Will superintendent turnover create a school leadership void after COVID?

Half of school superintendents are uncertain about their futures or are considering leaving their jobs as workloads soar.

Shortages of substitute teachers, bus drivers, and other school staff have caused plenty of concern during the pandemic. Less attention has been paid to the labor pressures two years of disruption and uncertainty have placed on the highest levels of school leadership.

Evidence is now emerging that the effects on the central office are skewing along gender and racial lines.

In the past year, 13% of superintendents resigned. Although that is a normal rate, turnover over the last 12 months has been higher among superintendents of urban districts and districts serving mostly students of color, according to the “Flux in the Educator Labor Market” survey by the RAND Corporation, a research firm and think tank.

Also, half of school superintendents are uncertain about their futures or are considering leaving their jobs in the next few years, according to RAND’s survey. About a quarter said they will likely leave their posts soon, either when their contracts or the pandemic ends. Others said they will 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.

Female leaders are losing ground

Among the nation’s 500 largest school districts, just over one-third have experienced—or are currently undergoing—a change in leadership since March 2020, according to a separate report by the ILO Group, an education strategy and policy firm focused on recovery from COVID. A closer look at the 154 districts that have hired a replacement reveals a growing gender imbalance:

  • 70% of newly appointed superintendents have been men
  • The cumulative proportion of male leaders in these districts increased from 65% to 69%
  • Of the 51 female superintendents who left during the pandemic, 39 (76%) were replaced by men
  • 76% of teachers are women but the number of females drops to less than one-third at the superintendent level

“Despite the education workforce being dominated by women, inequities continue to persist at the superintendent level and the top jobs are still going disproportionately to men,” The ILO Group’s report says. “The disparity between men and women leading our nationʼs largest school systems isnʼt just unfair—it also deprives millions of children of the leadership talent of so much of the pool.”

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The ILO Group’s report blames this disparity on stereotypes about the capabilities of women and perceptions of leadership that center on traits associated with men. Also, job descriptions for superintendents tend to disadvantage women who take on a disproportionate share of caring for children and elderly relatives. The report suggests that school boards and elected officials set clear and transparent goals for gender equity at the superintendent level. Districts must also more intentionally groom women to take leadership roles by providing them with mentors, coaching, and contracts that allow for sufficient family time.

Workloads appear to be one of the main reasons leaders are thinking about leaving their districts. Superintendents who were working an average 59-hour week prior to COVID reported working 15% more hours since the pandemic began, reaching an average of 67 hours per week. The workloads were similar among leaders of districts of all types and sizes. And even in 2019, prior to COVID, the hours superintendents reported working were “substantially higher” than the hours reported by private-sector chief executives, the RAND report found.

The firm’s researchers are also warning about worsening shortages and increased turnover if districts hit a “fiscal cliff” of budget cuts when ESSER relief funding expires. “Although increased pay and benefits is the typical and clearest solution for reducing shortages of workers, public schools operate within budgets set by federal, state, and local government contributions, and they face trade-offs when increasing pay,” the RAND report says. “A potential silver lining of these shortages in the longer term would be if they help convince policymakers to increase school funding to support increased wages or benefits to recruit or retain staff or if they spur innovation in school staffing.”

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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