What’s Really Driving Leadership Turnover in Education?

Image by Alachua County via Flickr

Image by Alachua County via Flickr

When DC Mayor Muriel Bowser recently announced she was nominating Oakland, CA Superintendent Antwan Wilson to succeed Kaya Henderson as DC Public Schools’ Chancellor (after an anxious public search), the San Francisco Chronicle responded with a scathing op-ed accusing Wilson of disloyalty and self-serving ambition. The Chronicle also took a few shots at San Francisco’s former superintendent Richard Carranza, now working in Houston, and generally railed against urban superintendents who “come in, do enough to raise hopes, then move on to a higher paying job.”

High turnover in educational leadership is alarming, but to paraphrase the advice columnist Dan Savage, if you have a long string of dramatic, failed relationships, the common denominator is you. I’m not just picking on the Bay Area — the average urban superintendent stays in his or her role just 3.2 years, and state education chiefs turn over at an even faster rate. These dismal numbers are likely not the sole product of individual ambition, but it remains unclear what actually drives this churn. When experienced, qualified school system leaders across the country leave their posts much earlier than expected, should we blame the individuals, or take a closer look at the jobs?

What is clear is that state and district executive leadership roles have become more challenging in recent years. Federal education policies put myriad new responsibilities and choices in the hands of state and district central offices to measure teacher and school performance, increase student achievement, and close achievement gaps for disadvantaged  groups of students. For example, a new publication on teacher evaluation by my colleagues Kaitlin Pennington and Sara Mead uncovers a minefield of choices facing state and district leaders — and that is just one policy area out of many. Leaders are figuring out these new responsibilities in an increasingly polarized and politicized educational environment.

Holding our school systems and their leaders accountable for providing an excellent education to every student is absolutely the right thing to do, but we also should recognize that educational bureaucracies were not designed to be agile performance managers orchestrating school turnarounds. They were mostly built to disburse various funding streams down to schools, and collect documentation that the conditions of that funding and other legislative mandates have been met. Those compliance responsibilities remain in place even as new performance goals are added, and on top of that, many agency budgets are being slashed by their state legislatures. Untangling the messes of red tape, budgetary crises, and misaligned priorities takes time and support that most superintendents are not afforded by their school boards or by their communities.

Even the best leaders can be hamstrung by the political, legal, and bureaucratic contexts in which they operate. Instead of looking for more selfless miracle workers to lead dysfunctional systems, envision a school system where great leaders (or maybe good-enough leaders!) could do their best work. How would it be organized? How would it be accountable to the community and work in the best interests of students? What are the conditions that enable that kind of school system to exist and succeed? I don’t have all the answers, but legislators, governors, mayors, and school boards will need to think bigger to disrupt the current cycle of leadership churn, and these big questions are one place to start.