The superintendency is probably one of the least understood jobs in education.

“Learning Leadership” column, May 2011 issue of eSchool News—I became a superintendent at the age of 32. By that time I had received my doctorate from Hofstra University in education research, and I remember one of my psychology professors telling the class of would-be superintendents that we were not paranoid if we thought somebody was coming after us.

I have learned over the years that my old professor was right, and that paranoia is a very useful skill for superintendents to hone. So today, with education under attack—with salaries, pensions, and benefits coming under scrutiny, and governors proposing caps on the salaries of superintendents—we are not being paranoid; they really are after us.

The superintendency is probably one of the least understood jobs in education. Few people know what a superintendent does. My friends used to think that, because I was in education, I had off summers and all of the days when school was closed. They also thought that my hours were the same as the school day. The reality is that superintendents are on 24-7, which makes sense when you consider that they bear total responsibility for everything that happens in the school district.

The average day tends to run 12 hours, extending into evening meetings and events. Weekends consist of sporting events, plays, and other school or community-related ceremonies. I lost count of the number of times I received a call in the middle of the night, causing me to get dressed and go to the scene of a fire, a break-in, or—worst of all—the scene of a tragic accident where students or staff members were involved. And of course, there are the winter storms mornings when superintendents are up at three in the morning, analyzing data to determine if schools will be closed or not—a decision that is often criticized and applauded at the same time by different elements of the school community.

More from Dan Domenech:

Scarce resources, insufficient talent threaten to sink public education

School leaders need more help, and not red tape, to transform education

How we should improve on NCLB

I often receive phone calls from reporters wanting to know why superintendents are paid so much more than teachers. In the “Salaries and Wages Paid Professional and Support Personnel in Public Schools, 2009-2010,” published by Educational Research Service, the mean salary for a school superintendent is reported as $159,634. The mean salary for a highly paid classroom teacher (90th percentile) is reported as $94,135. That is a significant difference between the salary of an experience professional in the classroom and an equally experienced professional running the school district. However, if you break it down to a daily rate to account for the disparity in the number of days worked, at 184 days—the typical school calendar—the teacher comes out with a daily rate of $512. If we look at the superintendent who is on 24-7, but we deduct 54 days for some weekends and holidays, reducing the number of days worked to 310, the daily rate computes to $515. Thus, by breaking it down to a per diem, there is little difference between the salary of a teacher and a superintendent.

The sad reality is that both professionals are underpaid, given their degrees and years of experience. A recent report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development found that salaries for teachers in the United States with 15 years of experience are, on average, 60 percent or below the salaries of 25- to 64-year-olds with similar higher education (OECD’s 2010 edition of “Education at a Glance,” Table D3.1).

Superintendent salaries vary by school district size and region. The mean salary for a superintendent in a school district of 25,000 students or more is $225,897. That seems like a lot of money, until you compare that salary to those of CEOs running similar-size companies in the S&P 500. Salary alone for those professionals comes in at $1,041,012—and total compensation for that group averages to $9,246,697. We are urged to run our schools like businesses, but not to pay the same.

The most recent report on the superintendency, “The American School Superintendent: 2010 Decennial Study,” provides us with a factual description of the many aspects of the job. Since Birdsey G. Northrop of Massachusetts became AASA’s first president in 1865, the superintendency has evolved through various phases. During Birdsey’s years, the superintendent was considered to be a teacher-scholar who worked full-time supervising classroom instruction and assured a uniform curriculum. He—because in those days, superintendents were predominantly male—emerged as the community’s educational leader, a role that is still very much a function of the job today. Note that “nontraditional” superintendents, those hired for the job without any education experience, fail to fulfill this historic requirement for being a superintendent.

It was not until the first half of the 20th century that the role of the superintendent as a business manager emerged. Prompted by the Industrial Revolution, school boards in large city districts began to require managerial skills in addition to pedagogical knowledge. Today, managerial skills—particularly in these tough economic times—are more important than ever. This is perhaps one of the reasons why nontraditional superintendents with business backgrounds are being hired by large school systems like New York City.

More from Dan Domenech:

Scarce resources, insufficient talent threaten to sink public education

School leaders need more help, and not red tape, to transform education

How we should improve on NCLB

The period between the Great Depression and the end of World War II gave birth to the superintendent as a statesman. The growth of school systems and the growing relationship between them and the communities they served, as well as other governmental entities, required these managerial/educational leaders to delve into the political arena and engage in policy making as it affected the schools. This aspect of the superintendency is critical today at both the state and federal levels. With the pending reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the actions being taken at many statehouses as a result of revenue shortfalls, organizations like AASA and our state affiliates are playing a major advocacy role in helping to shape education policy—and superintendent leaders are effective in providing testimony before legislative bodies.

The 1980s introduced the fourth phase in the evolution of the superintendency—the superintendent as a communicator. Until then, the superintendent’s communication was authoritative and down the chain of command. But as the push for more collaborative forms of leadership grew, and as various community stakeholders demanded a greater voice in district operations, superintendents had to develop skills that would allow them to engage their various communities effectively by listening to stakeholders’ concerns and clearly communicating the district’s goals and objectives, as well as the methods by which they would be accomplished. Today’s social media—including Facebook, Twitter, web pages, and blogs—along with newspapers, radio, and television, have added yet another dimension to the superintendent’s communication challenges.

Despite the challenges and stress of the job, 96.6 percent of the superintendents surveyed indicate they are satisfied with their career choice, and 88.3 percent would do it all over again if given the choice. The percentage of female superintendents has increased to 24 percent, almost doubling the figure from 2000. African American and Latino superintendents, at 2 percent each, remain vastly underrepresented in an occupation where 94 percent of the members are white.

Overworked, underpaid, stressed out, and under attack—but highly dedicated to the mission and still loving their jobs: That’s the American superintendent.

Dan Domenech is executive director of the American Association of School Administrators (AASA).

More from Dan Domenech:

Scarce resources, insufficient talent threaten to sink public education

School leaders need more help, and not red tape, to transform education

How we should improve on NCLB