Conventional wisdom and national data tell us that the “great resignation” is well under way. While hard data on how it’s playing out in school districts remains sparse, we can say for sure that turnover among superintendents in the 100 largest school districts in the U.S. is as high as it’s been in the past seven years—and based on recent history, more retirements and resignations are likely to follow before the school year is out.
We compiled data from district websites and news stories around the country and found that an interim or permanent superintendent was hired in an average of 19.6 of the 100 largest school districts each year from 2016 to 2020. In the past two years, the average has risen to 25.5 of the top 100.
The turnover bug is hitting especially hard in the largest 20 districts. In the five school years from 2015-16 to 2019-20, fourteen of the top 20 districts experienced at least one change in leadership. In just the past two years, fifteen are experiencing a change—including all of the six largest districts and 12 of the top 14 (see table, below).
A growing number of stories suggest that the challenges of the superintendent job during COVID are causing more leadership departures. More important, though, is the impact superintendent churn can have on the pace and direction of change in the face of both COVID-related challenges and the opportunities created by federal stimulus funding.
Departing leaders, incoming leaders, and their teams can work together to keep their systems building toward bold visions for how they organize people, time, and money to ensure every school is set up for success for every child. This means avoiding the temptation to press the reset button and instead anchoring action on both “build from” platforms for change and “do now” moves that address near-term student needs and lay the groundwork for long-term improvement.
Superintendent turnover in the top 20 U.S. public school districts by enrollment, 2016-2022