A Superintendent Shortage Is Shaking Up America’s Schools


Earlier this week, Baltimore City Public Schools made headlines when CEO Andres Alonso tearfully announced his retirement at the end of the school year.

Alonso’s tenure at the troubled school district is touted as a true success story within national education reform movement circles.

Since his appointment to the post in 2007, Alonso has lead a series of massive reforms. He eliminated about a third of the staff at the district’s central office in an attempt to streamline operations, negotiated a $1 billion campaign for a complete overhaul of school facilities, shut down failing schools, and struck a landmark deal with the teachers’ union that tied salaries and promotions to student performance. Over the six-years, test scores improved, enrollment increased. and graduation rates reached all-time highs.

Now, the Baltimore City School Board is tasked with finding a replacement. They’ve launched a national search and promise to fill the vacancy by the start of the 2014-15 academic year.

But it’s one thing to fill the position, and another to find a leader who can step into the spotlight prepared to take the helm.

Dan Domenech, president of the School Superintendent Association (AASA) said the board is in an unenviable position.

School districts nationwide are facing a shrinking number of qualified applicants for superintendent openings. At the moment, in addition to Baltimore, Boston, New Orleans, El Paso ,and Prince Georges are also in the process of hiring. The first three vacancies were left by career educators leaving the field. And they have lots of company.

A 2011 survey by the AASA found that 50 percent of working superintendents planned to retire by 2016. Retirement age in most states is 55 and the average superintendent is 54 years old.

Another reason for the exodus of veteran school chiefs since 2008 is the economic recession. Forced to make unpopular decisions—cuts in staff, increased class sizes, and the elimination of non-essential programs—superintendents reported experiencing such an intense backlash from parents, board members, mayors and the community at large, that many decided to retire.

“It’s not a job that a lot of people want,” said Domenech, who spent 27 years on the job, with a final stint at Fairfax Unified School District in Virginia. “The result is that it’s creating a vacuum and we need to do something to turn back this trend.”

His plan is to groom new leaders.

This month, the AASA announced the launch of a National Superintendent Certification Program, an 18-month training course for superintendents with one to five years’ experience. Over that time, novice superintendents will be matched with mentors, attend seminars on finance, business management, operations, and education pedagogy. They’ll also study real-life cases of the fine art of politics and communication.

“I think the job of superintendent is one of the least understood jobs in America,” said Domenech.

In addition to delivering on the achievement of every child in the school system, the superintendent is also the CEO of what is usually the most complex organization in the community it serves with the greatest number of employees.

They are running a bus system that is often bigger than the city’s transportation system, managing a food service that typically serves more meals than all the restaurants in a city combined, and overseeing some of the largest facilities and construction projects.

Traditionally the path to the superintendency has been from teacher to principal to a post within the central office, finally landing in the top spot. When they arrive, few have the managerial experience or the political facility necessary to sustain support from key stakeholders.

Executive director of the Broad Center for the Management of School Systems, Becca Bracy Knight, is also in the business of deepening the superintendent pool. The center’s Superintendents Academy actively recruits applicants with unconventional backgrounds, including the private sector and government, to prepare them for careers in urban school districts.

Knight said retired military leaders possess skills and experience that complement the public school system.  

“It’s a very natural extension of serving their country,” said Knight. “These are leaders who have already committed to public service and to fundamentally working in a teaching and learning organization. The military does an incredible amount of teaching and learning and development of people within their organization.”

A 2002 study shows the turnover rate for superintendents is highest in high-poverty districts which are most often in urban areas. The average tenure for a district leader in an urban district is three years, while suburban districts hang on to leaders for an average of six years.

That kind of revolving door can lead to instability.

Urban superintendents simply do not have the time to bring about significant improvements in their districts, because they leave before they have had an opportunity to make lasting change. A new superintendent is then hired, who pursues a different reform agenda. S/he departs in turn, leaving behind yet more unfinished reforms.

At a minimum, reforms need at least five years to take hold.

Participants in the 18-month Broad academy are pushed to develop their own strategies for improving teaching and learning across an urban system. This is why another key piece of their education, and perhaps the most important, said Knight, is change management.

“There’s no school board out there that hires a superintendent and says, ‘We’re good enough!’ Everyone is looking to do better. And so the job of an urban superintendent is also the job of leading change.”

To do that, it’s critical that the school board shares the same overall vision for the school district.

“Because at the end of the day,” she says, “it’s what happens in the classroom between a teacher and student. A great superintendent creates the right conditions to make that happen.”

Related Stories on TakePart:

• Eli Broad on Education: ‘We’ve Got a Lot to Do to Catch Up’

• Op-Ed: Want to Improve School Districts? Listen to Teachers

• A Boycott Is Happening in Chicago—And This Time It Isn’t Teachers

Vanessa Romo is a Los Angeles-based journalist and public radio reporter. Her work has aired on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Marketplace.  @vanromo | TakePart.com