Today’s superintendents are faced with a plethora of challenges, chief among them how to foster engaged citizenship among students and how to support students who are academically underprepared or battling poverty.
The vast majority of superintendents surveyed in Gallup’s 2018 Survey of K-12 School District Superintendents say they are excited about the future of their school district (86 percent), while just around half that (42 percent) say they are excited about the future of U.S. education overall.
The survey shows double-digit increases in the percentage of superintendents who say better preparing students for higher education, strengthening academic rigor, and combating the effects of poverty on student learning will be challenges for their district.
1. Engaged citizenship
The biggest change from last year’s survey is a spike in district leaders who agree that preparing students for engaged citizenship will be a challenge–74 percent this year, compared to 50 percent last year.
“To some degree, this may be an acknowledgment of the increasingly contentious and polarized political environment in the U.S.,” according to the report. “It could also be a reaction to the prominent student activism on gun violence that occurred after the Parkland, Florida, school shooting earlier this year.”
2. Improving achievement
Improving student achievement remains one of two top challenges, according to the survey.
Superintendents say they struggle to improve the academic performance of underprepared students (89 percent) and to address the effects of poverty on student learning (84 percent).
Superintendents from all district types view improving the academic performance of underprepared students as a challenge, but the challenge is especially acute for those in city or large districts. Sixty-nine percent of city superintendents and 65 percent of those in large districts, compared with 48 percent to 59 percent of superintendents in other types of districts, strongly agree improving underprepared students’ performance is a challenge.
3. Educator retention
Finding and keeping highly-qualified educators rounds out the top two challenges superintendents face today. Eighty-three percent of surveyed superintendents say they struggle to find and retain talented teachers.
While 51 percent of suburban superintendents strongly agree recruiting and retaining talented teachers is a challenge for their district, that is significantly lower than the percentages for city (65 percent), town (63 percent), and rural (65 percent) superintendents.
Recruiting and retaining talented principals appears to be a greater challenge for city (57 percent strongly agree) and large-district (55 percent) leaders than for others.
The struggle to retain educators isn’t surprising.
“This should send a signal to the education community, as well as business leaders and philanthropic communities, parents, and the media that our support for the educators in front of the classroom is vitally important if the students of today are going to become successful members of society tomorrow,” says Daniel A. Domenech, executive director of AASA, The School Superintendents Association, in a statement. “We must continue to share the success stories generated by our teaching corps to recruit and retain top-notch teacher candidates on behalf of the millions of children learning and growing in our public school classrooms.”
4. Evaluating effectiveness
Superintendents say they also want to turn their attention to ways to evaluate the effectiveness of the public schools in their community. Around 90 percent of those surveyed say high school graduation rates, student engagement, and student hope are very important measures of public school effectiveness.
Roughly half of surveyed superintendents say the percentages of high school graduates who go to college or community college (48 percent) or technical or trade school (52 percent) are very important indicators of a school’s performance.
Only 9 percent say standardized test scores are a very important indicator of school performance, and 52 percent say they are somewhat important.
5. College and workforce readiness
Fifty-three percent of surveyed superintendents agree or strongly agree that high school graduates are well-prepared for success in college, and 58 percent agree or strongly agree that college graduates are ready for the workforce.
Two-thirds of superintendents believe teaching social and life skills, such as conflict resolution, interpersonal communications, and persistence, could help prepare students for college.
The next most helpful strategies, from superintendents’ perspective, are financial assistance (29 percent), financial planning and management (27 percent), and mentoring (26 percent). About one in five say college preparation such as exam prep, college visits, and application assistance would be most helpful, while 17 percent believe academic support such as tutoring would help.