Are superintendents still happy at work as the pressures keep piling up?

Heightened turnover among district leaders appears unlikely heading into the 2022-23 school year.

It just might be that superintendents and their teams aren’t that burned out after three pandemic-plagued years. Despite reports of skyrocketing levels of stress and widespread job dissatisfaction throughout the ranks, K-12 has yet to experience a mass exodus of educators, according to new research by the RAND Corporation think tank.

The trend holds when it comes to superintendents. While nearly all of the superintendents surveyed by RAND this spring said their work had gotten harder, most of them–85%–also said they are satisfied with their jobs. These positive feelings mean heightened turnover among district leaders is unlikely heading into the 2022-23 school year. Here’s what else RAND’s poll found:

  • 13% of superintendents had expected to resign before the 2022-23 school year, a rate on par with pre-pandemic turnover estimates.
  • Job-related stress, followed by community politics, topped superintendents’ reasons for considering leaving their position.
  • Superintendents in majority-white suburban and rural districts were more likely than urban leaders to say they’ve considered resigning.

The last finding may be a result of urban districts and districts serving higher-poverty populations receiving more COVID relief funding, which may mean leaders were less stressed about finances.

Still, in a report released earlier this year, half of the superintendents polled told RAND they were uncertain about their futures or were considering leaving their jobs in the next few years. About a quarter said they were likely to leave their posts soon–either when their contracts expire or the pandemic ends. Others said they would leave when they land “a more desirable job.” The other 50% said they plan to stay as long as they can or until they are eligible for retirement benefits.

The more recent analysis found that 9% of superintendents are considering leaving at end of the 2022-23 school year, 12% in 2023-24 and 6% in 2024-25. Here are the top reasons that could cause more superintendents to consider leaving and the percentages who said so:

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  1. Job-related stress: 54%
  2. Community politics: 47%
  3. Excessive work hours: 36%
  4. Political divisions in the community over COVID-19 vaccination or safety practices: 32%
  5. Insufficient funding to offer quality instruction: 23%
  6. School board relations: 23%
  7. Earning less pay or benefits than what another district might offer: 21%
  8. Lack of respect: 19%
  9. Political divisions in the community over critical race theory: 17%
  10. State accountability requirements for schools: 16%

Superintendents have been saying in various surveys that their jobs have been getting more and more difficult over the past decade as schools take on more responsibilities, such as dental care and psychotherapy, for the well-being of students. Nearly all of the leaders surveyed–across districts of all sizes, income levels and demographics–said schools are expected to do more than they did just 10 years ago.

Still, superintendents’ level of contentment has far exceeded that of the wider workforce, where 45% to 60% of workers said they are satisfied with their jobs in polls conducted over the last two decades.

Strengthening leadership teams

RAND’s analysis recommends that school boards and K-12 leader preparation programs recommit to developing strong, collaborative senior teams that can take some of the administrative load off superintendents. “More-distributed leadership could make the superintendent position more attractive insofar as it could reduce the high levels of job-related stress and long work hours,” the analysis says. “In addition, more manageable hours could make the position more tenable for women, who have historically balanced more family responsibilities than their male counterparts and remain underrepresented in the position generally.”

Education associations and superintendent certification programs should also be scrutinizing superintendent pipelines to determine how attractive the job remains, the local reasons that superintendents leave, and if there are enough candidates to replace leaders as they retire.

“The high rate of job satisfaction among current sitting superintendents is reassuring and makes us less concerned about a possible mass exodus,” the researchers wrote. “But there are still concerns about the long-term health of the superintendency.”

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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