During a period of eroding financial stability, many of the state’s largest districts also faced leadership instability.

Between 2006 and 2009, 71 percent of superintendents in California’s largest districts and 45 percent of all superintendents left their jobs, according to a survey of 215 districts randomly selected from the state’s approximately 1,000 districts. The survey covers well more than half of the state’s largest districts – those with more than 29,000 students in 2005–06.

The survey data speak only to turnover during a three-year period, not longevity, and do not include interim superintendents who were leading districts during that time.

The results are “pretty stark,” and the high turnover rate of the biggest districts was a surprise, said Jason A. Grissom, an assistant professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College and co-author of “Why Superintendents Turn Over,” published this week in the December issue of the American Educational Research Journal. Stephanie Andersen, a senior research assistant at Washington University in St. Louis, also was co-author.

However, some of those who have held the job in large districts were not so surprised and cited a range of reasons for the high turnover: conflicts with school boards about implementing reforms, culture clashes within the district, a surge of retirement by baby boomers, and an opportunity for more money and prestige by taking a position in a bigger district. All agree that it takes time on the job – some say at least five years – to implement lasting change in a large urban district.

Santiago Wood

Santiago Wood

“Superintendents are hired to be fired,” said Santiago Wood, who served as a superintendent in four California districts during 32 years as an educator and administrator, which began in 1973 as a teacher in Oakland. Two of those districts – West Contra Costa Unified and Fresno Unified – had more than 29,000 students.

The “honeymoon” with the school board lasts between 12 and 18 months, he said, before “political interests and dysfunction show up.” A board may have hired a superintendent to institute reforms, but when interest groups such as unions or community organizations complain, the elected board gets uncomfortable, Wood said.

Becca Bracy Knight, executive director of the Broad Center for the Management of School Systems in Los Angeles, which trains superintendents, said turnover happens when superintendents and boards “don’t have alignment from the outset to weather what happens when there is change.”

“Even if you agree on the results,” Bracy Knight said, “change is painful. It is so critical that superintendents have the backing of the governing board when they go down that road.” The board and superintendents must agree not only on what changes they want to see, but also how quickly and what sacrifices they are prepared to make to get there, she said.

Board members also want to micromanage, Wood said. He recalls when a board member asked him to hire a friend. “Every smart superintendent makes sure he has a strong and confident labor relations attorney who makes sure the contract gives the superintendent the right to recommend hiring and termination of employees so the board doesn’t become a personnel director,” he said.

David Plank, executive director of Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE), based at Stanford University and UC Berkeley, said he looked at turnover of superintendents in Michigan in 2002 when he was an assistant professor at Michigan State University, where he founded the Education Policy Center. He found that the average tenure was about 2 ½ to 3 years.

“It’s partly that superintendents are responsive to boards and that the metrics for success are subject to change almost at a moment’s notice,” he said. “Few boards have long-term strategic plans – they want change right now.”

Elected school board members tend to think in terms of four years, when they will be up for re-election or want a record of success when they run for the local city council seat. On the other hand, said Carl Cohn, a former superintendent of large districts who’s currently a member of the State Board of Education, an overly assertive superintendent, hired to bring in reforms, can make school boards uncomfortable because of the “collateral damage” – unions and parents complaining.

Jill Wynns

Jill Wynns

Jill Wynns, who is starting her sixth four-year term on San Francisco Unified’s school board, said in her district some school board members have gotten elected because they were advocates for political groups, making it difficult for them to compromise.

“People’s political interests have made it hard on the superintendent,” she said. The advocates “have a hard time understanding that they are now part of the system.”

In addition, “the system is structured in such a way that there is a very high likelihood for conflicts,” said Wynns, who is the immediate past president of the California School Boards Association (CSBA). “Who works for whom is not clear.” School boards hire superintendents, but board members are typically volunteers who have no independent staff and are therefore reliant on the information provided by the superintendent when they make decisions.

Some districts have small boards of only five members. That is particularly worrisome for superintendents, Wynns said, because sometimes a change of one newly elected board member can reverse earlier decisions.

The researchers found that high functioning school boards – as measured by board members’ evaluation of their own board – generally held on to their superintendents longer. Those board members tended to give higher marks for the superintendent’s performance as well. Objective measures of a superintendent’s performance, such as higher student test scores, did not appear to be a factor in turnover, the researchers said.

In addition, superintendents who were promoted from within the district “were more likely to stay – a lot more,” Grissom said. About 35 percent of 106 superintendents who responded to that question in the study were hired from within.

Carl Cohn

Carl Cohn

Cohn, who led Long Beach Unified, the third largest district in the state, for 10 years from 1992 to 2002, said being promoted from within and having support from his board had a lot to do with his success. The district won the 2003 Broad Prize for Urban Education.

