Districts grapple with superintendent turnover along with new reforms
At a time when California schools are introducing a range of landmark reforms, there is a continuing churn in the leadership of many of the state’s largest districts.
An EdSource survey of the state’s 30 largest districts indicates that in 17 out of 30 districts, the superintendents have been in office for three years or less. In nine of those districts, superintendents have served for less than a full year. Three are interim appointments during ongoing searches for permanent appointments.
Only seven of the surveyed superintendents have been leading their districts for five years or more. Only two – Michael Hanson in Fresno and Chris Steinhauser in Long Beach – have been in their posts for 10 or more years.
The survey results in these districts are not intended to be representative of California’s nearly 1000 school districts, but they highlight the extent of leadership turnover in the state’s largest, mostly urban districts. The combined enrollments of the 30 districts total about one-third of the state’s 6.2 million public school students.
Education experts worry that continuing turnover in school leadership could hamper implementation of a basket of reforms, including the state’s new accountability system and the Common Core standards in math and English, along with their potential to improve student academic outcomes.
For interviews with four California superintendents appointed in 2016, go here.
“I don’t think nearly enough superintendents have the time to make both dramatic and lasting improvements in their districts,” said Becca Bracy Knight, executive director of the Broad Center for the Management of School Systems in Los Angeles. “We have to ask ourselves what is keeping people from staying in their jobs longer. If you want big change, and big improvements for your students, and you want it to be sustainable, that simply takes time.”
Irvine Unified Superintendent Terry Walker, appointed to his post in 2011, said experience translates into a far more effective school leader.
“There is so much going on (in the district) that you can’t help but be a better decision maker,” said Walker, who after six years on the job is one of the more experienced superintendents in the state. “You are far less likely go ‘ready, fire, aim’ when you have a better sense of how all the parts fit together.”
ne of the superintendents in the state’s 30 largest districts were appointed to their posts in 2016. EdSource interviewed four of them to get their thoughts about their experiences during their early months on the job. They were interviewed by EdSource’s Michael Collier and Louis Freedberg. EdSource plans to follow up with them as their tenure unfolds to hear about their successes and challenges.
For an overview of superintendent turnover in California’s largest school districts, go here.
DISTRICT: STOCKTON UNIFIED
START DATE: JULY 2016
Eliseo Dávalos served most recently as assistant superintendent of curriculum/instruction and accountability at San Bernardino City Schools. He has worked in K-12 public education since 1979, as high school teacher, migrant education resources teacher and community college teacher. He spent nine years at the Corona-Norco Unified District as director of instructional support and student services.
What do you think is the impact of superintendent turnover on districts? I believe that superintendent turnover has a negative impact on the district and the entire community. It contributes to the inability of a district to define and implement a shared vision for the district, to establish clear goals and expectations and to provide continuity in all aspects of the district. It also undermines any strategic long-term planning that the district might want to engage in.
How has your district responded to your superintendency so far? When I introduce myself to someone from the district and community, instead of hearing “nice to meet you,” I hear, “so, how long are you here for?” My response is that I am here to stay, not going anywhere. That seems to calm them. Then I get the “nice to meet you.”
What is the impact of turnover on teachers and principals? I believe that instability of superintendent tenure in a district contributes negatively to day-to-day life at the schools. Principals are more likely to support status quo practices rather than innovation. Teachers are more likely to believe that the direction and leadership the superintendent provides is of no consequence to them. They are waiting to add the next name to their list of leaders who have passed through the organization.
What are some positive outcomes when a new superintendent arrives? The stability of a superintendent in a district can give the entire school community a feeling of being respected and valued, while at the same time a sense of comfort, in knowing that there is someone at the helm who is focused on the day-to-day, but also on the future of the district.
DISTRICT: SAN JOSE UNIFIED
STARTING DATE: APRIL 2016
Nancy Albarrán began her career as a teacher in the Los Angeles and Oakland Unified districts. She joined San Jose Unified in 1999 as a bilingual teacher, and later became director of bilingual education and special programs. In 2010, she was appointed director of elementary curriculum and in 2012 she became assistant superintendent of instruction.