The summer superintendent churn has begun. In the past week, the leaders of two of the nation’s largest school districts have announced their departure.
Cami Anderson, of Newark, and Mike Miles, of Dallas, have both announced their departures after four and three years, respectively. In fact, both lasted about as long as most do in their position.
The numbers on district leader tenure, especially in large urban districts, are grim. On average, urban superintendents in the United States last about three and a half years. But in some urban districts, the turnover rate is even higher. St. Louis, for example, had eight superintendents between 2003 and 2008, before current superintendent Kelvin Adams was hired. Seattle has had six in the past ten years.
While it’s hard to pin down nationally, a Vanderbilt University study, conducted in 2012 in California, found that the superintendents of the state’s largest districts were significantly more likely to leave or be replaced in a three-year stretch than those in smaller districts. Other studies have found similar patterns, with the very largest districts seeing more leadership change than small or mid-sized districts, which are typically rural or suburban.
Jason Grissom, who led the Vanderbilt study, studies turnover and its effects on schools at Vanderbilt University. He says that the reasons superintendents leave are often a complicated mix of personal and political factors.
“With superintendents, job satisfaction is certainly important,” Grissom says. But in many cases, it’s not the current job that draws superintendents away from their posting, but the promise of a future one.
“Superintendents tend to move to bigger districts, districts with bigger budgets, districts where they get paid more,” Grissom said. A common line of thinking among superintendents, he says, is that “your next job should be a little more prestigious than the last one you worked at.”
Still, the strongest forces driving turnover may actually be bigger than any individual superintendent. Job satisfaction and the allure of a higher profile job may be the “pull” driving turnover, but district and school board politics are often the “push.”
In fact, board function, or lack thereof, may be one of the best predictors of superintendent turnover. Grissom and other researchers have found that boards who rank themselves as having lots of internal conflict tend to see more people moving into and out of the district’s top leadership position.
“My suspiscion of what’s going on there is that the school board and superintendent relationship is one of the most fundamental to the superintendent getting done what they need to get done on a day to day basis,” said Grissom. If that relationship is contentious and the superintendent is frequently stymied by board dysfunction, the district’s teachers, parents, and community members are likely to run out of patience with the lack of action and the superintendent is likely to become frustrated. All told, that sort of systemic dysfunction is a recipe for frequent turnover.
The school boards of large urban districts are especially prone to internal discord as they deal with substantial (and thus controversial) sums of money, oversee diverse neighborhoods with differing needs and represent numerous and often divided constituents, from teachers unions to parents frustrated with a lack of progress.
And the challenges don’t end there. When school boards have high profile disagreements and dysfunctional relationships with multiple superintendents, they may drive away high quality leadership candidates who could help break the cycle.
For example, conflict and volatility among Nashville school board members helped push the 86,000-student district’s previous leader out last fall. The hiring process to find his replacement has faltered, as board meetings have been marked by explosive outbursts from board members and the number of highly qualified candidates has remained low.
Still, the cycle isn’t inevitable. Some large urban districts have managed to attract and keep a successful leader, even after years of dysfunction. Alberto Carvalho in Miami-Dade County Public Schools, the nation’s fourth-largest district, has held his position for seven years. And in St. Louis, once known for its unending superintendent churn, Kelvin Adams has retained his position since being hired in 2008.
And there’s some preliminary evidence that the impact superintendents have on classrooms is relatively small, especially considering the outsized impact of teachers. A Brookings Institution report released last fall found superintendents accounted for a fraction of 1% of the differences in student performance, although the study’s authors cautioned reading too much into their results.
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