“I was born and raised in Long Beach; I came up in that district,” he said. “There was a groundswell of support for me, both at the board of education and community level. Four out of five of the school board members who hired me stayed all 10 years.”

When he later became superintendent of San Diego Unified in 2005, his tenure was a lot shorter: 2 ¼ years.

He said he saw San Diego as “another Navy town,” but soon found the local context was very different from Long Beach. That included a newspaper that was hostile to unions, a robust charter school movement and a network of elite private schools, Cohn said. Perhaps more importantly, the board had vetted his record, but not his style, he said.

“I think I was losing support with board members because they didn’t see a hard-charging, top-down, we-got-to-get-this-done superintendent,” Cohn said. “My approach is to engage the stakeholders and win them over and build relationships that will end up being successful over the long haul. They wanted things done much quicker, much faster, and much more top down.” Cohn is currently co-director of the Urban Leadership Program at Claremont Graduate University and a member of EdSource’s board of directors.

Change versus stability

David Gordon

David Gordon

David Gordon, currently superintendent of the Sacramento County Office of Education, was the superintendent of Elk Grove Unified from 1995 to 2004. The district has had only five superintendents since 1959.

“The culture of the place is one of stability,” Gordon said. “Board members don’t necessarily stay for 20 or 30 years. But the culture is such that they are replaced by like-minded people.” Elk Grove board members “tend not to be political wannabes,” he said, who are using the board as a stepping stone to other political offices. “They are able to focus on the business of the schools, the substance of the work.”

Career ambition is another reason why superintendents often stay only a short time. Wood, currently executive director of the National Association for Bilingual Education (NABE), said he averaged about four years in a district. “I liked the challenge of a bigger and more complex district,” he said.

In general, prestige is based on the size of the district and the salary. Superintendents in rural districts often use those districts as pipelines to leadership positions in suburban or urban districts, the researchers found.

Many of these larger districts are in high-poverty areas, but that didn’t dissuade superintendents from moving there, the study found. However, the turnover rates were higher in higher-poverty districts, where arguably the need for stability is greater.

Grissom noted that there is not much research on the impact of high superintendent turnover on a large district, but he does refer to a study that suggests reforms need five years or more to take hold. Gordon believes that superintendents should stay five to seven years in the job if they want to implement change.

“If you’re not there five to seven years, you’re unlikely to make much of an impact,” he said. “These organizations are so large and complicated.” In addition, he said, “a change in leadership is unsettling to the staff.”







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  1. el says:

    There’s no question that uhm…. let’s use the delicate word, “difficult” … board members would make a superintendent’s job more difficult and less pleasant. (Similarly, a “difficult” superintendent would make it pretty unpleasant to be a board member, or a principal, too.)

    Some of the issues raised can be covered by district policies. Certainly no one in a school district should be pressured to (or allowed to!) hire unfortunate and unemployable Cousin Ned, whether Ned is related to a popular secretary, a board member, a superintendent, a teacher, a principal, whatever. You handle this with policy and structure, not by saying “oh, better scrap school boards as a concept.” :-) Set up your process so that interviews are done by a small committee of various stakeholders and have them come to consensus. “We reviewed Ned’s application but the committee chose another applicant” and done.

    But I’m going to circle back around. If the board is pressured by constituents for immediate and impossible change, it’s the job of the Superintendent to push that back and communicate back to the board and the community what steps are being taken and why and to get their buy in. The Superintendent also needs buy in from principals and teachers. Without that from all stakeholders, there will not be success.

    And, when there is turnover in boards, it’s important for the remaining board, the superintendent, and the community to all recruit quality new candidates who will look out for the interests of all the kids in the district rather than their own self interest or a particular ideology. Sometimes all it takes is the ask. I promise you, there are good people in your community who can and will step up if they’re supported in doing so.

    There’s no question that it’s going to be a lot easier in some districts than in others, for all kinds of reasons.

    As for the issue of school boards having the final say on a dismissal. In my opinion, if you get the majority of a board voting to dismiss a staff member… after all the process it takes to get to that point… that’s a decision that should stand. It’s not a good fit and there’s no way that I can see that that staff member will find professional satisfaction in that district after such an action. It does not matter, actually, whether the staff member is “right” or the board is “right”… at that point, differences are irreconcilable and one or the other should probably go. If a board is dismissing teachers that are right for the school, I would fully expect the community to take the corrective action of replacing the board. That’s the community’s job in this, to step up and pay attention to the governance of their schools.

