You are here


State of the Superintendency

Stress and satisfaction in a changing profession

Today's superintendents are generally older and more stressed out than in years past, but they are also extremely satisfied with their jobs. And contrary to some media reports, they get along well with their boards, according to an American Association of School Administrators' study on superintendent positions.

The State of the American School Superintendency: A Mid-Decade Study, by Thomas E. Glass and Louis A. Franceschini and published by Rowman & Littlefield Education, uses data from 1,338 superintendents surveyed in 2006.

This process of studying school superintendency started in 1886, when several superintendents and university professors in the National Education Association organized the first formal group, the report states. The first report, or so-called yearbook, The Status of the Superintendency, was released in 1923. The author, George Strayer, a professor of education administration at Teachers College at Columbia University, created it because "one must know facts before he can determine procedure."

In the following decades, the studies included demographic data and issues facing superintendents. While most of the studies come every 10 years, this midterm study was released due to the rapid rate of change in the job caused by state accountability programs and the federal No Child Left Behind law, the report says.

Aging Profession

A big surprise for some district leaders is that today's superintendents are older. The mean age is the highest in history, at nearly 55 years. In years past, superintendents started their positions at around age 40, after about five years as a classroom teacher, another five to seven years as a buildinglevel administrator, and another five years in district administration. In past years, the typical retirement age has been 57 or 58, after 17 years as superintendent.

"I was really surprised that the average age went from 51 to 55 in five years," or the last time the study was completed, says Paul Houston, AASA executive director. "We have a rapidly aging profession."

Older superintendents are not staying in the position for longer than a few years, because they are nearing retirement, Houston says. They also lack the wisdom from experience that others who have been in the top position for nearly 20 years have.

One reason for the increase in age among superintendents might be the reluctance of central office administrators to move from a "safe" position to one that may require a move to another district or state. Another reason might be a reluctance to leave a nontransferable state retirement system, the study states.

When older superintendents land a position, they generally stay a few years, acting as "caretakers" and not creating much change, Houston says. Then they either retire or move on, possibly to another district. This reduces the "new, fresh ideas" and energy that younger superintendents could bring to districts.

The estimated mean tenure of superintendents is 5.5 years, but 15 percent of superintendents have served just one year, another 15 percent have served two years, and 15 percent have served 10 or more years, according to the survey.

Female Leadership

Some good news is that nearly 22 percent of superintendents are female, a better representation considering the majority of females in teaching and other positions. Of these female superintendents, 55 percent are in small or rural districts, 35 percent are in the suburbs, and 9 percent are in urban areas. In the 1992 study, female superintendents tended to be clustered in smaller districts.

Female superintendents are more likely (nearly 40 percent) to enter the position from an assistant superintendent post, unlike males, who tend to rise more so from the principal position, with nearly 53 percent of them having done so.

"That's hopeful, because the pipeline is women, primarily, and we've had a clogged pipeline," Houston says. "We had this pipeline [of assistant superintendents] that was primarily female, and there was a shortage of superintendents because they weren't going into the position. I have always maintained that women culturally are well prepared for the role because they're more collaborative and lean toward bringing more people together, which are some of the skills necessary for being a good superintendent."

Superintendent Randall Collins of Waterford (Conn.) Public Schools says he's concerned that there don't appear to be many superintendents-in-training. "You don't see the numbers of people in training who want to be superintendents to replace the mass amounts of people leaving," says

Collins, who is also AASA president-elect. That will lead to more rapid turnovers, as more positions open and superintendents have their pick, he adds.

Meanwhile, minorities only comprise 6 percent of the total population of superintendents. The study suggests that superintendent placement aligns with racial composition in a district, and minority superintendents are often leading urban districts.

Stressed but Satisfied

As stress seems to grow across the board in American business, so does it grow in the American school. About 44 percent of superintendents say they feel considerable stress, and nearly 15 percent say they feel very great stress, bringing stress levels to nearly 60 percent.

