School & District Management

Study: Urban School Chiefs’ Tenure Is 4.6 Years

By Rhea R. Borja — February 06, 2002 2 min read
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Urban school superintendents stay in their jobs an average of 4.6 years, much longer than the 2.5 years widely cited by the education community, concludes a report released last week by the National School Boards Association.

Read the NSBA superintendent survey (requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader) and the Council of Great City Schools’ report on superintendent characteristics.

“The urban school superintendent job is more stable than previously thought,” said Anne L. Bryant, the executive director of the Alexandria, Va.-based NSBA. “But 4.6 years isn’t perfect. We all want strong leadership over a longer period of time.”

The NSBA study calculated average tenure by surveying the immediate past superintendents in the nation’s 50 largest cities as of June 2000. And the average stay rose slightly to five years when looking at immediate past superintendents in 77 urban school districts that are members of the NSBA’s Council of Urban Boards of Education. Those districts range in size from Ohio’s 10,400-student Springfield city system to New York City’s 1.1 million-student district.

In comparison to the NSBA’s findings, a recent study by the Washington-based Council of the Great City Schools reinforces the idea that urban superintendents do not stay in one job much longer than a few years. Using data collected in June 2001 and released in October, the council report showed that current superintendents in the group’s 56 districts had been on the job 2.5 years on average, a slight increase from 2.3 years in 1999.

But Ms. Bryant said those findings don’t give a complete view of superintendent tenure.

“You have to look at the bigger picture, at the beginning and the end,” she said. “This necessitates going one step back. Looking at current superintendents isn’t accurate, because you don’t know how long they will be in there.” Council of the Great City Schools officials were unavailable to respond to Ms. Bryant’s comments about their study.

Some schools chiefs have survived much longer than the average, according to the NSBA report, which found 13 urban superintendents who had served more than seven years, and five who had been in their positions for more than a decade.

Chronic Turnover

Still, urban districts from Los Angeles to Philadelphia have experienced superintendent turnover in recent years. Now, only one of the nation’s five largest urban school districts—the Broward County, Fla., public schools—is being run by a leader with more than two years on the job.

But some veteran superintendents say school leaders can increase their chances of staying longer on the job.

Linda Murray, who leads the 34,000-student San Jose school district in California, said the key to surviving in the urban-superintendent hot seat is to listen to parents and community members, get school board support, and build a good administrative staff.

Such skills have helped her turn around a district once beleaguered by teacher strikes, financial problems, and court- ordered desegregation.

Ms. Murray, who has run the district for almost 10 years, said she and her staff annually survey parents, teachers, and students; track and publicize student progress; and involve local business and community leaders in district decisions.

Ms. Murray also meets with the president of the local teachers’ union for three hours every week.

“If you do [these things] long enough, that sense of stability and purpose translates into public confidence in our schools,” she said.

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A version of this article appeared in the February 06, 2002 edition of Education Week as Study: Urban School Chiefs’ Tenure Is 4.6 Years

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