Why Superintendents Turn Over

That urban superintendents have short tenures—an average of three years—is well known in the education community. But little empirical research has been done to ascertain why or to determine whether this trend holds for suburban and rural supes, too. This study by Jason Grissom (Vanderbilt) and Stephanie Anderson (Washington University) seeks to do both. The authors analyze survey data (of both superintendents and school-board members taken during the 2005-06 school year), as well as administrative and student-achievement data for 100-plus randomly chosen California districts, to identify factors that predict whether superintendents will still be at their jobs three years later. Some of their findings—such as positive correlations between superintendent turnover and district poverty levels and between turnover and board-member dissatisfaction—are fairly intuitive. Others, however, are surprising: There was no significant relationship between turnover and student-achievement growth, for example. Further, district size was only associated with increased turnover in the biggest districts, with the largest 10 percent of districts averaging turnover rates 4.5 times higher than all others. Otherwise, turnover was no more likely in urban than rural districts. Nor does the study yield any evidence for the claim that superintendents generally move to districts with fewer disadvantaged students or higher academic achievement. As more attention is paid to the impact that district leaders have on student achievement, research of this stripe will become ever more relevant—and necessary.

SOURCE: Jason A. Grissom and Stephanie Andersen, “Why Superintendents Turn Over,” American Educational Research Journal 49, no. 6 (December 2012): 1146-1180.

Andrew Saraf is a Research Intern at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute