Voice of the superintendent: Feeling more optimistic—except for one big fear

One challenge towers over all the others as the greatest barrier to K12 success: staffing.

Here’s what the collective voice of the superintendent sounds like after three years of turbulence: “We’re in a better place, but teacher shortages could stall progress.”

Superintendents are feeling more successful and optimistic than they were a year ago, but mid-tenure leaders—those with three to 10 years at the top post—are the ones most likely to leave the profession in the near future, according to the “2023 Voice of the Superintendent Survey” by EAB, a K12 consultancy. Overall, one in four superintendents who responded revealed they may retire in the next two to three years.

And despite the returning optimism, superintendents say their districts—compared to pre-COVID—are in worse shape in several categories, including academic readiness and communicating with parents. Their greatest challenges in these realms are the surge in disruptive behavior and the ever-growing mental health needs of students, they said.

Yet one challenge—staffing—towers over all the others as the biggest barrier to success. “Low morale and burnout continue to plague our schools, preventing teachers from doing their best work today, causing them to question the sustainability of the profession and causing those who might otherwise have pursued a career in the classroom to choose another path,” EAB’s study says.

Digging deeper, hiring has emerged as a bigger hurdle than retention at just about every level of K12. For instance:

  • 84% of superintendents expressed moderate to major concern about hiring teachers, while just under half are worried about retaining them.
  • When it comes to principals, 63% said it is difficult to hire for the position while 49% cited retention as a challenge.
  • The biggest pressures are in special education, where 97% of superintendents fear they won’t be able to hire adequate staff. More than 80% are pessimistic about retaining special education teachers.

More from DA: In a wave of superintendent hires, one school board defies strong public sentiment

Overall staffing concerns are most severe among superintendents whose districts have greater numbers of students receiving free and reduced-price lunches. According to the survey, 100% of superintendents in districts with 75% or greater free and reduced rates said teacher morale is flagging. And across all districts, it’s teachers whose morale is raising the most concerns though most district leaders are also keenly worried about burnout among support staff, principals and district administrators.

The good news? Most superintendents also believe that district leaders can help boost teacher and staff morale.

One of the biggest drivers of these tensions is political interference, according to the survey. Most said the level of disrespectful communication that parents have targeted at teachers and administrators has increased sharply. In contrast to the link between poverty and many other K12 concerns, it’s superintendents in the most affluent districts who reported the most interference from outside political interests.

When confronting teacher shortages, superintendents considered a range of solutions, from AI technology that would allow them “to do more with less” to expanding the talent pool. The latter may be difficult as the number of students completing teacher preparation programs plunged by more than a third from 2008 to 2019, and dropped further during COVID.

“The near-term outlook for staffing in schools is not good,” the report concludes. “With shortages likely to continue across classroom teachers, counselors and other key roles, districts will likely need to explore new, innovative staffing models to meet the academic and social/emotional needs of today’s students.”

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.

Most Popular