A district is as stable and grounded as its superintendent, according to some leaders and education experts. And given findings in a recent report from the Council of the Great City Schools (CGCS), which specifically states that the average tenure of urban superintendents increased from 2.3 years in 1999 to 3.6 years in 2010, an increase of 56 percent, educators across the nation are celebrating.
"It's good to see tenure going up," says Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators (AASA), which released a similar report, "The American School Superintendent: 2010 Decennial Study," in December. "It's become very apparent, and the research is strong in that area, that one of the key elements in running a successful district is stability. So if you have a revolving door, it's counterproductive, and there's never a chance to establish reforms or create programs that make a difference. Even a three-year period of time is inadequate."
Specifically, longer superintendent tenure has a positive effect on student achievement, according to research by McREL, a nonprofit research group based in Denver. It found a positive correlation between longevity and academic achievement. District leaders who focus on the right goals, manage change effectively and stick around long enough to see results tend to have higher-performing students. "Tenure absolutely matters," says Becca Bracy Knight, executive director of the Broad Center for the Management of School Systems, a training center funded by the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation that prepares successful American leaders to run urban school districts and improve student achievement. The center has trained Abelardo Saavedra, who was the superintendent of the Houston Independent School District from 2004 to 2009, and John Deasy, who takes over as superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District this month.
"We expect them to be superintendent at least five years if they want to make the impact they want," she says. "They can clear out a lot of debris and right things that are incredibly wrong in a short time, but if you really want to lay a foundation and make things last and get the district where it needs to be, you need to stay longer."
The CGCS's report, "Urban School Superintendents: Characteristics, Tenure and Salary," Seventh Survey, represents the leaders in the largest urban school districts. The CGCS represents 65 districts, serving 7.2 million K12 students among the nation's 48.7 million and about one-third of the nation's low-income and minority students.
Michael Casserly, the organization's executive director, says the "promising trend" of extended tenure might be the result of a number of factors, including the costs, time and energy associated with finding and securing new superintendents. The school board, which in many cases decides if a superintendent stays with a district or not, unless the superintendent is retiring or leaving for personal reasons, has become more aware. Board members understand the costs of turning over their administrative leadership so frequently and realize that such dedicated, quality school leaders "don't grow on trees," Casserly says. "They are recognizing how shallow the pool is."
As the accompanying charts for some of these school districts show, some district chiefs have served six years or more over the past few years, including NYC Chancellor Joel Klein, who served eight years and Hillsborough County's Earl Lennard who served nearly nine years. Bernard Hamilton, who is president-elect of the National Association of Black School Educators, adds that the nation needs more African-American superintendents due to the high number of African-American students in public schools. "That the number of superintendents is less representative of the student population tells us that there is not enough attention given to this need," he says.
Casserly says board members have implemented over the past decade more objective procedures that can better evaluate superintendents. "It's a far more objective and grounded set of explicit goals, which results in a less political evaluation process," he says. "At one time, tenure was often determined by feelings. It's still a relevant factor, but more superintendents are hired and evaluated based on explicit goals that the administration must attain."
Alberto Carvalho, superintendent of the Miami-Dade Public Schools and president-elect of the Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents (ALAS), says the dire economy that the nation is undergoing has possibly played a role. "Tough economic times previously might have resulted in greater conflict with the board and/or the community," he says. "That would often lead to a superintendent's ouster. But we're entering a new reality. And this tough economic time we're in now is a protracted one. It has not been a one-year event, and people are electing officials and recognizing that stability is a key factor of good leadership." He adds, "More people realize we have to manage the problem and deal with it"— not just get rid of a superintendent when times get rough.
Stressful Job Gets More Stressful
As Carvalho describes it, a school superintendent's job is typically full of juggling various tasks, including dealing with teacher quality issues; student achievement; equity for all students regardless of income, race or ethnicity; new federal guidelines on funding and programs; and new accountability demands. "It's an extremely noble and honorable position," he says, adding that it demands skills, passion and compassion.
He believes a key element of the job is the ability to navigate change. "Stability—the economic stability, policy stability and accountability stability—are not necessarily guaranteed," he says.
Top superintendents agree that this year has been an even greater challenge as they, as well as the nation, have struggled to continue to produce successful students while seeing funding plummet or, at best, stay the same. Doing more with less is now the standard. "I can't think of one organization that is under more pressure than urban public schools to improve," Casserly says. "That stress is focused on superintendents as the leaders of the organization. And I think that pressure has become more pronounced with budget cuts, pending reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the onset of the new Common Core Standards in reading and math, plus the new assessments that districts need to follow. ? And everyone wants more and wants it faster at a smaller expense. It was a high-pressure job under the best of circumstances. And I've seen the pressure of this job increase almost exponentially over the last few years."
Knight of the Broad Center suggests the job has become more stressful in part because expectations have risen. "Incremental change is no longer enough, and there is a growing realization that we need to dramatically increase student achievement and have kids be college and career ready," she adds. "People are finally realizing that we have a real crisis in urban education. We are much further behind as a nation than where we should be, globally and in terms of achievement gaps."
Domenech says that a superintendent is often the target for community anger when services are cut and employees are laid off. He adds that criticism is no longer isolated to board meetings but has been expanded due to technology, through which community members and the media can criticize the superintendent via blogs and e-mail.
Education Experience Still King
Most education experts agree that the best leaders understand the business side of running a district and know what is needed to improve achievement, but they have various opinions about what other qualities make the best kind of superintendent.
Despite the big headline stories in several large urban districts in which business managers or private sector people have been plucked to pull those districts out of near financial collapse and lagging student achievement, the CGCS's survey found that 91 percent of superintendents in 2010 still have K12 education backgrounds. Yet the percentage of superintendents who have come from careers in fields such as business, nonprofit administration, or the military is greater in the cities.
