School & District Management Q&A

There’s a Good Chance Your Superintendent Has One of These 15 Names

By Caitlynn Peetz — March 24, 2023 5 min read
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Dear John:

Or Michael, David, James, Jeff, Robert, Steven, Chris, Brian, Scott, Mark, Kevin, Jason, Matthew, or Daniel.

There’s a greater than one-in-four chance you could start a letter to the superintendent of your local school district with one of those 15 names.

In fact, it’s just as likely for a district to be led by a man with one of those names as it is for one to be led by a woman with any name, according to new research from Rachel White, an assistant professor in the University of Tennessee-Knoxville’s Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies.

White’s research, which appears in the journal Educational Researcher, offers a rare comprehensive and nationally representative look at school district superintendents in America. Compared with other professions, and even other jobs within school districts, there are large gaps in what we know about top district leaders nationally. Local or state-by-state examinations are most common.

White said she was working on a different project when she noticed that there wasn’t a central place to find comprehensive, nationally representative data about superintendent demographics.

“So, I collected it myself,” White said. “And we all knew the superintendency is male dominated, but when you’re deep in the data it’s really striking, and you’re like, ‘Wow, this is a lot.’”

It is well known that most superintendents are white men. But her anecdotes and graphics lay bare some striking facts: About 72 percent of superintendents are men. And even though the profession has become marginally more female in recent years, about two-thirds of superintendents newly hired in the past three years were men. More than half of superintendents hired between 2019 and 2023 were men who replaced other men. Another 18 percent were men who replaced women in superintendent positions, according to White’s research.

The male dominance of the superintendency is even more striking given how female dominated the teaching profession is. More than three-quarters of teachers are female, as well as 56 percent of principals.

White discussed her research in an interview with EdWeek. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Why did you decide to pursue this research?

Most of my research focuses on what I would say are issues of power and voice in policymaking. So, to me, this is like the most localized version of that because the superintendency does have a lot of power and we’re just so strapped about what we can say about the superintendency because there’s really no national data on it. So, since I had collected one year of data, I thought I might as well just keep going. 2023 will be the fifth year of data collection, and now we’re able to do some really interesting stuff.

We’ve relied on surveys that have small sample sizes, single state studies. When it comes to turnover, we’re mostly relying on surveys that are asking questions about intention to turnover, which we know is not an accurate measure of actual turnover. So we’ve just been so limited in what we’re able to do.

Why does having that comprehensive national data matter?

Superintendents don’t tend to be a sexy topic, mostly because they’re not in the classroom.

But they are setting a vision for the district, and making decisions about resources that can have very real impacts on the classroom, so I just think we’re doing ourselves a disservice if we say that they’re too far removed from the day-to-day work of educators and day-to-day experience of students to care.

They do have a bully pulpit and they can be really powerful people, and if they’re making those decisions and wielding that power from the perspective of mostly white men—and we know they have certain experiences that are not better or worse—but we’re missing out on understanding and seeing the leadership that comes from the experiences of a woman or leaders of color.

What in your research really stood out to you? Were there any surprises?

One of the things I found was that, at the current rate, we could potentially get to gender equality by 2035. While that seems really far away, in the grand scheme of things, it’s not.

But the reality of that statistic is that if we get there, it’s going to be on the backs of a few states that are making really, really tremendous progress, while some states really are not.

There are some states that are really close to having one female for every male superintendent, but there are other states that are closer to eight men for every one woman. So while it seems encouraging, there’s still going to be incredible inequalities across states in terms of that gender gap.

What needs to happen to balance out those inequities across states?

Logistically, if we want to close this gap, it means that women have to be replacing men who are exiting their positions. It’s not like we can create a bunch of new districts and say only women can lead them. So the only way we’re going to close this gap is by hiring women when men turn over, which isn’t what’s happening now.

Male superintendents are turning over at a higher rate, whereas for females, it’s relatively low. But we’re mostly replacing men with men, and we’re replacing some females with males.

If we want to see any progress, we have to actually hire women, and hire them where they haven’t been hired before.

Why is having women in superintendent positions so important?

I think for me, the larger piece is this concept of windows and mirrors. As a little girl, I never saw women in leadership positions, and we know from psychology and sociology research that seeing people that look like you in important positions is important. And so having women in these positions can act as mirrors for young women to say, “This is not just a man’s world—particularly a white man’s world.” They can actually see this is something all people can do, regardless of color or gender or anything like that.

But it’s also what I would refer to as a window. It’s a way for other people to see through the lens of a woman as a leader.

I want to be really careful, because I’m not saying that men shouldn’t be superintendents. But what I am saying is that women should have an equal opportunity to obtain that position.

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