Analysis: Half of the country’s largest school districts faced leadership changes

Between March 2020 and September 2022, 246 of the 500 largest school districts have already undergone or are currently undergoing a change in superintendents, according to an analysis by the ILO Group.

These are challenging times in education for district leaders. It all started with challenges posed by the pandemic which further exacerbated preexisting flaws in America’s educational systems, such as political interference, inadequate support for teachers and students, and the list goes on.

At the start of the school year, 50% of principals said they were stressed out to the point of quitting according to a survey from the National Association of Secondary School Principals. Heavy workloads, administrative tasks, and insufficient time for instructional leadership continue to be driving factors swaying district leaders away from the profession.

But what about superintendents? The latest snapshot from the ILO Group, a women-owned education strategy and policy firm, reveals how drastic the turnover rate was for district leaders since March 2020.

Here’s what they found:

  • Between March 1, 2020, and Sept. 1, 2022, 49% (246) of the 500 largest school districts in the nation have already or are currently undergoing leadership changes.
  • Seven of those districts have switched leaders three or more times over the past two years.
  • 40 districts have changed leaders twice.
  • As of Sept. 1, there were 27 districts under the leadership of an interim or acting superintendent.

Most notably, the 246 districts that saw changes in leadership impacted nearly 12.5 million students out of 21.5 million in total across all 500 districts.

Job turnover among superintendents, according to the report, has reached a historic high. Since the end of the pandemic, the total number of superintendent transitions increased by 46%, and the proportion of districts seeking changes in leadership by 34%.

However, leadership turnover transcends even beyond the district level, the report suggests. Nearly half (47%) of states saw changes at the state education superintendent or commissioner level since March 2020.

In terms of representation in district leadership, ILO suggests that women leaders are in a constant “uphill battle.” Less than one-third of superintendents are women, according to the report, despite women making up 76% of the teacher workforce.

“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 ILO Group Co-Founder and Managing Partner Dr. Julia Rafal-Baer in a statement. “Half of the nation’s largest districts have now had a change of leadership since the start of the pandemic, but women still hold only 30 percent of the superintendent positions in our country. The imperative to close the gender gap isn’t simply about representation, it’s about giving students the kind of leadership that is needed to accelerate learning during a moment of grave educational crisis.”

Recommendations for school boards

Districts can and should be doing more to provide more opportunities for women in leadership, according to the report. Here are five simple steps they recommend school boards consider during their search for their district’s next superintendent:

  1. Prioritize gender equity: Search firms should encourage discussion on gender bias. Additionally, at least two leaders of color should be included among the pool of potential superintendent candidates.
  2. Be transparent: Set clear goals for supporting gender equity at the leadership level while demanding search firms and school boards commit to those goals.
  3. Support families and well-being: A healthy work/life balance can be the simple solution in helping leaders, regardless of their gender, commit to their jobs and their families.
  4. Give women salaries equal to men: According to the report, female superintendents tend to make $20-30,000 less than men. “The solution is simple: pay women the same as you pay men for the same work,” it reads.
  5. Provide support systems with intent: There are three ways districts can do this: offer coaching, develop networks of women, and sponsor rather than mentor.

More from DA: Leadership series: It’s time to reconnect students to their school


Micah Ward
Micah Wardhttp://districtadministration.com
Micah Ward is a District Administration staff writer. He recently earned his master’s degree in Journalism at the University of Alabama. He spent his time during graduate school working on his master’s thesis. He’s also a self-taught guitarist who loves playing folk-style music.

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