Roughly half of U.S. superintendents to retire soon

A new report examines how the superintendency is changing.

Today’s school superintendents are more likely than they were 10 years ago to be women, and to be older—and nearly half are planning to retire in the next five years, according to a study released by the American Association of School Administrators (AASA).

“The American School Superintendent: 2010 Decennial Study” is based on a survey of nearly 2,000 superintendents from school districts across the U.S. It examines historical and contemporary perspectives on the superintendency, characteristics and demographics of superintendents and their districts, superintendents’ professional experiences and relationships with school boards, the nature of the school superintendent role itself, and the social and political climate in which a school superintendent works.

The survey suggests that a diverse knowledge of many subjects, including law, finance, and technology, is desirable for today’s superintendents, who face myriad challenges in leading the 21st-century school system.

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The work is one is a series of similar studies conducted every 10 years since 1923 and provides a national perspective about the roles and responsibilities of the contemporary school superintendent.

AASA Executive Director Dan Domenech said a superintendent can use the report as a benchmark to compare his or her job with other superintendents around the nation.

“The report is a thorough analysis of the work of the superintendent, focusing on issues, challenges, and concerns,” Domenech said.

It details important information such as “how much time is spent on various activities? What are the pluses and minuses of the many community stakeholders a superintendent interacts with? What skills prove most beneficial in getting the job done? How do superintendents relate to school board members?” he added.

“Surprisingly, in spite of the pressures of the job, the majority of superintendents love what they do and would do it all over again,” Domenech said. “Such high job satisfaction can be a motivator that may keep our education leaders at the task of running our nation’s schools.”

Key findings in the AASA report include:

  • The work portfolio of America’s superintendents is increasingly diverse, encompassing not only student achievement, but the diversification of student and staff populations, the explosion of technology, expanded expectations from the government, the school board and the community, and the globalization of society.
  • The percentage of female superintendents has increased substantially since 1992. In this study, nearly one in four respondents (24.1 percent) was a woman. (In 2000, the percentage was 13.2.)
  • Only about half (51 percent) of respondents said they planned to still be a school superintendent in 2015—a finding suggesting the probability of substantial turnover in the next few years.
  • Non-minority group respondents more often entered the superintendency before the age of 46 than did their peers in the minority group. Minority group respondents were more than twice as likely as their peers in the non-minority group to report that they had encountered discrimination in their pursuit of the superintendency.
  • The level of job satisfaction expressed by superintendents remains high. A high percentage would again seek to occupy the same position if given the chance to relive their careers.

When it comes to superintendents’ professional experiences, most surveyed followed a traditional career path through teacher and building-level principal positions. In a departure from previous studies, many superintendents began their careers in administration as assistant principals.

Sixty-nine percent of superintendents reported being very satisfied with their career choice, and 27 percent said they are moderately satisfied. Building off job satisfaction, nearly two-thirds (63.2 percent) said they would definitely opt to be a superintendent again, and 25.1 percent said they would probably do so.

Slightly fewer than half of respondents (45.3 percent) reported having earned a doctoral degree. Eighty-three percent said they found professional development opportunities useful or very useful, and the three most relevant continuing education topics were law and legal issues, finance, and personnel management.

Respondents were asked to rank different academic courses in terms of their importance, designating for each course whether the course was extremely important, moderately important, unimportant, or not applicable because it the respondent did not enroll in the course. Nearly three-quarters (72.7 percent) said school law was extremely important, 63.6 percent said school finance was extremely important, and 50 percent said school public relations were extremely important.

The study notes that “this finding, coupled with the finding related to the importance of specific academic courses, reveals the extent to which superintendents face legal and fiscal problems, even in a political climate where reform and accountability occupy center stage.”

Respondents reported that the vast majority of policy recommendations made by superintendents were approved by schools boards—a trend also reported in a 2000 survey. Nearly 75 percent of superintendents reported that their districts had not been formally evaluated. Overall, 97 percent of responding superintendents said they maintained positive relationships with all (64 percent) or most (33 percent) school board members. The majority of superintendents (91.3 percent) said they are very satisfied or moderately satisfied with their school boards.

“Today in this country, education is a hot topic. This report provides a clear view of how a key group of educators can make education work. We can use this [study] and its conclusions to improve the quality of our leaders,” Domenech said.

“Given superintendents’ importance to society and the demanding nature of their position, the decennial studies provide insightful information for both public policy and professional development,” said Theodore Kowalski, educational administration professor and Kuntz Family Chair in Educational Administration, who served as lead author with four others for the study. “Not surprisingly, these studies are considered to be the most cited references in school administration literature.”

In addition to Kowalski, authors include Robert S. McCord, associate professor in the Department of Educational Leadership at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and co-director of the Center for Education Policy Studies; George J. Petersen, professor and dean of the School of Education at California Lutheran University; I. Phillip Young, professor of education at the University of California-Davis and co-director of a joint doctoral program involving U.C. campuses and the California State University-Fresno; and Noelle M. Ellerson, assistant director of policy analysis and advocacy at AASA.

Pearson sponsored the study, which is published by Rowman & Littlefield Education.

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