Factors could include tight funding, NCLB mandates, negative media attention, individual board member relations, and conflicting community demands, the study claims.

The study suggests that some districts are inherently dysfunctional but that some superintendents are inherently less susceptible to stress and would be best matched to high-stress districts.

At the same time, nearly 90 percent of superintendents say they feel very satisfied or satisfied in their positions.

Roughly 35 percent of superintendents say they entered the job because they wanted to have a greater impact on student achievement, and another 24 percent wanted to be leaders.

"The job comes with a lot of purpose," Houston says. "And you can handle stress more easily when you have a purpose."


Collins agrees that his job is "great" even with NCLB pressure. "All you have to do is go to one of the schools and see one of those faces and you see possibilities," he says. "What could this kid become?"

Jerry Weast, superintendent of Montgomery County (Md.) Public Schools, says superintendents must have learned or are doing a better job in managing their problems and issues and keeping them in context. Considering the nation's problems, including Social Security funding concerns, global warming and international security, it's critical that the children in schools today are well educated, Weast says. It's critical that creativity is not "sucked out" and that problem solving is still part of the increasingly tight school day, he adds.

Board Relations

Contrary to some media stories that pump up superintendent and board clashes, most superintendents, or 93 percent, say their relationships with their board members are either very good or good. This has not varied too much from past 10-year studies.

If there are unresolved conflicts, superintendents and board members will create informal arrangements for the superintendent to look for another job. Public contract buyouts, nonrenewals and firings happen less than what is portrayed in the media, the survey states. Only 1 to 3 percent of superintendents are publicly fired, according to 10-year studies of the past.

"All you have to do is go to one of the schools and see one of those faces and yousee possibilities. What could this kid become? -Randall Collins, superintendent, Waterford (Conn.) Public Schools

"When superintendents talk about bad boards, they are really just talking about one or two board members" who are "driving them crazy," Houston says. But they are generally content with most board members.

That only 9 percent of superintendents say they believe they were hired as change agents for a district could mean that "change is too disruptive" to the board and parents, Houston says. He believes that boards hire superintendents not so much because they are leaders, but because they want stability.

Collins, a 27-year superintendent, adds that he has always had a good relationship with his board. "At times, individual members have created sleepless nights in terms of an agenda, or an ax to grind, and in terms of different philosophies, and that can be disruptive to the board-superintendent relationship," he says.

No Child Left Behind

Superintendents are still wary of the effects that NCLB mandates are having on the nation's schools, the study states.

About 44 percent of superintendents feel that a growth or progress model should be used to assess Adequate Yearly Progress. Houston and Collins agree that the percentage is fairly low probably because many superintendents question what a growth or progress model would

look like under the reauthorized law. Growth of the same cohort of students should be measured year to year, they say, but superintendents wonder what it really means under the law. "A lot are skeptical of what it would look like, as opposed to saying that growth is bad," Houston says.

Weast, who wants a true growth model that would drive teaching and learning, agrees that the law is trying to push for "large seismic changes" but that the "devil is in the details" and a lack of federal funds makes it tough. Collins says the expanding role of the federal government in education has put even more requirements on superintendents. Meanwhile, communities are not interested in going along, he says. Communities want more comprehensive education and don't want schools to just focus on reading and math testing, but the law forces districts to put more resources and time into meeting AYP. "I just know that 27 years ago, when I was a superintendent in Maine, I worked with the board; we worked with the community; we established goals for education and had a consensus on where we wanted education to go," he says. "It's a collaborative approach."

Talk Up the Job

Overall, the superintendency is a worthy and meaningful position, the survey states. To encourage more principals and assistant superintendents to take the job requires more positive discussions, Collins suggests. "We emphasize the time and stress involved," he says. "And we don't emphasize the joy of the job and the ability to make change."

The State of the American School Superintendency is available for purchase at

Angela Pascopella is senior features editor.