Recruitment & Retention

Turnover, Growing Job Duties Complicate State Chiefs’ Roles

By Andrew Ujifusa — January 27, 2015 | Corrected: March 05, 2019 7 min read
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Corrected: An earlier version of this article did not correctly describe Margaret Vandeven’s previous work at the Missouri state education department. She served for one year as deputy commissioner.

A recent spate of departures by prominent state schools chiefs—including John B. King in New York and Kevin S. Huffman in Tennessee—is focusing attention on a turnover rate that now rivals the chronically high churn among urban superintendents.

Changes at the helm of state education agencies reflect a variety of factors, analysts say: a cycle of elections in which voters or governors in several states select new chiefs; opportunities for consulting and other jobs; and, perhaps, new and intensifying pressures on state chiefs.

The list of recently appointed chief school officers, meanwhile, suggests an uptick in the value state leaders are placing on candidates with work experience in, or other strong ties to, their states, rather than those with connections to national organizations or high-profile out-of-state work.

In short, the landscape for state chiefs seems to have shifted in some fashion, said Paul F. Manna, an associate professor of government at the College of William and Mary, in Williamsburg, Va., who has tracked turnover among chief state school officers.

“There is more turbulence in this position nowadays than there has been in the past,” Mr. Manna said.


Pedro Rivera began working as the superintendent of the Lancaster district in 2008. He was recognized as a “Champion of Change” by the Obama administration last year for his work to improve curriculum and professional development in the district. Mr. Rivera replaces Carolyn Dumaresq as education secretary.


Less clear, however, is what that turnover means for critical K-12 policies in states as they rethink strategies on issues ranging from student assessment to teacher education.

Tracking the Tenure

According to research conducted by the Council of Chief State School Officers and Mr. Manna, the average tenure for state chiefs is about the same as the average time on the job for urban superintendents: 3.2 years. That figure comes from the Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington-based organization representing 67 large urban districts.

A preliminary analysis by Mr. Manna shows that, after climbing steadily throughout much of the decade that began in 2000, the average state chief’s tenure then dipped significantly, from roughly six years in 2008 to three years in 2012.

From March 2012 through the week of Jan. 19, 31 states had changed state education chiefs at least once. And a few states—including Florida, Nevada, and Wyoming—changed commissioners or superintendents more than once during that period. The longest-tenured chief is Superintendent Michael P. Flanagan of Michigan, who has been at his post since May 2005 but plans to retire this coming summer.

Mr. Manna’s research suggests that some of the turnover in recent years is correlated with the large slate of state elections—including 36 gubernatorial elections in 2010 and again in 2014—that occurs in the midterm electoral cycle.

The most dramatic spike in turnover for any one year during the past 15 years occurred in 2011, when 24 new state chiefs took over following big GOP gains in the 2010 state elections. Among the seven elections for state chief that year, six saw new chiefs elected, and five of the new chiefs were Republicans.

New Mexico Secretary of Education-designate Hanna Skandera said that good leaders aren’t worried about “day-counting or year-counting, or their tenure.”


Margaret Vandeven was selected by a unanimous vote of the state school board last month to replace Chris Nicastro as state education commissioner. She previously served as deputy state commissioner overseeing teacher quality and special education, among other programs. Ms. Vandeven previously taught at private schools.


Still, the more recent turnover has had an impact on the group that she chairs, Chiefs for Change, an affiliate of the Foundation for Excellence in Education that until recently was led by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Membership in the group, which backs test-based teacher evaluations, school choice, and online education, among other policies, dropped from nine current chiefs in early 2012 to four active chiefs at the start of this year.

Among the prominent chiefs who have moved on are Tony Bennett, who resigned his Florida post in 2013, and Christopher Cerf, who left New Jersey last year.

“The politics of education, I believe, have intensified and increased to the point where, in some cases, we’re seeing politics trump what’s in the best interest of kids,” said Ms. Skandera, who was picked to lead the state education department by Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican, but has yet to be confirmed by the state Senate.

Challenging Issues

Superintendent Randy Dorn of Washington state, who was first elected in 2008, singled out Congress’ failure to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act—and the subsequent power over states that the U.S. Department of Education has exercised through NCLB waivers—as a major reason chiefs’ jobs have gotten more complicated. Mr. Dorn’s state lost its waiver last year.

