What We Know as Superintendency Trackers

Type: Article
Topics: Equity, Health & Wellness, Leadership Development, School Administrator Magazine

January 01, 2016

Executive Perspective

In 2010, we published “The American School Superintendent: 2010 Decennial Study,” which took a comprehensive look at the demographics, professional experience and working history of superintendents across the country. We now have released a mid-decade update that provides a deeper dive into issues surrounding gender and the superintendency.

Nationwide, around one-quarter of superintendents are female. While this number increased 2 percent in the past five years, it is still very low. The proportion of males to females in the teaching force and the superintendency remain essentially inverted: 76 percent of teachers are female compared to 27 percent of superintendents. While we have seen growth in female participation in the superintendency over the last 30 years, it has been slow.

Are women hesitant to take on the role of superintendent? Are boards reluctant to hire female superintendents? Are other forces keeping women from district-level leadership positions? The gender section of the “Study of the American Superintendent: 2015 Mid-Decade Update” explores these questions and surrounding issues.

Personal Traits

We have seen in previous reports that female superintendents enter the superintendency at an older age. Female superintendents also are more diverse than male superintendents. Just 5 percent of male superintendents are minorities compared to nearly 11 percent of females.

Overall, several years of research have shown the superintendency to be aging. Back in 1923, the median superintendent age was a youthful 43.1 years. During the period from 1950 to 1992, the median age increased to 48.5 years. In 1992, it grew to 52.5 and by 2006 it had increased to 54.6 years. Most of the current superintendents first became superintendents in their 30s or 40s, and in the next five years, one-third of all superintendents plan to retire.

The role of superintendent is difficult. Our research shows significant demands on the superintendent and his or her family. There are issues with stress and the time required for the job. The superintendency, and the ascent to the superintendency, seems to take a larger toll on women’s personal and family lives than on men. Female superintendents are less likely to be married or partnered and more likely to be divorced than male superintendents. Female superintendents also report fewer school-aged children than male superintendents.

Overall, three-fourths of respondents said, given the chance, they would choose their career again. Yet this is lower for female respondents. Given the increased pressure on their family and sometimes hostile working relationships, this disparity is not surprising.

Professional Experience

Most superintendents follow a traditional career path, beginning as a teacher, then a site-level administrator, assistant superintendent and finally superintendent. Female superintendents tend to have more teaching experience than their male counterparts. Female superintendents also are more likely to have worked as assistant superintendents before being hired as superintendent, while male superintendents are more likely to have worked as assistant principals and principals.

Females also report that their board hired them for their curriculum and instructional leadership, while male superintendents report an emphasis on personal characteristics.

The biggest issues for superintendents in their jobs were politics, inadequate funding and the media. This year, on average, respondents reported that half of their students were eligible for free and reduced-price lunch, showing the long-term effects of the economic recession on schools. While federal, state and local funding remain low, the needs of our students remain high. Mindful of the many factors that make the job of the superintendent a challenge, several years ago AASA launched its National Superintendent Certification program. Three cohorts are underway with one scheduled to “graduate” at next month’s AASA national conference in Phoenix. Last year, the first cohort graduated at the San Diego conference.

Over an 18-month period, the certification program is designed to provide superintendents with fewer than five years on the job with a robust experience that focuses on sharpening the skills that successful superintendents acknowledge are needed to succeed. Similar programs have been designed for aspiring and current urban leaders in conjunction with Howard University and the University of Southern California, and this month an aspiring superintendent program is being launched in Minnesota in partnership with the Minnesota Association of School Administrators and the National Joint Power Alliance.

Dealing with the politics of the job, school board relations and business practices are essential elements in the curriculum. We hope to see these efforts reflected in future studies.