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Reports & Research

December 13, 2012


Study Examines “Why Superintendents Turn Over”

(Editor’s note: A 52-page research study titled “Why Superintendents Turn Over” by Jason A. Grissom of Vanderbilt University and Stephanie Andersen of Washington University in St. Louis (published in the December issue of American Educational Research Journal ) examines the reasons why superintendents tend to move on to new jobs, as well as the consequences that school districts encounter as a result of frequent leadership changes. Here is an excerpt from the report; click on the link at the end of this article to read the complete study.)

Although superintendent turnover can hinder district reform and improvement, research examining superintendent exits is scarce. This study identifies factors contributing to superintendent turnover in California by matching original superintendent and school board survey data with administrative data and information hand-collected from news sources on why superintendents left and where they went. Among 215 superintendents studied beginning in 2006, 45% exited within three years. Using a multinomial framework to separate retirements from other turnover, the authors find that factors such as how highly the school board rates its own functioning and the superintendent’s performance and whether the superintendent was hired internally strongly predict non-retirement exits three years later. Short-term district test score growth, however, is uncorrelated. Superintendents who move often migrate away from rural districts towards larger, higher-paying districts in urban and suburban locations.

The story of school superintendent turnover is a well-known one: energetic new leader assumes position with plans for revitalization, only to clash with a dysfunctional school board or impatient community and move on to greener pastures before the plans can be fully carried out, leaving the district once again searching for the next great leader bearing the requisite comprehensive reform plans. High-profile examples abound of reform-minded superintendents whose tenures saw gains in student test scores but whose time in office was cut short by public pressure and tumultuous school board relations: Arlene Ackerman in San Francisco, John Thompson in Pittsburgh, Rudy Crew in Miami-Dade County, Stan Paz in Tucson (Buchanan, 2006; Cave & Almanzar, 2008). Often, the story goes, ousted superintendents move on to other districts; Ackerman moved on to—and soon left—Philadelphia, Thompson was terminated after a year in Clayton County (Georgia) Schools, Crew had already been chancellor of New York City’s public school system, Paz had served in El Paso. This shuffling of superintendents through school districts creates a kind of “revolving door” in the superintendent’s office (Natkin et al., 2002), as witnessed by Kelvin Adams becoming St. Louis Public Schools’ eighth superintendent in five years in 2008 or John Covington becoming the Kansas City (Missouri) district’s twenty-fifth leader in forty years the next year (Taylor, 2008). With chronic turnover come expectations that turnover is inevitable, making the superintendent turnover story one of short-term focus with insufficient investment in long-range vision and infrastructure (Buchanan, 2006).

The trouble with this story is that it may not be true, at least not for the typical public school district. The popular conception of the modern superintendent as a chronic mover in continual public disharmony with a conflict-ridden school board is one developed from media portrayals of prominent cases in the nation’s largest urban districts, whose experiences may not be representative of those of the suburban and rural districts that make up the majority of local school governments—or even of the average urban district. As Natkin et al. (2002) argue, this potentially errant popular understanding has consequences for both for the practice of superintendents—who become reluctant to take on major reform efforts—and the responsiveness of principals and teachers, who may adopt a “this too shall pass” approach to superintendents’ priorities and directives.

Unfortunately, there is little systematic evidence with which to question this common conception or issues of superintendent turnover more broadly, a puzzling situation given the importance ascribed to superintendents in leading district improvement. As the school district’s “chief executive,” superintendents oversee key aspects of district operations. Research suggests that successful execution of central management functions such as staff recruitment, financial management, leadership of instruction, and strategic planning helps create positive learning environments within schools, which may indirectly impact student achievement (Alsbury, 2008; Byrd, Drews, & Johnson, 2006; Petersen, 2002). Because instability in the superintendent’s office disrupts these management functions, superintendent turnover may negatively impact district performance, at least in the short term; research concluding that successful systemic school reforms take five or more years of a superintendent’s focus suggests that negative impacts of turnover could be felt even longer (Fullan & Stiegelbauer, 1991). The loss of a superintendent may also negatively affect staff morale and satisfaction (Alsbury, 2008), which could have “trickle-down” effects on principal and teacher turnover and performance.

The importance of the district superintendent and the potential consequences of superintendent exits make understanding the factors that drive superintendent turnover a key topic for empirical research. Lamentably, however, superintendent turnover lacks a well-developed research base (Natkin et al., 2002). Existing research has primarily taken the form of qualitative explorations of turnover motivations through case studies and interviews with superintendents. Few studies have focused on empirically testing the relative strength of associations between superintendent turnover and characteristics of the superintendents, districts, and school boards with whom they work. Moreover, studies have not examined how these predictors might vary with the type of turnover (e.g., retirement, resignation).

To address these gaps in the literature, this study pulls together existing research on superintendent turnover alongside a complementary—and perhaps more well-developed—stream of research on turnover among city managers to identify potential drivers of superintendents’ decisions to leave. Research on city managers is applicable because the job of the city manager shares important characteristics (e.g., managing a complex organization, working closely with an elected board) with that of the school superintendent. We develop a simple labor market framework in which a superintendent’s continued employment in a district is determined by employment decisions made by both superintendents and their school boards, then draw on the superintendent and city manager turnover research to identify four classes of factors that contribute to those decisions: characteristics of the district, school board, and superintendent himself or herself, plus superintendent job performance.

To read the complete report, click on the link below:

Source:  Vanderbilt University