School & District Management

How Long Do Big-City Superintendents Typically Stick Around?

By Denisa R. Superville — May 08, 2018 6 min read
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Superintendents running the country’s largest school districts stay on the job for about six years on average, but that tenure is shorter for women, and for school chiefs running high-poverty districts and districts with high percentages of students of color.

That’s according to a new report by the Los Angeles-based Broad Center, which reviewed superintendent tenure in the nation’s 100 largest school districts by enrollment, between 2003 and September 2017.

Here are some highlights:

  • Tenure was half as long for superintendents serving districts with the highest percentages of students of color. In districts where 76 percent to 100 percent of the student enrollment was students of color, superintendents stayed on the job for less than five years. In districts where 25 percent or fewer of the students were students of color, the average completed tenure was nearly 12 years.
  • Tenure was nearly 3.5 years shorter for superintendents in districts with the highest poverty levels. As the percentage of students in poverty increased, so did superintendent turnover. The average tenure in districts where 76 percent to 100 percent of students was low-income was 5.13 years. In districts with 25 percent or fewer low-income students, the average superintendent tenure was 8.59 years.
  • Tenures for women are 15 months shorter. On average, women stayed on the job for about 5.18 years, while men stayed on the job for 6.42 years.
  • Tenure was also shorter in larger districts. 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 tenure of Broad Center-affiliated graduates was shorter than other large-city superintendents. In a finding with a particular sting, the Broad Center found that superintendents who completed the foundation’s own training programs stayed on the job for about 3.52 years. (This group includes people who completed the Broad Academy, the Broad Residency in Urban Education, and the Broad Fellowship for Education Leaders.)

The Broad Center numbers vary slightly from an oft-cited 2014 survey from the Council of the Great City Schools, which represents some of the country’s largest and mostly urban school districts, and the state of Hawaii. That survey said that the average big-city superintendent tenure was just slightly more than three years. The council survey also found that the average tenure of the immediate past council superintendent was 4.5 years.

One thing worth noting about the data sets used by the Broad Center and the council: they’re not comparable. The council’s numbers are based on a survey of its members in one year, while the Broad Center used publicly available data as well as data from the National Center for Education Statistics over a 15-year period. It also includes districts with large enrollments—including Gwinnett County, Ga., and Cypress-Fairbanks in Texas—that are not part of the Council of the Great City Schools.

There are several reasons why superintendents leave. They can be fired or poached by another district. It can also be because of a bad fit between superintendents and their boards of education.

The Broad Center report does not delve into the reasons why superintendents leave, why women have shorter tenures, or why turnover is higher in districts serving large percentages of students of color or poor students.

But turnover in high-need districts has major implications, said Becca Bracy Knight, the executive director of the Broad Center.

“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 that they are in,” she said.

The report does not necessarily make an argument for longer tenure, saying that a superintendent can have an impact in a short period. Knight says that it makes no sense for a superintendent who is not effective to stay on the job for a decade.

“What we have observed over the last 15 years is that a few things matter: longevity matters, strong succession planning matters, and whatever you do with the time that you have,” she said.

“But I think it’s important for us to understand the data so that we don’t have a false narrative of, ‘it’s impossible for anyone to last longer, we shouldn’t expect anyone to stay longer, or we shouldn’t expect change to be sustainable, we should just throw our hands up and say we can’t make improvements in urban school districts because of the revolving door.’ ”

Part of the reason for doing the report was to get an accurate read on how long superintendents last in their jobs, Knight said.

The misperception that big-city superintendents only stay for about three years could have an impact on how schools chiefs approach the job and how people in the central office respond to them as they make changes.

“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. And to understand that the average tenure is actually six years, I think, can change our expectations for what can happen.”

Broad Center-affiliated leaders’ short tenures stand out. The center trains school leaders in corporate management to implement changes quickly in school districts. Those superintendents have often been criticized for a hostility toward teachers’ unions and failing to consult the community when making major decisions.

Knight said there are many reasons why Broad Center-affiliated graduates have such short tenures, including that the programs may be attracting candidates who approach the job with a sense of urgency, leading them to make tough decisions that may not be well-received locally.

Still, she 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 superintendents.

With data ending in September 2017, the report doesn’t capture turnover in a number of districts, including the nation’s three largest. New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago all announced that their chiefs were leaving after September 2017 and they have since named replacements.

(The report does not count interim superintendency that did not lead to a full-time placement in the job. And one major limitation was that there was no reliable way to capture the race and ethnicity of the superintendents leading those districts.)

Despite the turnover, there are districts that have held on to their superintendents for more than a decade. Those superintendents include: J. Alvin Wilbanks, who has been at the helm in Gwinnett County, Ga., since 1996, and Christopher Steinhauser, the superintendent of California’s Long Beach school district, on the job nearly 16 years.

The report also provides a list of questions that superintendent candidates and boards should think through in the job process to ensure that they are on the same page. One of the key questions for boards and candidates is whether the board was explicit about how long it expected to superintendent to be in the position.

You can read a full copy of the report here:


Image 1: Average completed tenure for superintendents by district size.

Image 2: Average completed tenure for superintendents by gender.

Image: Average completed tenure for superintendents by enrollment of low-income students.

Source: Hire Expectations: Big-district superintendents stay in their jobs longer than we think. The Broad Center, May 2018

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.