Running one of the nation's largest school districts typically comes with prestige and pay that draw would-be educational superstars, but also pressure and political complexity that cause them to burn out far faster than leaders of the majority of districts.
A study published in the December issue of the American Educational Research Journal finds in 90 percent of 100 California districts studied, 43 percent of superintendents left within three years—but 71 percent of superintendents left the largest 10 percent of districts, which include those of 29,000 or more students, during that time.
"That is one of the more striking things that comes out of this research," said Jason A. Grissom, an assistant professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University's Peabody College, in Nashville, Tenn., and a co-author of the study.
"What we think we know about superintendent turnover or the superintendency in general is based on these big, high-profile urban districts, and it's not clear at all that those are generalizable to most districts in the country," Mr. Grissom said.
"In everything from professional-development opportunities to school board training," he said, "we're skewing towards this selected subset, and we may not be developing the resources and support that the typical district needs."
While superintendent turnover has not received as much focus from researchers or policymakers as teacher or principal turnover, stability at the central office has been linked to a greater likelihood of success for new education initiatives, which typically take five to seven years to mature.
One analysis of more than 2,700 districts by the Denver-based Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning, or McREL, found that a one standard deviation improvement in the quality of a superintendent, as measured by researchers' criteria, was associated with a 9.5 percentile-point gain on state tests for the average district, and that student achievement growth was linked to longer tenures of district leaders.
Daniel A. Domenech, the executive director of the Alexandria, Va.-based American Association of School Administrators, said the California findings were in line with the AASA's study of the tenure of its own superintendent members, who average three years in large urban districts and six years for urban, suburban, and rural districts.
The findings are also in line with superintendents' tenure historically: A study in the Journal of School Leadership in 2003, just after implementation of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, found the length of district leaders' tenure had been stable, between six and seven years on average, from 1975 through 1999.
For the new study, Mr. Grissom and co-author Stephanie Andersen, a senior research assistant at Washington University in St. Louis, used both administrative data and surveys of superintendents and school board members to track 215 superintendents in 100 randomly selected California districts from 2005-06 to 2009-10. They distinguished leaders who had retired from those who were fired or left for other reasons, and interviewed superintendents and board members about the climate of the districts and reasons for the departures.
"Those [largest] districts just have characteristics that are much different, in factors that really affect the length of a superintendent's tenure," Mr. Grissom said. "The politics of urban districts are higher-stakes: There's more pressure on both the school board and the superintendents; there are more conflicts on the board and with the superintendent."
Still, superintendents typically traded up from smaller to larger districts, the researchers found. At the start of the study, 57 percent of the superintendents who later moved led rural districts, 39 percent led suburban districts, and 4 percent led urban districts. Three years later, 78 percent of leaders who had moved had ended up in suburban districts, 13 percent in urban, and only 9 percent in rural districts.
Leaders' new districts had on average 2,300 more students than their original ones, and they had boosted their salaries on average from $109,761 to $131,110 a year.
While Mr. Grissom was not able to confirm that district leaders were using rural placements as steppingstones, he said he heard from individuals during the study that rural leadership positions are often seen by young superintendents as temporary placements on the road to bigger, higher-profile urban and suburban districts. He is conducting a longer longitudinal study of Missouri superintendents to determine how much career trajectory weighs into a leader's decision to move to a larger district.
"I think there's a danger in that," said Evelyn B. Holeman, who retired last year after leading the more than 5,800-student Bay Shore, N.Y., schools for 17 years. Before that, she led the 13,000-student Wicomico County, Md., district, and now mentors district leaders in Suffolk County, N.Y.
"I think that it's important for boards, and more important for superintendents, to not just take the first match for a job," Ms. Holeman said. "I think some superintendents thinking about moving up the ladder will just take the first job offered, but you really have to think, are you matched, skills-wise, with what they need? Will you enjoy working with this board and will you respect them?"
A dysfunctional school board topped the list of reasons superintendents moved, the California study found. While the researchers initially separated the board's internal functioning from its relationship with the district's chief executive, "it turns out the school boards who function well together ... are also the ones who are working well with their superintendents," Mr. Grissom said.
While the study did not find a link between low test-score growth and superintendent turnover, Mr. Domenech of the AASA said poor executive and school board relations can become a self-reinforcing cycle with turnover.
"A board will hire a superintendent, but then in a period of three to five years, that board turns over," he said, "and that superintendent is not the one they hired and there isn't the same loyalty.
"In districts where you see the superintendents come and go, in some cases every year, those are dysfunctional because there's never the length and the tenure necessary to make changes that are sustainable," said Mr. Domenech. A superintendent for nearly 30 years, he previously led districts in Fairfax County, Va., and Long Island, N.Y.
Hiring From Within
The power of continuity may help explain one hopeful finding in the study: Nearly three out of four leaders hired from within the district were still there three years later.
"The ones who are hired from within are not just a little more likely to stay; they're a lot more likely to stay," Mr. Grissom said. "That finding was pretty stark."
That makes sense to Mr. Domenech, who said homegrown leaders often have local roots that keep them in place. And they are already familiar with a system that can take a year or more for a newcomer to learn, he said.
But that familiarity also can make it harder for in-house candidates to get hired in the first place, Mr. Domenech said.
"School board members often come in and are looking to make changes, and they see an in-house candidate as part of the system they want to change," he said. "But an in-house candidate who makes it has a much better chance of being successful as a superintendent in the long run."
A separate 2012 study conducted by Robert J. Gildea, an education doctoral candidate at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, in Indiana, Pa., found that districts that have had high superintendent mobility can better manage their leadership succession and combat a "revolving door" reputation by supporting more leadership training and mentoring opportunities for educators interested in becoming systemwide leaders.