School & District Management

The Current State of the Superintendency: 4 Things to Know

By Stephen Sawchuk — March 11, 2022 4 min read
Image of folders on a desktop with photos stacked on top representing leaving a job, hiring, and waiting for an interview.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Like John Dewey’s teaching theories, “A Nation at Risk,” and the 1965 passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the COVID-19 pandemic will go down in history as a major inflection point for K-12 education.

Among the players it has most affected: superintendents, the leaders of the nation’s diffuse school systems. They have had to pivot to endless changes in masking and health policy. They’ve faced disruptive school board meetings, as fractious national politics have come home to roost. They are now in charge of spending a wave of federal cash meant to help students catch up academically.

In light of these pressures, Education Week took a look at the state of the superintendent force. We wanted to understand whether turnover would increase and whether it would affect certain demographics. We wondered what implications it would have for school boards—whose most important job is selecting and evaluating the superintendent. And we wanted to see where things stand for women leaders, who have faced some of the most intense criticism.

Here are 4 big takeaways from this reporting, plus plenty of links for you to explore our findings in more depth.

1. At least in some settings, superintendent turnover is higher.

There is no year-over-year national superintendent data collection to answer the question about turnover, but analysts are now constructing clever workarounds to get at some estimates. Their general conclusion: It is higher in the most-populous districts.

One estimate looking at just the 100 largest school districts found that turnover rates over the 2020-21 and 2021-22 years approached 25 percent. The RAND Corp, meanwhile, also found that turnover was higher in urban districts from fall 2020 to fall 2021, at about 18 percent, but seemed more stable elsewhere.

(For comparison’s sake, estimates of “normal” turnover are rough, too. They fall in the range of around 13 percent to 16 percent annually.)

2. Superintendents are definitely considering leaving, though many are likely to stay

Just like teachers, many superintendents say they’ve considered leaving the profession. And as with teachers, what’s not as clear is how many will follow through.

The findings, from a variety of different surveys—of various sample sizes and designs—are probably best interpreted as a symptom of frustration and exhaustion at dealing with the momentous health, political, and social changes of the last two years. Two surveys found that about a quarter of superintendents said they were looking for a way out or another job. In a third survey, more than 60 percent said they’d at least had thoughts about quitting their current jobs.

The data suggest an amplified desire for connection among those holding the difficult top job. AASA, the Superintendents’ Association; the Council of the Great City Schools; and other nonprofits like the Louisville, Ky.-based Schlechty Center all operate cross-state networks for superintendents. There’s room for additional ones that help meet superintendents’ needs for a friendly ear, professional support, and the opportunity to compare strategies, leadership experts say.

“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 them in seats to support students and avoid massive turnover?” said Ben Court, the director of strategic research for the District Leadership Forum, a network run by EAB, a consulting group.

3. Hiring great superintendent talent is getting more complex

A combination of more places looking to hire and the changing nature of the pipeline mean hiring district leaders is highly competitive. School boards will need to consider greener talent, conduct some internal soul-searching about vision, and probably be prepared to open their wallets.

Hiring experts and those who work in leadership-pipeline programs predict that more districts may have to turn to deputy superintendents or other district leaders with less experience, because superintendents in stable districts are less likely to leave those at this point.

They recommend that school boards model good governance in order to get the widest pools possible; that they consider women candidates, who often hold the right degrees but are disadvantaged in searches; and think about innovative contracts that explicitly recognize the challenges of the job.

4. The pandemic has put the challenges faced by women superintendents into stark light

From racist emails and foul language to threats, the job over the last two years has been particularly difficult for women. They’ve faced gendered criticism about their leadership capabilities above and beyond what many male leaders have had to field.

And as superintendent turnover has increased, boards in big cities appear to be hiring men at a disproportionate rate—threatening what’s been slow progress to bring more women into the field. (A little more than a quarter of superintendents are women.)

“It is shocking, and should be sounding the alarm for everyone who believes in basic equity,” said Julia Rafal-Baer, a co-founder of the ILO Group, a woman-led education policy and leadership organization.

The reasons for these patterns are complex, but researchers point to longstanding problems, including less access to mentors, biased hiring, and even the women leaders’ unwillingness to apply for the job because they perceive a lack of support. There’s also some indication that the patterns could be tied to factors like district size, state credentialing criteria, and demographics of the schools in the districts they tend to lead.

Now is a good time to consider how contracts can better prioritize a work-life balance, good board relations, and other factors likely to appeal to women candidates, say those who study the issue.

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 Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Budget & Finance Webinar
Innovative Funding Models: A Deep Dive into Public-Private Partnerships
Discover how innovative funding models drive educational projects forward. Join us for insights into effective PPP implementation.
Content provided by Follett Learning
Budget & Finance Webinar Staffing Schools After ESSER: What School and District Leaders Need to Know
Join our newsroom for insights on investing in critical student support positions as pandemic funds expire.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Achievement Webinar
How can districts build sustainable tutoring models before the money runs out?
District leaders, low on funds, must decide: broad support for all or deep interventions for few? Let's discuss maximizing tutoring resources.
Content provided by Varsity Tutors for Schools

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management Opinion I Invited My Students to Be the Principal for a Day. Here’s What I Learned
When I felt myself slipping into a springtime slump, this simple activity reminded me of my “why” as an educator.
S. Kambar Khoshaba
4 min read
052024 OPINION Khoshaba PRINCIPAL end the year with positivity
E+/Getty + Vanessa Solis/Education Week via Canva
School & District Management The Complicated Fight Over Four-Day School Weeks
Missouri lawmakers want to encourage large districts to maintain five-day weeks—even as four-day weeks grow more popular.
7 min read
Calendar 4 day week
School & District Management From Our Research Center Principal Salaries: The Gap Between Expectation and Reality
Exclusive survey data indicate a gap between the expectations and the realities of principal pay.
4 min read
A Black woman is standing on a ladder and looking into the distance with binoculars, in the background is an ascending arrow.
School & District Management Schools Successfully Fighting Chronic Absenteeism Have This in Common
A White House summit homed in on chronic absenteeism and strategies to reduce it.
6 min read
An empty elementary school classroom is seen on Aug. 17, 2021 in the Bronx borough of New York. Nationwide, students have been absent at record rates since schools reopened after COVID-forced closures. More than a quarter of students missed at least 10% of the 2021-22 school year.
An empty elementary school classroom is seen on Aug. 17, 2021 in the Bronx borough of New York. A White House summit on May 15, 2024, brought attention to elevated chronic absenteeism and strategies districts have used to fight it.
Brittainy Newman/AP