Executive Perspective

AASA’s Status Check on the Superintendency


AASA’s “The American School Superintendent: 2010 Decennial Study” is a must-read report for every superintendent, aspiring system leader and those involved in their training. It is full of interesting facts about who our superintendents are, the challenges of the job, the factors that help and hinder them in their work, the attributes that helped them get the job, and how they feel about their chosen profession.

More than 1,800 superintendents from all 50 states responded to the association’s survey. The majority of respondents come from school systems with fewer than 3,000 students, a reminder that 70 percent of the school districts in America enroll fewer than 2,500 students. Half of the superintendents are in rural communities, pretty much describing the largest block of school systems in America.

Daniel DomenechDaniel A. Domenech

This is a point we at AASA bring to the attention of policymakers at the national level who often pursue education fixes that are more relevant to urban centers than to the much greater number of suburban and rural school systems.

Although at times it may seem to the American public an ongoing conflict exists between superintendents and teachers, the reality is that, of all the factors considered an asset by superintendents, the teaching staff is at the top of the list with 93 percent of the respondents considering them their greatest asset. This should not be surprising, because 94 percent of the superintendents indicated they had teaching experience, with the greatest number (62.4 percent), having worked as high school teachers.

This fact is perhaps the reason why superintendents bristle at the current attacks through the mass media on teacher quality. It’s not that they would deny some teachers do not belong in the classroom, but they know from experience most teachers are capable and dedicated professionals who are in the business because they truly care about their students.

Tenure Gains
The study also indicates the superintendent’s tenure is improving, with 42.5 percent of them saying they have three-year contracts and 24.8 percent indicating they have contracts of four years or longer. One quarter of our respondents also indicated they have been a superintendent for 13 years or more. This is a good sign because of the positive correlation that exists between continuity of leadership and high-achieving schools.

School board tenure also is a contributing factor, here and the respondents indicated that 37.5 percent of their current board members have served for seven years or more.

Of concern was the finding that half of the superintendents said they did not plan to be on the job by the end of five years. This corresponds with the modal age of the superintendent at between 56 and 60 and the tenuous nature of the job. So, should things not work out, retirement becomes a viable option. This response also coincides with the increasing number of retirement-eligible superintendents who are taking interim positions while school boards search for a permanent candidate.

Only 4 percent of superintendents indicated their current employment contract includes a provision for merit or performance-based pay. This finding may be surprising given the push in recent years to model superintendent contracts after executive contracts in the private sector that include bonuses based on performance. This percentage increase might change with the thrust of the current administration in Washington to base teacher pay on student performance.

The majority of superintendents (85.5 percent) indicated they are satisfied with their current compensation, and 53.2 percent of them consider it an asset of the job. However, the survey was completed prior to respondents feeling the full brunt of the economic downturn. Recent media reports indicate many superintendents around the country have taken voluntary pay cuts because employees have been subject to compensation reductions.

As was the case in previous 10-year studies of the superintendency, job-related stress continues to be a byproduct of the position and its excessive time requirements. Nevertheless, when asked if they had it to do all over again, would they choose to be a superintendent, 86.5 percent said yes. Anecdotally, I have noticed many colleagues who had retired returning to the superintendency after getting their fill of travel and golf. Once a superintendent …

Gender Diversity
A positive note in the report is the increase in the percentage of women and persons of color in the superintendency. Today nearly one in every four superintendents is a woman, nearly doubling the 13 percent figure in AASA’s 2000 report. In spite of the impressive movement, women continue to be underrepresented.

African-American and Latino superintendents are not faring as well, and they are significantly underrepresented given their ethnic pupil population. Only 2 percent of respondents categorized themselves as African American, another 2 percent as Latino. More than half of the superintendents of color were employed in school districts where the minority population exceeded 50 percent. At AASA, we are working with the Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents and the National Alliance of Black School Educators to prepare minority administrators for the superintendency.

Much more can be learned by reading the full report. (Copies can be ordered by contacting AASA at 800-771-1162 or www.aasa.org.) The authors have done an outstanding job of compiling and analyzing the data, and the report will help those currently in the position to realize they hold much in common with colleagues. America’s education system leaders are an exceptional group of dedicated individuals holding down one of the most stressful and complex leadership roles in our nation. This report helps us to better understand them.

Daniel Domenech is AASA executive director. E-mail: ddomenech@aasa.org