- Superintendents are turning over more often, and women continue to be underrepresented in the top district spot, according to new research from education strategy and policy firm ILO Group.
- Turnover skyrocketed by 46% for superintendents in the nation's largest school districts between the two-year spans of 2018-2020 and 2020-2022. In 246 of the nation's 500 largest districts that underwent leadership changes between March 2020 and September 2022, some 94 female superintendents left their positions, and 62 of them — or 66% — were replaced by men.
- This newest research is an update to ILO Group's previous analyses on gender equity gaps and gender pay gaps in educational leadership. The firm said understanding turnover trends and inequities in hiring practices can help reveal solutions to reverse these patterns.
There are many personal and professional factors for why superintendents would leave their posts. Both research and anecdotal stories also point to the stress of the past few years, given the pandemic, political polarization, school safety concerns and staffing vacancies.
A September 2021 report from the National Superintendents Roundtable, based on a survey of 400 superintendents, revealed that some found the last year to be the hardest in their careers. Still, while two-thirds of respondents said they had considered quitting, 83% remained in their positions. Several cited their commitment to staff and students as reasons they stayed.
Meanwhile, ILO said that although women comprise the majority of the workforce in schools, less than a third serve as superintendents.
“Despite clear evidence that women leaders are underrepresented in education — even when they are equally or better qualified than the men being appointed — the majority of women who leave superintendent positions are still being replaced by men,” said Julia Rafal-Baer, ILO Group co-founder and managing partner, in a statement.
As of September, 150 of the 500 largest school districts in the U.S. had female superintendents. That number has increased only slightly compared to counts in the past. For instance, as of both March 1, 2018, and March 1, 2020, 145 of the 500 largest school districts were led by females, the report said.
The northeast has the highest percentage — 49% — of female superintendents serving in large districts in interim, permanent or outgoing roles. The southeast had the fewest, at 23%.
When looking at state superintendency, however, women are in the majority with 28 out of 51 state-level offices being led by women. While there's been nearly a 50% turnover in state superintendents since the start of the pandemic, the gender breakdown has been steady.
The report suggests one solution to gender equity in the district superintendency is for districts to raise awareness of potential female candidates already employed in the district so there can be more intentional planning for succession. Of the 150 largest districts led by women as of this past September, 56% had advanced through internal pipelines.
Additionally, women were more likely to be offered a permanent superintendent position if they first served as an interim superintendent. In fact, data from the report shows 56% of women superintendents in the largest districts began in interim roles.
For several months, Megan Van Fossan served as assistant to the superintendent for Sto-Rox School District in McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania, before being named substitute superintendent on May 16. Her title will be superintendent starting Feb. 1, 2023.
In her short time as interim leader, Van Fossan has helped develop programs for literacy interventions and social-emotional supports. Her ultimate goal is to design a system that's responsive to all students' individual needs.
"That was always my concern … we were designing and playing school for the illusionary average," Van Fossan said. "And we know better. That means we need to do better."
ILO Group said its Superintendent Research Project is the only formal, publicly available data set that tracks superintendent turnover by district and demographics. Third party data on education leadership turnover had not been collected since 2005, the firm said.