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.
“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, 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.
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, 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.”
Thanks for reading.
Can you help sustain our reporting?
Our team of journalists, editors, and fact-checkers do an estimated 440 hours of research every week to bring you the news on California education. That's a lot of work.
For a limited time, your contributions will be doubled through the NewsMatch matching gifts program.