Since 2019, the superintendency was changed forever. What once was a profession that required you to ensure students met their academic potential is now a multifaceted and complex job that requires intense training and preparation. As a result, turnover has reached unprecedented levels, and there are no signs it will be slowing down any time soon.
According to 2022 data from the Superintendent Research Project, nearly half (49%) of the 500 largest school districts have faced leadership changes since March 2020. The reasons why are complicated and diverse, but in most cases, they fall down to two driving factors: politics and blameless inexperience.
Causes of turnover
Michael Collins, president of Ray and Associates, the oldest superintendent search firm in America that specializes in school executive leadership searches, says the business has never been more important.
“Part of it is the turnover factor, and part of it is the attack on public education,” he says. “To be quite honest with you, if we’re going to find the best leaders, we’re going to have to cultivate them because right now the demand far exceeds the supply.”
Over the past two years, he says they’ve conducted searches for superintendents at a much higher rate, and it’s getting progressively worse. It all follows a trend, he says. It started with the common turnover that is a result of society simply getting older.
“Let’s face it, superintendents were 50 to 70, typically,” he says. “They were going to start leaving in bigger numbers than before anyway. And then you add the pandemic to it. So, what you had at the end of the 2019-20 school year was a vast majority of them not leaving because they didn’t want to leave their district, because their school boards were pleading, ‘Don’t go, don’t go.’”
By the end of the 2020-21 academic year, he adds, was the beginning of a “mass exodus.” Districts faced normal turnover coupled with the resignations of those who decided to stick it out one more year but inevitably decided at the height of the pandemic it was time to step down.
From 2019 to the present day, Collins says, there will have been more than 3,000 more superintendents leaving than there normally would be.
“If you’ve got a teacher shortage, a bus driver shortage and shortages in corporate America, you’re going to have the same thing in public schools,” he points out.
Beyond the challenges that drove leaders out during the pandemic, like masking, safety protocols, remote learning and new instructional technology, he makes note of two driving factors for superintendent turnover: political interference and blameless inexperience.
“Now we have this whole attack that comes out of that political, adult-idea law conversation that, pardon me, continuously forgets to talk about what’s best for children and their learning completely,” he says. “Where is the largest number of searches? They’re in those states that are being most prohibitive.”
The principalship is also dwindling, according to Collins. It was once the dominant pipeline for recruiting district leaders. Now, leaders are coming from less suitable positions and are expected to cultivate the next generation of learners. It’s simply challenging, he says.
“The principal departure rate is higher than it’s ever been now, particularly secondary principals,” he says. “That was the number one spotting ground for superintendents over the past 50 years, let’s say. There were over 20% of America’s principals that didn’t come back this past year.”
So where do districts look to next if not their school principals? Well according to Collins, they’re looking to their cabinets, which are being “drained.”
“In past years, we would typically replace seven to 10 cabinet members per year,” he says. “In the last six months, we’ve conducted 21 searches.”
As far as preparing aspiring leaders to enter the superintendency, he says coaching has reached levels of importance that could never have been anticipated. The profession looks vastly different than it did even five years ago.
“You used to have to be able to chew gum and walk at the same time,” he says. “You’ve got to be able to chew gum, walk and run a marathon right now.”
Collins has spent the last three Saturdays with aspiring leaders and superintendents in Zoom workshops focusing on how to prepare for the job. In 2023, he says they must understand what it now entails.
“All I hear [from school boards] is, ‘Can you bring us leaders that can deal with social-emotional and behavioral challenges of students and staff, close learning gaps, understand the communication and political skills to deal with the public and select school board members?’ Those are the things we’re being asked for.”
Recommendations for new and aspiring leaders
For those who are new to superintendency or those who aspire to be, Collins says there are three key elements to understand. First, it’s being able to envision yourself as a leader from now until 2030, not, “‘How do I get back to 2015 to 2018.’” It’s about preparing leaders for what’s in front of them and what’s to come.
“Because, like I said before, what once was isn’t coming back,” he says.
Secondly, the most important thing they can do is build cultures that are student-centered and welcome the thoughts and engagement of parents without losing sight of what’s best in an educational environment, not a political environment.
Lastly, and perhaps the most critical, focus on taking care of yourself.
“Build an environment where staff is also encouraged to take care of themselves, otherwise they can’t stay in the work very long,” he says.
Future leaders should also take advantage of coaching services like District Administration‘s Superintendents Academy, a nine-day hybrid academy that seeks to equip participants with a solid mastery of the “complex academic, political and logistical rigors inherent in running a K12 school district,” according to their website.