Recruitment & Retention Opinion

The Assistant Superintendent’s Dilemma

By David Leach — September 23, 2009 6 min read
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The problem of rapid superintendent turnover is being exacerbated by a shortage of attractive candidates for the job. As sitting superintendents leave their posts to serve in more-desirable districts, hard-pressed school boards are turning more and more to retired superintendents to fill the vacancies. Not only is this trend contributing to a steady rise in the age of incumbent superintendents, but it also raises the question of whether such experienced professionals, as welcome as their skills may be, are more apt to keep the seats warm than to provide strong long-term leadership.

The situation should prompt a closer look at the superintendent pipeline. And a logical place to start is the corps of district leaders who serve as assistant, associate, or deputy superintendents. Do these men and women, presumably next in line to become superintendents, actually want to become schools chiefs?

To answer that question, I conducted a study of assistant school superintendents in New York state, trying to learn more about their sense of job satisfaction, effectiveness, and aspirations to become superintendents—or not. While a majority of the 160 respondents indicated that they are highly satisfied with their jobs and feel they are performing effectively, only a modest one-third expressed a desire to become superintendents, with approximately another third saying they might wish to do so.

Here, then, is the conundrum of trying to recruit and promote a second-in-command to the top job: Those who are highly satisfied with their work may be so content that they do not wish to change. But, on the other hand, this level of satisfaction also could be an enticement for taking on the challenge of the higher job. The strongest disincentives cited by the assistant superintendents were family sacrifices and local politics. The data also suggest that those under the age of 49 and males are more interested in the job than are older and female assistant superintendents.

Based on the study, I offer the following recommendations to school districts, colleges and universities that train school leaders, and related state organizations and associations on how to maintain assistant superintendents’ sense of satisfaction and self-efficacy while also encouraging them to aim for the superintendency.

1. Reorganize the job so that it functions more as preparation for the superintendency. Interestingly, I found that the more-specialized groups of assistant superintendents—those in charge of personnel, curriculum, or business, for example—are less likely to aspire to become superintendents than the generalists who hold a wider range of responsibilities. A talented assistant superintendent for curriculum may be so deluged with oversight and teacher-development duties that she has minimal time to gain familiarity with typical responsibilities of the superintendent, such as school board relations, community involvement, or budget development. Meanwhile, the less-specialized assistant superintendent’s functions may be similar to the superintendent’s, providing him or her with a greater sense of preparedness for the top job. All assistant superintendents, regardless of their chief areas of responsibility, should have opportunities to play varied administrative roles and perform different functions.

2. Shorten the career steps to the assistant superintendency. Many prospective superintendent candidates are nearing retirement age when they are best prepared for the rigors of the superintendency. Taking care to ensure that assistant superintendents gain relevant experience in a shorter time span—and that educators are promoted to the position earlier in their careers—would do much to increase the pool of available qualified candidates.

3. Establish a national organization devoted to assistant superintendents. These school leaders have no national or state group devoted solely to their needs and interests. Principals can join organizations such as the National Association of Secondary School Principals and its elementary school counterpart, and superintendents’ interests are attended to by the American Association of School Administrators and its state affiliates. But no similar organization exists for assistant superintendents. The time has come to provide more support, advocacy, and representation to this overlooked group of district leaders.

4. Give more attention to the assistant superintendency in the professional literature. Little research or analysis has focused on this forgotten position. A review of educational administration textbooks found only a few paragraphs on their job titles and general responsibilities. Scholars and related organizations should consider developing publications devoted specifically to the tasks and concerns of these school leaders. The AASA should include a section devoted to them in its State of the Superintendency studies to aid in the provision of relevant data on the post and its occupants.

5. Be aware of the concerns of Generations X and Y. Various studies tell us that individuals between the ages of 18 and 39 place less value on their career advancement and are more family-centered than their predecessors. This finding could hold important implications for the future superintendent-candidate pool. Universities, school districts, and boards of education should begin to provide greater support to aspiring superintendents on finding ways to reconcile their employment and family life. Consideration also should be given to changes that could be made to the superintendent’s roster of duties and responsibilities to address the family sacrifices common to the position. These might include, for example, efforts to minimize the number of late-evening meetings and events or to eliminate contractual clauses that require superintendents to live within the district.

6. Provide prospective superintendent candidates with incentives such as scholarships and tuition reimbursement to further their education. More than 70 percent of assistant superintendents in New York state do not have doctoral degrees. They could be enticed to further their education if the financial burden of postgraduate studies were removed or lessened. A doctoral degree would enhance their candidacies and would better prepare them for the superintendency.

7. Actively recruit assistant superintendents to become superintendents. Surprisingly, 67 percent of New York state’s assistant superintendents have never been recruited by a search firm or a school board member to apply for a superintendent’s position. National and state organizations representing boards and superintendents should work together to change this, embarking on recruitment efforts that would also include targeted underrepresented aspirants, such as minority candidates and women. Moreover, school districts should consider succession planning when they have a talented internal applicant.

Though the assistant superintendency has been neglected in the research literature, it is clear from anecdotal information and surveys such as mine that the post is not an automatic springboard to the superintendency. These recommendations may help persuade more members of this talented group to pursue the top job, but it will not resolve what is a complex institutional problem. As is true for all other candidates for the superintendency, assistant superintendents must be convinced that changes will be made to lessen the strong disincentives to joining the beleaguered corps of top district leaders.

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A version of this article appeared in the September 30, 2009 edition of Education Week as The Assistant Superintendent’s Dilemma


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