Echoing Ms. Skandera, Mr. Dorn, whose office is nonpartisan, said that as education “has become much more of a focal point for the nation,” chiefs have in some cases been worn down.

“I know that some of my colleagues have just had enough of the [Common Core State Standards] fight,” he said. “Some people had just had enough and decided to move on.”

Prominent departures since the November 2014 elections include Mr. Huffman in Tennessee and Mr. King in New York, two appointed commissioners who made big changes and sparked intense controversy over teacher evaluations and implementation of the common core. Neither left directly as a result of new governors or turnover at their respective state school boards. Mr. King left New York in January to become a senior adviser to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Mr. Huffman’s last day as Tennessee chief was Jan. 19.

Local Focus

In states where governors and state boards pick the chiefs, the five most recent selections for those positions, dating back to mid-November, also suggest that officials are placing a relatively high value on in-state experience, whether in local districts, state education departments, or higher education.

In Kansas, Randy Watson, the superintendent of the state’s 2,400-student McPherson district, was picked by the state school board in November, while Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, also picked a local superintendent, Pedro Rivera of the 11,500-student Lancaster district, last week.

Meanwhile, the Missouri state board tapped Margaret Vandeven, who had served as state deputy commissioner for one year, to be its new chief last month. The same day in December, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican, picked Candice McQueen, the dean of the college of education at Lipscomb University in Nashville, to replace Mr. Huffman.


Candice McQueen was picked by Gov. Bill Haslam last month to replace Kevin Huffman as state education commissioner. Ms. McQueen previously worked as the dean of the college of education at Lipscomb University in Nashville, starting in 2008. During her time as dean at Lipscomb, enrollment in the university’s teacher-preparation program tripled. She has also taught at both public and private schools.


Maine GOP Gov. Paul LePage, who last month announced his selection of Thomas A. Desjardin as acting education commissioner with an eye to a permanent appointment, even highlighted Mr. Desjardin’s status as an 11th-generation resident of the state.

But some see the recent changes among state chiefs as part of a natural cycle and not a dramatic spike in turnover.

Carissa Miller, a deputy executive director of the Washington-based CCSSO, noted that compared with the four months after the 2010 elections, when new chiefs started in 19 states, only 12 states have seen new chiefs take over since this past November’s elections. She said that it’s difficult to identify trends in the types of chiefs who are coming and going, given factors that vary state by state.

Ms. Miller also said, though, that chiefs’ jobs have become more complicated in recent years for a variety of reasons. She cited policy challenges such as overhauls to teacher-preparation requirements and construction of new accountability systems under states’ No Child Left Behind waivers.

Long-Term Impact

In addition, state chiefs have stepped up their public relations efforts to communicate with “a much wider audience” than in past years, she said, including a new focus on the general public. And the issues they discuss with the public, such as the common core and its aligned tests, can be challenging, Ms. Miller said.

“Sometimes, it’s the coalescing of all these things at once that makes it more complex,” Ms. Miller said.

Andrew R. Smarick of the Washington-based Bellwether Education Partners said that the nature of the departing top K-12 officers and their replacements could indicate one of two things: Either the turnover won’t mean much for policies dealing with school turnarounds and teacher evaluations that are already far along in being implemented, or else several governors have decided not to put the same energy into making sure those policies work.

“There are only a few of the powerful, reform-oriented chiefs remaining,” said Mr. Smarick, who served as a deputy commissioner in New Jersey from 2010 to 2012.

But it’s probably premature to think that any change in the makeup of state chiefs, however dramatic, portends a big policy shift, said Dick M. Carpenter, a professor of leadership and foundations at the college of education at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. That’s in part because, even as chiefs have come and gone over the past several years, state-level election results have continued to heavily favor Republicans, who aren’t likely to reconsider changes to educator evaluations, accountability, and other key policy areas.

The GOP currently controls 31 governorships and 30 legislatures, both numbers that increased in the November elections, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“That wave has only continued in the most recent election in the type of people who have been elected,” Mr. Carpenter said. “I don’t see it quite yet that people are running away from [those policies].”

A version of this article appeared in the January 29, 2015 edition of Education Week as As Job Description Grows, So Does Churn for State Chiefs


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