Guest Column

The Superintendent as a Temp

by Robert J. Clark

In one of my first classes in the educational leadership program at Vanderbilt University, we had an assignment to match our jobs or personalities to metaphors. We then presented our papers to the class.

I listened intently as others spoke about the teacher as gardener or the principal as the conductor of an orchestra. These metaphors brought a tremendous amount of clarity, feeling and respect for our jobs as educators.

I thought back to that assignment recently as superintendent job postings began flooding my desk. The first postings sought replacements for superintendents who were retiring or for those whose contracts were not renewed. The later job openings were created when colleagues moved on to better jobs. A few of these job changers had been in their current positions for many years, while many others had only been in their posts for two or three years.

As I perused the openings and listened to the hearsay as to why these positions were opening, another metaphor came to mind: the superintendent as a "temp." I'm referring to temp as in temporary employee.

On the Move

After all, what do temps do? They come into a place of business to accomplish the task at hand and then move on to another temporary position. Both the employee and employer are happy with this situation and there is no expectation of longevity. The lack of long tenures in the superintendency seems to be increasingly common.

In truth, the lack of longevity mirrors what is happening in society at large. School boards adopt a "quick-fix, results tomorrow" mentality. They think, "We need things to happen now and we believe we need a new person in charge. Some superintendents who face a new board composition after an election figure it is easier to get another job than it would be to instill in the newcomers the ideals and philosophy important to the superintendent. For various reasons, the superintendency may be evolving into a temporary position.

Superintendents also pick up reputations for a specific expertise that boards or search consultants are seeking. Some of my colleagues are known as finance wizards who can get districts out of money trouble, school builders who can get bonds passed and facilities built or renovated, human relations specialists who can get the community involved in the school again, and even hatchet men or women who come to terminate certain onerous employees.

In some cases these individuals have additional leadership and management skills; in others, they do not. Too often after superintendents have completed the task for which they were hired, other needs land at the schoolhouse door and another district has a job opening where their specialty is more appropriate. It is easier to bring a school district up to the level of acceptability than it is to stay through the long haul to bring it to excellence.

In other arenas, leaders face similar scenarios. In professional sports and intercollegiate football and basketball, managers and coaches change relatively soon if the team does not win. Situations are few where the top leaders have remained in place for a long time, even through difficult years, before emerging successful. Two that come to mind are General Electric CEO Jack Welch and former University of North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith.

Troublesome Findings

Does longevity in the superintendency make a difference? Does research show that superintendent longevity and sustained student achievement or sustained reform are correlated? An ERIC search turned up an article by Gary Yee and Larry Cuban in Education Administration Quarterly titled "When Is Tenure Long Enough? A Historical Analysis of Superintendent Turnover and Tenure in Three Urban School Districts."

Their analysis offered some surprising, but troubling, results. They calculated the average tenure of superintendent in a district larger than 25,000 students as 5.8 years. This was longer than I expected. It also was longer than the authors, the general public and most current superintendents believe.

Two suggestions or inferences in their study raised concerns for me: (1) "Even studies that suggest that superintendents can make a difference do not connect the time in office with the durability of reforms initiated by the superintendent;" and (2) "Rather than expecting superintendents to be able to adapt and respond to continually shifting agendas and coalitions, it might be more realistic for school boards to change superintendents and 'import' different skills, programs and experiences." In short, these researchers suggested, longevity may not seem to make a difference and school boards are looking for one-dimensional leaders.

While this study examined the superintendency of the largest school districts, the findings can be applicable to all of us. I came away with these thoughts:

  • 5.8 years is a long time, almost 20 percent of an educational career.
  • Superintendents need to be more than one-dimensional leaders. They need to be flexible and adaptable to change or they need to plan on changing jobs.
  • Solid research on leadership longevity and reform in smaller school districts is needed.
  • If school boards desire longevity, they must be patient and better understand the politics of the superintendency. They also need to understand the financial fortitude it might take to keep a superintendent who desires to move to a larger district.
  • If communities, board members and the superintendent desire loyalty during calm and adversarial times, they must realize that loyalty is a two-way street.

A Harmed Outcome

Is temp an applicable metaphor for the superintendency? I have my doubts.

Superintendents and school boards seem to view constant job movement and lack of longevity as a given part of the profession. But there's less concern expressed about the impact these short tenures have on school districts, communities and children.

Rob Clark is superintendent of the Reardan-Edwall School District, Box 225, Reardan, Wash. 99029. E-mail: rclark@reardan.net