Search form

Is the Superintendency in Crisis?
Part 1: Two New Studies Offer Conflicting Conclusions

Two recently published national studies from the American Association of School Administrators (AASA) take a close look at the state of the superintendency. In Part 1 of "Is the Superintendency in Crisis?" Education World looks at those reports, which suggest that today's superintendents enjoy some stability and a high level of job satisfaction. The reports reach different conclusions about whether the superintendency is in crisis. Included: Education World speaks with the authors of each report and with others close to the issues.

Wanted: School superintendent to work long hours in a hostile political climate. Will be evaluated on challenges beyond your financial control or influence. Tenure range from three to seven years.
A common perception of the school superintendency is one of an impossible job that provides little to no job security. Two recently released national surveys take a close look at the state of the superintendency and refute that view. Both studies find that today's superintendent enjoys some stability and experiences a high level of job satisfaction.

However, the two studies, both published and available from American Association of School Administrators (AASA), reach different conclusions on whether the superintendency is in crisis.


The 2000 Study of the American Public School Superintendent is the latest release of a survey conducted every ten years since 1920. Superintendents nationwide provided demographic information, opinions, and ideas about best practices. Thomas Glass, a professor of educational administration at the University of Memphis who wrote the 2000 study, found no convincing data to support "media stories" about dwindling applicant pools because the job is too stressful, hectic, and conflict prone and offers little job security.

Glass found that superintendent tenure is still at or above traditional levels, that 80 percent of school boards rate superintendent performance excellent or good and that, although they are increasing, stress levels are still manageable.

"Most important perhaps is that superintendents perceive that fewer men and women want to be superintendents," Glass told Education World. "This probably is true for candidate pools in less desirable districts. No data exists on the quality of applicants, and there is scant data on the number of applicants. Superintendents, in most cases, do not have precise knowledge about the applicant pool and candidates who replace them."

Some issues do make the job tougher and may create a crisis, Glass said. Superintendents perceive that school districts are sorely under-financed, that high stakes testing and standards make their jobs more difficult, and that a third of school districts have special interest groups that advocate special concerns.

Superintendent viewpoints are part of the focus of the other recently released report, "Career Crisis in the School Superintendency?" That report was published with the cooperation and assistance of the AASA and the National Center for Education Statistics.

In the report's executive summary, Bruce S. Cooper wrote: "For all the speculation and concern about the position, superintendents themselves are rarely asked how they view the career crises, job mobility, role satisfaction, and future life plans." Cooper is a professor and vice-chair of Fordham University's division of administration, policy, and urban education.

The two AASA reports share some common ground in their findings. Both dispel the popular notion that the superintendent can expect a very short tenure -- about two and a half years. Superintendents generally work for two or three districts during their 14- to 17-year careers. Most superintendents spend twice as long in one school district, averaging five to six years, according to the ten-year-study, and an even longer tenure of about seven years, according to the other report.

Both reports also conclude that current superintendents find the job very fulfilling and satisfying.


However, Cooper's survey concludes there is a crisis in the superintendency. The vast majority -- 88 percent [set dash] of the superintendents surveyed for his report said the shortage of applicants for superintendent jobs is a crisis in American education.

"We show that while the current superintendents are hanging in there, doing a good job, and feel satisfied with their careers and contributions, they are also greatly concerned about the future of the role," Cooper told Education World.

Many superintendents are worried about where the next generation of superintendents will come from, who will they be, and what kinds of jobs they will have, Cooper said. "We found that current superintendents were aging, looking toward retirement, concerned about their pensions and vesting, and seeing a real crisis coming."

Lance D. Fusarelli, also of Fordham University, and doctoral student Vincent A. Carella, of Somers High School, in Lincolndale, New York, assisted Cooper with the study.


Many superintendents will retire within the next five to seven years. Cooper reported that 79 percent of superintendents are older than 50; Glass said the mean age of superintendents is 52. Most superintendents expect to retire after reaching 35 years of service in their state.

Glass isn't worried about filling that top job in the future. The normal retirement rate is about 8 percent a year, which means that a third of the nation's superintendents will retire by 2005, he said. "This is historically a normal rate," Glass said.

Although two-thirds of the superintendents who responded to Glass said they would choose the superintendency again as a profession, not everyone is eager to entice others into the field. About 35 percent of those surveyed by Cooper said they would not recommend the profession as a meaningful and satisfying career to a fellow educator.


Part 2 of Is the Superintendency in Crisis": How might a new generation of superintendents handle the challenges of adversarial school boards, special interest groups, financial constraints, and more? Three experts offer their points of view.

Career Crisis in the School Superintendency? and The 2000 Study of the American Public School Superintendent can be ordered from the American Association of School Administrators at 1.888.PUB.AASA (1.888.782.2272) or 1.301.617.7802.

Related Articles from Education World

Please check out our featured articles this week:

Article by Diane Weaver Dunne
Education World®
Copyright © 2006 Education World