School & District Management

Superintendent Turnover Is a Real Thing. How Bad Is It?

By Stephen Sawchuk — February 28, 2022 6 min read
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News reports point to high local instances of turnover at the top job—a third of Maryland superintendents potentially not returning, nearly one in five positions open at the start of this school year in Oregon, a “great exodus” per the Texas Tribune of 10 Dallas-Ft. Worth region superintendents.

All those anecdotes beg the question: Just how high is it nationally?

Such a seemingly simple question contains a deceptively complex answer, mainly because there’s a notorious lack of good superintendent data. But recently, analysts have creatively tried to square that circle—some of them literally going district website by district website and cross-checking news reports to arrive at their estimates.

In all, what they show suggests that turnover at the top of school districts has indeed increased, at least in urban settings, and probably in others.

The phenomenon has been a bit overshadowed amid the struggles of teachers, paraprofessionals, and bus drivers, but deserves more attention because of how it stands to affect day-to-day district operations—including the tough choices about how to spend time-limited pandemic funding, observers say.

“I feel like it’s important to balance this story about the teacher challenges with the leadership challenges and the kind of turnover we’re going to see in the principal ranks,” said Karen Hawley Miles, the president and CEO of Education Resource Strategies, a nonprofit consulting firm that works with district leaders. “There’s nothing these superintendents can do right right now. Everything they’ve done about masking and opening or closing someone is picketing or protesting. It’s this incredible, daily, nightly, sleepless stress.”

Here are three things to know about superintendent turnover.

Turnover in large, urban districts is high. It’s less clear in other districts

There is no national, year-over-year data collection that tracks a sample of superintendents, so even arriving at a benchmark figure for turnover is difficult. (One often-cited 2006 estimate from AASA, the School Superintendents’ Association put it at between 14 percent to 16 percent annually, but it’s not clear how that data was derived.) And all of the estimates vary somewhat because of differences in method.

ERS is among the first to try to get its own baseline of turnover, both pre-pandemic and during COVID. Its analysts used federal data to identify the 100 largest districts by student enrollment, and then backtracked over the last seven years to look at which ones turned over in each school year.

It found that, in each of school years 2020-21 and 2021-22, about a quarter of superintendents had turnover—the highest rate since 2018.

This finding is generally supported by recent data from the research and policy analysis firm RAND, which drew on a sample of some 3,500 district leaders who work in a nationally representative sample of districts.

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In a clever way of estimating turnover at the top, the researchers compared the superintendent rosters in this sample from fall 2020-21 to fall 2021-22; if the roster name changed, then the organization considered it a turnover. (It’s not clear whether they retired, left the field permanently, or are looking for other positions.)

RAND found that turnover was higher in urban districts, at 18 percent, than in suburban and rural districts, where it was closer to the (somewhat iffy) benchmark. Notably, however, turnover was higher in those districts serving more students of color.

(RAND’s analysis does not include charter management organizations or districts that belong to the Council of the Great City Schools, a membership body of 76 primarily urban districts.)

Things look particularly concerning for women superintendents

Between the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020 and January 2022, close to 4 in 10 larger districts have begun or completed a leadership change, concludes the ILO Group, a women-founded national education strategy and policy firm, in a new analysis.

Its analysts found that between March 2020 and early this calendar year, 186 of the largest 500 districts by student enrollment had either sought or hired new leaders. That’s a rate of about 37 percent. (Click here to use the group’s searchable database.)

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Santa Rosa City Schools Superintendent Dr. Diann Kitamura poses for a portrait inside the district’s headquarters in Santa Rosa, California, on May 6, 2021. Dr. Kitamura is stepping down from her role at the end of June.
Diann Kitamura is the superintendent in the Santa Rosa, Calif., school district, which was battered by massive wildfires and then the pandemic. Kitamura will step down at the end of June.
Ramin Rahimian for Education Week

Unique among the new analyses, ILO also found that as districts have churned through leaders, their replacements have largely been men, exacerbating an already severe gender imbalance in the composition of the workforce. Seven in 10 of those districts hired men, and of the 51 women superintendents who departed in the sample, three-quarters were replaced by male hires, said Julia Rafal-Baer, one of the organization’s co-founders.

“It is shocking, and should be sounding the alarm for everyone who believes in basic equity,” she said.

Like ERS, the researchers used the NCES data to identify the top districts based on student enrollment. The largest 500 districts include many more suburban and countywide districts—the types of districts that have been in the crosshairs of some of the most virulent political debates over masking, curriculum, and vaccination policy.

In contrast to the RAND data, ILO found turnover generally high over all of those districts across the two-year period. (Perhaps district size is a factor, with more populous districts tending to be buffeted by political forces than smaller, more remote or more homogenous districts.)

Many superintendents that haven’t left yet are actively considering it

Both the RAND survey and a secondary analysis suggest that many district leaders have at least thought about leaving, even if they haven’t pulled the ripcord yet.

Half of the superintendents in the RAND survey, when asked about future career plans, said they’d planned to stay, but the other half was split neatly into a quarter that was undecided and a quarter that intended to leave.

A much smaller survey of about 140 superintendents, conducted by the firm EAB, a research, advising, and technology company, also found that about half of superintendents planned to stay. But the other half was split into a quarter that planned to retire and a quarter that was either actively looking to leave or “waiting to see how things go.” (The superintendents in this survey were part of a convenience sample—one that doesn’t attempt to be nationally representative.)

And finally, the National Superintendents Roundtable, a professional network organized by the Schlechty Center in Louisville, Ky., found in its survey of nearly 400 superintendents that 63 percent said they’d considered quitting in the 2020-21 school year, though only 17 percent actually did.

As always, these types of queries tend to get at intent rather than individuals’ specific courses of action. Like recent surveys that show a high number of teachers purportedly on the edge of leaving, the findings could be a symptom of frustration and exhaustion at dealing with the momentous health, political, and social changes of the last two years.

Still, observers say, the fact that a quarter of respondents in both surveys are thinking about leaving should be a sign that the superintendent corps needs more support.

“There is still a window of opportunity. What can we do to make sure district leaders with experience can feel more successful in the role? How do we keep in them in seats to support students and avoid massive turnover?” said Ben Court, the director of strategic research for EAB’s District Leadership Forum.

One idea: creating stronger cross-state networks for leaders to share their successes and challenges.

“Almost every superintendent we talked to wants that collective wisdom, and the benefit of making joining decisions with other districts,” Court said.

Coverage of leadership, summer learning, social and emotional learning, arts learning, and afterschool is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the March 16, 2022 edition of Education Week as Superintendent Turnover Is a Real Thing. How Bad Is It?

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