In districts across the country, the growing stack of resignation letters from talented educators is a warning sign for school communities everywhere. Many school superintendents — exhausted from the pandemic and feeling underappreciated — are leaving the field right alongside their staff. And because the industry as a whole has failed to address inequities in leadership development, finding the right fit for open positions will be difficult, leaving students underserved and underrepresented.
The good news is that it’s an eminently fixable problem. The changes we make today will open new pathways for experienced, passionate educators to step into superintendent roles and better support them as they navigate the challenges of leadership.
The signs of the times
This month, The Hechinger Report sounded the bell about an impending leadership crisis in K-12 education: A typical year sees a 14% vacancy in school superintendent jobs due to retirements and the usual comings and goings. In 2022, however, Hechinger predicts a 25% turnover in districts’ top seat nationwide. One in four public school students will return to the classroom next fall to find a new person leading their districts.
Similarly, a recent K-12 industry job fair sponsored by Gaggle saw some 1,500 job-seekers — and the overwhelming majority were giving their resumes to K-12 service and solution providers. These companies are growing by leaps and bounds as a result of the pandemic and seeking former educators to join their ranks.
Just as important as stopping this ongoing turnover is recognizing who’s not in superintendent positions to begin with.
In its 2020 “State of the Superintendency” analysis, the American Association of School Administrators found that only 24% of sitting superintendents are women, and only 8% are people of color. According to the last US census, approximately 51% of the school-age population are girls, and 50% of all students are children of color.
How to improve superintendent recruitment, retention
School communities can take several actions to recruit and retain skilled leaders from diverse backgrounds and support them in their roles.
Admit that we have a problem, and amplify the good work being done by women and people of color in the superintendency. We need to raise up the accomplishments of educational leaders who defy the national averages and exceed the average tenure for women and people of color in leadership positions. Sharing these success stories will change the traditional perception of a superintendent and inspire all districts to consider candidates based entirely on their merits. That includes those who may represent different demographics or have different backgrounds, cultural experiences and identities.
At the same time, we must look at the successes of schools where students of color see themselves reflected in their school leaders. Research shows that Black, Hispanic and Latino students have better academic outcomes, are better represented in gifted programs and experience a more supportive school culture when their districts are led by those who look like them.
Current superintendents and senior leaders should seek to mentor and coach those with leadership acumen. Sometimes the best potential future leaders are right under our noses. We cannot allow our biases and societal norms to dictate the demographic makeup of school leadership. It is incumbent upon those of us sitting in the superintendent seat to model for our teams the work of seeking out potential leaders, including those who might be hidden from view at first, and to support their professional growth. In one study, 91% of female superintendents surveyed said formal and informal mentoring relationships were advantageous in furthering their careers.
Make the role of superintendent more attractive. Invite future leaders to travel out of district to learn from colleagues and others. Create spaces where current and aspiring educational leaders can speak openly about equity issues and the business of leading school districts primarily through the lenses of women and people of color. These culturally responsive learning and networking environments for leaders should also include white male allies
Provide support when challenges arise. Superintendents are experiencing a level of politically charged backlash like never before due to everything from mask mandates to banning books to calls for teaching whitewashed versions of history. Leaders of color, especially, bear the heaviest load. According to a report in The Boston Globe, Black superintendents say they aren’t given the benefit of the doubt in the face of crises, receive less support than their white peers, and experience harsher job performance reviews. White allies are needed to stand beside these talented leaders and support them in the face of unfair or biased criticism.
We also need to consider how issues of work-life balance can affect leaders’ work and advancement. It would be prudent to look to the private sector and borrow strategies that can help ensure that colleagues feel valued and, more important, that their families and their before- and after-work interests and responsibilities are valued by their place of work.
Students are now able to learn anywhere, anytime with a device and internet connection. We are pushing boundaries beyond the seat-time model of measuring student work and progress — and we can do the same for the adults who power our schools. There are many complexities to this, and being present and in-person with students will always need to be a priority. However, we also have an opportunity to enable staff to work nontraditional hours, when feasible, to achieve a more meaningful work-life balance.
If we work together as a community of leaders to recruit and develop the next generation of leaders, and if we specifically put our minds to undoing the gender and racial discrepancy between our educational leaders and our students, we can turn the fallout from the pandemic and the impending leadership vacuum into a major win for every child in our school systems.
Doug Roberts is the CEO of the Institute for Education Innovation. He connects leaders in school districts with edtech companies to drive change in education and is the creator of the inaugural Supes Choice Awards, which recognizes innovative edtech solutions.
Luvelle Brown, the superintendent of the Ithaca City School District in New York, is an experienced educator who has been a teacher, assistant principal, principal, school CIO, and superintendent. He has received awards such as New York State Superintendent of the Year in 2017 and AASA’s Dr. Effie H. Jones Humanitarian Award. He also is an adjunct faculty member at SUNY Cortland and St. John Fisher College in New York.
Brown and the Institute for Education Innovation will be co-hosting the Cultivating Leaders for Equity and Inclusion Workshop in Ithaca, N.Y., on July 22-24, 2023. All aspiring educational leaders are invited to apply to attend.
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