School & District Management

The Revolving Door of Superintendents: What It Looks Like in the Nation’s Big Districts

By Denisa R. Superville — December 12, 2022 5 min read
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A whopping 49 percent of the nation’s largest school districts changed superintendents during the pandemic—some of them multiple times. And in the districts where women left the job, they were more likely to be replaced by men.

Those numbers, from a new report by the ILO Group, present some of the clearest data to date on leadership turnover during the pandemic—a time when K-12 was stressed by educational, political, and social changes and when stable district leadership was pivotal to help students recover from pandemic-era learning loss.

Leadership churn was more acute during the pandemic than in the two years leading up to it and in the first few months of the global health emergency, according to the report.

Between Sept. 1, 2018 and Aug. 31, 2020, (about seven months into the pandemic), 28 percent of the largest 500 school districts changed superintendents. But the churn accelerated over the next two years, with 38 percent of the 500 biggest districts changing leaders between Sept. 1, 2020 and Sept. 1, 2022.

While there have been concerns and projections about an exodus of school district leaders during the pandemic, the latest ILO numbers are far higher than the 14 percent, from an AASA survey, often cited. The new report builds on two previous releases from ILO looking at the state of the superintendency during the pandemic, particularly for women leaders.

By September 2022, 47 of the 500 largest districts had gone through at least two superintendents since the pandemic started, and 27 were still looking for a permanent leader.

“It’s shocking,” said Julia Rafal-Baer, managing partner at the ILO Group, a nonprofit that’s working on increasing the number of women in the superintendency. “And, unfortunately, at a time when we’re in such a crisis for our nation’s students, the last thing that we need is a leadership carousel where we have the country’s largest districts spinning faster than ever.”

Frequent turnover has major implications for the 12.5 million students who attend schools in those school systems—a number that’s about equivalent to the population of Illinois, Rafal-Baer said.

“We think that this is incredibly problematic in the efforts that we’re all trying to undertake to help a generation of kids recover from the pandemic,” she said.

“It is so critical that we’re not only able to tap into a full range of talent, but also that we have stability in our leadership. Leaders have an enormous job when they take on these roles,” Rafal-Baer continued. “Not only are they responsible for implementing the overall strategy of what the district is doing, but especially right now in this recovery effort, it’s both strategy and spending of resources in order to accelerate unfinished learning.”

The pandemic has been tough for female superintendents

Female district leaders made little progress during the pandemic, according to ILO.

Among the 246 districts that changed superintendents during that period, 94 of the leaders who left or were let go were women. Sixty-six percent of those jobs were filled by men.

The overall percentage of women leading those school districts barely budged over the last four years, from 29 percent in 2018 to 30 percent in March 2022, according to ILO.

The percentage of female leaders was highest in the Northeast. The largest number of female superintendents, however, could be found in the West.

The report also showed that women were more likely to get the superintendent’s job if they were internal candidates—meaning that they had worked in the district before—or if they had served as the interim superintendent.

That suggests that women have to prove themselves before they’re finally tapped for the job.

“We think that between the data [showing] that women are being replaced by men at such high rates, the reality that women are less likely to come in from external pathways, more likely that they have to succeed in the role as an interim before they are hired permanently—we think all of this is driven by structures that are rooted in discrimination and bias,” Rafal-Baer said.

Bias in career pipelines, hiring processes, and how and where jobs are posted and shared in networks play a big part in skewing the favor toward men being selected, she said.

Addressing churn and bias

How do districts try to even the playing field for women?

It starts in many cases with districts’ internal pipelines—who is promoted, who has visibility, and who is given extra responsibilities.

Men, for example, are more likely to be high school principals—a very public-facing position that gives them high profiles and puts them into regular contact with members of the community, superintendents, and school boards. With the data showing that internal female candidates are more successful at landing the job, districts should also think thoughtfully about succession-planning and providing expanded opportunities for sponsorships for female educators.

The language used in the job postings also matters. Women may pass on postings that highlight operations and finance over academics—the route through which many women ascend in district leadership, Rafal-Baer said.

ILO suggests that search firms and districts speak openly about the role gender and equity play in the search process and that school boards explicitly require search firms to ensure that there are at least two women or candidates of color among the finalists.

Districts should also think about the networks that are being tapped to recruit candidates.

Collecting data on the gender and race and ethnicity of superintendents and publicizing targets could also add further incentive and urgency to improving gender equity in school district leadership, according to ILO.

Policies that promote good work-life balance and tend to district leaders’ well-being—such as fewer late night meetings, reimbursements for childcare expenses, and opportunities for telecommuting—could also make the job more palatable and manageable for more women.

Pay disparity continues to be a problem, too, with women in the big-city districts pulling in up to $30,000 less annually than their male peers, according to a report by the Council of the Great City Schools, an advocacy and support group for some of the country’s largest school districts. That should also be addressed, ILO said.

Men are important allies and can play a huge role in improving systems, including by sponsoring women, and should be factored into the equation, Rafal-Baer said.

Some of the proposals—from better work-life balance to considerations for child care and eldercare—make the job more attractive and manageable for both men and women.

“If we think about the solutions ahead and the work ahead to make sure that we are supporting this generation of kids, it is imperative that we get to a place of consistency in leadership within the systems that the kids are [in],” Rafal-Baer said. “Kids and families need that kind of consistency.”

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