    1. navigio says:

      I would add a couple points related to teacher and principal buy-in. As David mentioned in another thread, there is not much reciprocal accountability. Support is lacking for teachers and principals, not only at a systemic level but by extension, from a local administrative level, and sometimes even due to incompetence (when that exists, it greatly impacts teachers and principals, though its often difficult to separate that from a simple lack of resources). But also, ‘the district’ is the other party in teacher contract negotiations. This means the administration essentially plays the ‘anti-teacher’ role. Obviously whether and to what extent that happens varies by district, but in the worst cases you’ll see superintendents using public forums to raise concerns about teacher quality during the contract negotiation process. In other words, I think buy-in from teachers is anything but easy or a given.

      One concerning quote in here is from Wynns about school board members now ‘being part of the system’. I think this is the wrong attitude. The role of a school board member is as a trustee of the community. While its true they become part of ‘the process’ when becoming a board member, that is something different than being a blind advocate for district behavior. Board members are not district employees. The reason they are elected and that there is more than one of them is so that the community’s interests can be advocated for in a representative manner.

  2. Chris Reed says:

    How is it possible this long analysis could never even mention that the bigger school district is in California, the more likely it is to have an aggressive teachers union scrapping with the superintendent for every last cent and often choosing the school board with huge donations?

    Pretty amazing.

  3. Gary Ravani says:

    This is an interesting statement in light of what Sen. Padilla’s legislation tried to do last year (and may try to do again this year.)

    Local school boards are a vital democratic link between the community and the schools. Like other political entities; however, they can be swayed and influenced in ways that require insulation from day to day school operations. They are typically civilians with interests, but perhaps little expertise, in matters educational. They can exert influences in curriculum (creationism, human interaction, back-to-basics, etc) that have negative instructional outcomes. And then, there are the “personnel issues” like the ones mentioned: “You need to hire my otherwise unemployable nephew, Joey.” Or conversely: “You need to fire that long-haired social studies teacher who looks like a “pinko” to me.”

    Padilla wanted eliminate the “professional competence” in the Commissions on Professional Competence. These three person “commissions” adjudicate dismissal hearings and have an administrative law judge and two professionals–typically an administrator and a teacher. Padilla wanted to hand unilateral power over dismissals to school boards. This was to make the process more “efficient.” This is efficient as in “let’s hang him and then give him a fair trial” kind of efficiency.

    Carl Cohn seems to understand that, as research from the University of Chicago as well as others has demonstrated, “top down” education reform is an oxymoron, because it is in the classroom that the reform “rubber” hits the road. You must have teacher buy-in for reform to succeed. And that requires collaboration, as recent Rutgers University research has confirmed. Successful reform requires top administrators who understand collaboration with their boards, their communities, their employees in general, and teachers (and unions) in particular.

    1. Gary Ravani says:

      “Board members also want to micromanage, Wood said. He recalls when a board member asked him to hire a friend. “Every smart superintendent makes sure he has a strong and confident labor relations attorney who makes sure the contract gives the superintendent the right to recommend hiring and termination of employees so the board doesn’t become a personnel director,” he said.”

      This is the statement I was referring to.

  4. navigio says:

    Cohn’s mention of coming up in the district and having actually been born there is important, imho. Too many superintendents have no real stake in the success of the schools and kids other than for their own reputations. Obviously that’s important, but failure is also as much expected nowadays as not. A personal stake is what we need more of in our administrations.

    There is great little book called ‘This happened in Pasadena’ written by a reporter somewhere around 1950 and gives an extraordinarily clear picture of the kinds of things that superintendents can run up against.

    I do think conflict with boards can be a real issue. As another article here pointed out, the role of boards can be much different depending on the district’s size.

    I also think its kind of interesting that superintendents ostensibly have so much control over district culture. In theory, all districts should be doing similar things, which should create less need for a figurehead to define actions and behavior.

    And lastly, the point about boards wanting everything immediately is right on. This is, of course, because voters want everything immediately. Americans are not good on patience and long-term planning. :-)
    I guess that’s understandable when the perception is that things are failing..

  5. el says:

    The superintendent job is a very challenging position, and I’m not sure blaming it on the school boards is really on point. One of the key tasks of the job is to lead the district in educational excellence, and that includes earning the trust and buy-in of the community and the professional staff in the district as well as the board members.

    In a large district, especially if the superintendent was hired from outside, there is not much time to really understand or even be exposed to all the issues within different schools in the district. I’ve commented before that LAUSD has over 700 schools which means that if you visited two a day during the 180 days of school and did nothing else, it would take four years to visit every one. It’s not really possible for this superintendent to meet with every local community let alone figure out how to balance all their competing needs and desires. A superintendent who has come up through the ranks in this district or a neighboring district is going to have a substantial leg up over someone who is new to the community and new to the district, which in turn is going to lead to less conflict.