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Report: Big-District Superintendents Serve Longer Than Expected

Superintendent tenures, especially at the nation’s largest districts, are notoriously challenging–and notoriously brief.

The common understanding among education experts is that the average superintendent lasts a little more than three years in a district. At some large-city districts, those tenures are even shorter.

But a newly released study suggests most superintendent tenures are actually longer than previously thought.

This week, The Broad Center, a national nonprofit that provides professional development for school district leaders, released a data analysis focused on the top 100 school districts in the country. The report sheds new light on the experiences of large-district superintendents. It also confirms important areas of focus in terms of leadership diversity and student equity.

Here are three key takeaways from the Broad Center analysis.

1. Big-district superintendent tenures last longer than previously thought

According to the Broad Center’s analysis, the average big-district superintendent leaves their job after more than six years in their role. This strongly contradicts the common understanding that most big-city superintendent tenures last somewhere between three and four years.

Why such a big difference?

According to the report, the contradiction stems from how data about superintendent tenures has traditionally be analyzed:

“In the 100 largest school districts in the United States, when examining completed tenures of leaders who have departed their roles, the average superintendent lasts for a total of 6.16 years. However, when evaluating the amount of time current, ongoing superintendents have been in the job, the average is 3.76 years.”

This new look at superintendent data certainly changes the narrative about the difficulty for large districts to retain consistent leadership. But the Broad Center report cautions that length of tenure shouldn’t necessarily be connected to quality of leadership.

“If a superintendent stays in a job for more than a decade but fails to lead the system in a direction that produces much better outcomes for students, that longer tenure isn’t worth celebrating. And a shorter tenure shouldn’t prevent a capable, focused leader from making at least some needed improvements.”

2. Only a small percentage of superintendents are women–and they have shorter tenures

The Broad Center report confirms another long-held, but troubling understanding about large-district superintendents: Only a few of them are women.

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According to the report, since 2003, only one-fifth of superintendents at the 100 largest school districts have been women. The problem is compounded by the fact that the average woman superintendent leaves her position 15 months earlier than the average male district leader.

The report points out the glaring inconsistency between the high amount of women working in K-12 education and the low amount of women at the leadership level:

“In American K-12 public education, women far outnumber men throughout our nation’s public education systems — from the classroom to the district’s central office. At the chief executive level, however, they are still deeply underrepresented and working to break through historic barriers to their leadership.”

3. Schools with the neediest students experience more leadership instability

The Broad Report found that the average completed superintendent tenure at districts with high percentages of low-income students was shorter than at districts with low percentages of low-income students.

Even more alarming was the connection between student diversity and superintendent tenures.

According to the report, “the large districts in the U.S. enrolling the highest proportion of white students retain their superintendents more than twice as long as their counterpart districts that serve the highest percentages of students of color.”

The Broad Center says more needs to be done to ensure students with the most need for strong educational foundations don’t face the instability caused by constant changes in school district leadership.

What do you think about these new findings on district leadership? How do you ensure stable leadership in your school or district? Tell us in the comments.