years.

The report does not delve into why superintendents leave, why women have shorter tenures, or why turnover is higher in districts serving large numbers of students of color and poor students. But short tenure and high turnover in high-need districts have major implications for students and the field, said Becca Bracy Knight, the Broad Center’s executive director.

“If these are systems where there are greater challenges, where students are relying on the public education systems even more than in some other communities, if they are getting the quicker revolving door, if they are getting more turnover at the leadership levels, that cannot be good for the education systems that they are in,” she said.

Setting the Record Straight

And at a time when there is more discussion about diversifying the superintendent ranks, the data suggest that female superintendents may face some of the same challenges as their peers in other sectors.

“This is not just going to be about more women stepping into the role,” Knight said. “There is probably something about how we are responding to women in these roles that we may need to take a look at.”

Short tenures for women and superintendents in districts with high percentages of low-income students and students of color are “troubling,” said Thomas Gentzel, the executive director of the National School Boards Association.

Many of those districts face funding challenges and external political pressures that require a “unique skill set.” That often forces school boards to rely on a small group of candidates who have the experience running similar systems.

But Gentzel bristles at the emphasis on the superintendent as the sole leader in a district. The board and the superintendent should be “co-pilots.”

“One of the flawed premises,” he said, is “the assumption that the superintendent is sort of the sole driver of change and you need the same superintendent in the role for a period of time to effect the change. The flaw with that, as I see it, is that it puts the school board in a position of just being a supporting body ... and I think that’s exactly the reverse.”

The popular narrative that big-city superintendents last just about three years came from a 2014 survey by the Council of the Great City Schools, the Washington-based advocacy group for the nation’s urban districts and the state of Hawaii.

The Council did a survey—53 of its then 66 members responded—and found that superintendents were in their current jobs for an average of 3.18 years, while the average completed tenure was 4.5 years.

The first number gained traction, while the second, which is more directly related to how long big-city superintendents stay in their roles, was virtually ignored.

The Broad Center analysis looking just at superintendent tenure in the council’s member districts closely tracks what the council found. Knight said it was important to set the record straight about how long superintendents were staying on the job.

The misconception that big-city superintendents are gone in a flash may have affected the hiring process, the applicant pool, and how both boards and districts responded to new superintendents once they started to make changes. It could be difficult to get buy-in from central office staffers who may assume the new superintendent may not be around very long and they’ll have to repeat the same process in a few years.

“There is a lot of talk about this job being a revolving door—that you can’t stay in it very long—and I think that affects the expectations we have for the job,” Knight said. “Sometimes that means we can lower our expectations for the job if people feel like a superintendent doesn’t matter because they are only going to last a few years, or how much change can really happen if you’re only here for a few years.”

Understanding that “the average tenure is actually six years, I think, can change our expectations for what can happen,” she said.

Dan Domenech, the executive director of the AASA, the School Superintendents Association, says that whether superintendents stay for three or six years, that’s still too short a period of time for a school superintendent to spend in the role.

Still, he doesn’t think that how long you might last in the job is a major consideration for candidates.

The biggest factor “to people applying for the job is that it’s a very difficult job, it’s a political job, and it’s a tough challenge,” he said.

Sense of Urgency

Broad Center-affiliated leaders’ short tenures stand out, particularly because of the center’s focus on training school leaders to make quick and dramatic changes to boost student academic achievement. Some of those superintendents have been criticized for a hostility toward teachers’ unions and failing to consult the community when making major decisions. Several have faced public backlash for closing schools, slashing budgets, and clashing with the boards that hired them.

While some of those leaders have had long tenures—Wendy Robinson, for example, has led the Fort Wayne, Ind., district since 2003—others quickly exited their jobs, either because they were pushed out or they went to other districts.

It could be that Broad’s programs attract candidates who approach the superintendency with a sense of urgency, leading them to make tough decisions that may not be well-received locally, Knight said.

Still, Knight said, the center has begun making changes for candidates who would lead school districts. Among those changes: listening more to the community, being thoughtful about how changes are phased in, and thinking about sustaining the changes even when they are no longer around.

With data collection ending in September 2017, the report doesn’t capture turnover in a number of districts, including the nation’s three largest. The report does not count superintendents serving on an interim basis who did not end up being permanently hired for the job. And another major limitation was that there was no reliable method to capture superintendents’ race and ethnicity.

Despite the turnover in many large districts, some systems have held on to their schools chiefs for more than a decade.

Those superintendents include J. Alvin Wilbanks, who has been at the helm in Gwinnett County, Ga., for 22 years, and Christopher Steinhauser, the superintendent of California’s Long Beach school district, on the job nearly 16 years.

A version of this article appeared in the May 16, 2018 edition of Education Week as How Long Do Big-City Supes Last?

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