School & District Management

Superintendents Content in Their Jobs, But Feel Pressure of NCLB

By Christina A. Samuels — September 24, 2007 3 min read
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Today’s school district leaders overwhelmingly have positive relationships with their school boards, tend to be satisfied in their jobs, and think of themselves as effective, according to a survey released today of more than 1,300 superintendents nationwide.

Many of the superintendents believe the federal No Child Left Behind Act has had a negative impact on education, however, and describe themselves as experiencing “considerable” or “very great” stress in their positions, possibly because of NCLB and other demands like tight funding and conflicting community demands, the survey said.

The survey, conducted by the American Association of School Administrators, based here, offers a snapshot of the characteristics of district leaders in a period of major changes in K-12 education. The association has surveyed its members about once a decade since 1923, but with the enactment of the No Child Left Behind legislation, which became law in 2002, the AASA decided to conduct its first mid-decade report. The last survey was completed in 2000.

Two superintendents brought in to speak about the survey findings said at a press conference today that the results matched their experiences but offered some surprises.

For instance, 93 percent of the superintendents surveyed said they had “good” or “very good” relationships with their school boards—a sentiment that may seem at odds with well-publicized conflicts between superintendents and boards. But, the AASA noted, “contract buyouts, nonrenewals, and firings are public dismissals, and happen much more infrequently than portrayed in the media.”

The AASA studies have consistently indicated that each year only about 1 percent to 3 percent of superintendents surveyed are publicly fired, as opposed to retirement or voluntary relocation to another districtThe survey results indicated that the average tenure for a superintendent is 5.5 years, which corresponds to the average tenure for a school board member.

The survey was conducted in May 2006. E-mail and print questionnaires were sent to 7,958 superintendents with e-mail addresses on file with the association. By June 2006, 1,338 superintendents had responded.

Mixed Emotions

Randall H. Collins, the AASA president-elect and the superintendent of the 3,000-student Waterford, Conn., school district, said that he’s worked well with his school boards ever since he became a superintendent 26 years ago. Good relationships, though, tend not to get much press, he said. And the survey results might not account for one or a few school board members who go are overly partisan or divisive, “he said, by making life difficult not just for a superintendent, but for other board members as well.

Although 59 percent of the superintendents reported feeling considerably or greatly stressed by their jobs, 90 percent of respondents said they felt satisfied or very satisfied in their jobs. About 96 percent considered themselves effective.

More than 40 percent of the superintendents responding to the survey offered negative feedback about the No Child Left Behind law, which calls for all students to be proficient in reading and mathematics by the end of the 2013-14 school year, and holds schools and districts responsible for progress toward that goal.

The federal education law requires states to test public school students’ performance in those subjects annually in grades 3-8 and at least once in high school. Results must be reported by different student subgroups, including for racial and ethnic minorities, students receiving free or reduced-price lunches, and students who are learning English.

Asked to rank the law on a scale from 1 (very detrimental) to 10 (very beneficial), about 43 percent gave the law a ranking of 1, 2, or 3, with about 8 percent giving it a ranking of 8, 9, or 10, indicating that they see it in strongly positive terms. The remaining proportion of respondents offered more middle-of-the-road evaluations of the law.

“We needed the emphasis on how different groups are doing” under the NCLB law, said Jerry D. Weast, the superintendent of the 138,000-student Montgomery County, Md., district. “What we don’t need is the specificity, and the structure.”

The federal government is too strict in mandating how schools must show achievement, Mr. Weast said.

Congress this year is debating the reauthorization of the NCLB law.

The survey results indicate that school district leaders are most concerned about insufficient funding for implementing the law, and the challenges of getting all students to proficiency despite such variables as special education placement and socioeconomic status.

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