Casserly says the CGCS's annual survey usually shows these nontraditional superintendents comprise anywhere from 10 to 20 percent of the urban superintendents. "I think it's a good thing that we have as many nontraditionals as we do," he says. "They bring a different kind of experience with fresh ideas, fresh blood and energy, all of which are helpful to us as we are trying to improve public education in the big cities."
Knight believes that each leader needs to understand how to make strategic decisions in terms of allocating resources and human capital and how to engage the community. A traditional superintendent needs to know the business side, even if he or she was an excellent instructor and/or principal, and the former business leader needs to know the key levers for impacting student achievement and teaching and learning. "It doesn't mean someone outside education is a panacea," she adds. "There are good and bad leaders in the private sector."
Carvalho adds that leadership qualities are transferrable in education. "I think regardless of background, interested individuals who understand the product line and their constituency and the core function we represent could successfully lead," he says.
But Domenech draws a line, saying that knowledge of the education operation is "critical" to success as a district leader. "If you don't have that, then you are simply a manager," he says. "You can't be an educational leader if you've never been in the classroom or run a school." He accepts that business leaders or CEOs of school districts can lead if they have a deputy who can run the instructional side of the district, such as the case in New York City, where Shael Polakow- Suransky was appointed to serve as chief academic officer with the rank of senior deputy chancellor, directly under the system's new chancellor, Cathie Black, a former magazine and newspaper executive with no education experience.
The CGCS's and AASA's reports also point out that there are more female superintendents than there have been in the past decade. The largest increase in urban districts is of white women, who went from 0 to 9 percent from 1999 to 2010, the CGCS's report states. The AASA's report is more promising, revealing that 24 percent of superintendents nationwide are women. Hillsborough County (Fla.) Public Schools Superintendent MaryEllen Elia, Hawaii Department of Education Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi and New York City's Black are leading three of the 10 largest school districts.
But the CGCS's report also reveals a slight decrease in the percentage of Hispanic and black female superintendents. Both Carvalho and Hamilton say the numbers are alarming. "This decrease is a wake-up call to all minorities," Hamilton says. "We should all be concerned with this decline." Because Hispanics have become the largest minority group in the nation, Carvalho believes they should have a larger representation in school leadership. "I do believe the talent is there," he says.
Carvalho adds that all stakeholders, such as the community, elected school boards and superintendents, have a responsibility to identify, groom and hire qualified leaders. "One of my goals as president-elect of ALAS is to grow the organization commensurate with the national demographics and use this organization as a platform," he explains. He wants to ensure more minorities are represented in school administration to reflect the diverse student population.
Reasons for Leaving the Job
Despite the challenges, superintendents for the most part, still remain satisfied with the job, according to the AASA report. But only half of the respondents—51 percent—stated they planned to remain a superintendent by 2015, a finding that suggests a substantial turnover of power in the next few years. Often, superintendents are faced with a dissatisfied board, or they seek a new challenge at another district or in the private sector. Hamilton says, "Superintendents may be leaving more now than in the past because of greater opportunities for them in the public and private sectors," he says. "The number of opportunities is much greater than ever before for our skilled superintendents."
Casserly believes more superintendents are simply retiring. "It takes awhile to move up the ranks to the leadership levels, and after a number of years, a lot of them simply retire because they are old enough to do so," he says.
Carvalho adds that superintendents might just move on, or away from district administration, due to burnout from the stressful job that demands juggling various tasks.
But Knight says the relationship between the school board and superintendent is paramount: "If a superintendent feels the board is not guiding the district in the right way, or if they feel they don't have a supportive board, it's almost impossible to be effective as a leader."
Unfortunately, in some big city school districts, including Miami-Dade, Washington, D.C., and Seattle, superintendents who have created smart reforms with positive results have been "removed too soon," says Thomas Payzant, professor of practice at Harvard Graduate School of Education and Boston Public Schools former superintendent. For example, he points to Maria Goodloe-Johnson, Seattle's former superintendent who was pushed out. But under her leadership, Seattle raised student achievement faster than dozens of other big cities nationwide, he says. "After four years of aggressive reforms that included closing underperforming schools and holding staff accountable under a new evaluation system, Goodloe-Johnson faced growing pushback from the teachers' union, community groups and the board," he says.
In other examples, Chicago Public Schools' CEO Paul Vallas resigned in 2001 after criticism from the mayor and after a new union president who ran on an anti-Vallas platform was elected. David Brewer III left Los Angeles Unified School District in 2008 under pressure by school board members and civic leaders who lost confidence in him, and Miami-Dade's former superintendent, Rudy Crew, and school board members agreed to part ways in 2008, after a year filled with racial recriminations, rising tensions over the school budget and declining enrollment. And according to published news reports, when Roger C. Cuevas, Miami- Dade County Public Schools superintendent from 1996 to 2001, was voted out by the board, one board member reportedly criticized her colleagues for blaming Cuevas for the district's problems, saying the board never established clear goals or expectations and never gave him a chance to fix problems.
Domenech says when a relationship between a board and a superintendent sours, the source is "almost entirely political," sometimes involving a change in the composition of the board. "A new board comes in, and they might feel they want their own person. And maybe the new members of the board ran for a particular agenda which was different from what the superintendent supported."
Domenech adds that without the various spats between school board members and superintendents, "most superintendents would love to stay longer. A lot of districts do hold on to their superintendents, and they reward them financially and with support and praise."
Angela Pascopella is senior editor.
DA Research on the superintendent tenure chart of the 10 largest school districts was compiled with the use of various published news reports by Kurt Dyrli, Judy Hartnett, Marion Herbert, Stephanie Johns and Angela Pascopella.