The Disappearing Superintendent Applicant

Does Michigan have enough qualified superintendent candidates?

Donna Oser

By Donna Oser, MASB Director of Leadership Development and Executive Search Services

DashBoard, Oct. 4, 2017

Note: This article first ran in the Fall 2017 LeaderBoard magazine. View the full issue here.

Some years ago, a scholarly article was written that referenced the disappearing superintendent applicant.1 The authors predicted that—because the superintendency was becoming less and less desirable for a variety of reasons—fewer people would choose to apply for the position in the years to come. In the nearly two decades that have passed, time has proven half of the predication to be true and the other half to be, well, complicated.

There is considerable mobility in the superintendency. National studies place the average superintendent tenure between three to five years,2 but it very much depends on contributing factors. Each year, roughly 15-20% of local school districts in Michigan experience a vacancy in the district’s lead staff position. This percentage has remained relatively consistent for the past four years.3 It represents an increase in the velocity of transitions compared to what districts experienced prior to Michigan’s 2010 early retirement incentive and begs the question: Why do superintendents leave?

Superintendent Preparation

Certificate in K-12 Administration 
This certificate illustrates that a person has completed a state board-approved administrator preparation program as determined by the superintendent of public instruction. MASB recommends this as a minimum expectation for superintendent applicants.

Basic Central Office Endorsement
This is earned through graduate work beyond a Master of Arts degree in Education Leadership or Administration through an MDE-approved higher education program in Educational Leadership or Administration.

Superintendent Specialty Endorsement 
(or Central Office Specialty Endorsement) 
Specialty endorsements are performance-based against MDE-approved standards. Candidates are recommended for Specialty Endorsements by a sponsoring MDE-approved professional association based on successful completion of a program. 

Superintendent Enhanced Endorsement 
(or Central Office Enhanced Endorsement) 
Enhanced Endorsement programs must be both performance- and impact-based against MDE-approved standards. Candidates are recommended for Enhanced Endorsements by the sponsoring MDE-approved professional association based on successful completion of program.

Ed.S.—Education Specialist degree. It is a post-master's degree for those working in educational administration.

Ed.D.—A Doctorate in Education with a focus on applying research and foundational knowledge to real-world organizational, leadership and education issues. This degree is conferred by a college of education.

Ph.D.—A Doctorate degree in Philosophy. The Ph.D. in Education is earned through a research degree program designed for individuals whose career goals include teaching and conducting research at the university level who may have chosen to specialize in an education-related field. 

Note: Program participation is not proof of degree or endorsement; endorsements must be verified by MDE documentation and degrees must be verified by university documentation.

The job of the superintendent has indeed become less desirable over the past two decades. This aspect of the prediction is true. Some of the most prevalent factors that contribute to superintendent job dissatisfaction (and departure) include:

  • Diminishing financial resources
  • Increased expectations at local, state and federal levels
  • Demands from special interest groups
  • Pressures from the community
  • Daunting time demands (80+ hours per week)
  • Salary and benefits not commensurate with demands of position4

But the number one reason superintendents leave a position is the quality of the relationship between themselves and the school board, as well as among school board members. It is THE decisive element in superintendent tenure and job satisfaction. Poor quality relationships between the superintendent and the board lead to a decrease in district stability and morale; increased conflict over instructional goals and objectives; a lack of collaboration around visioning and long-range planning; and negative perceptions of superintendent trustworthiness and credibility. When these conditions are present, the superintendent’s ability to be effective is compromised and so is his/her job satisfaction.

MASB reached out to Chris Wigent, Executive Director of the Michigan Association of School Administrators, to get perspective on this issue. Wigent explains it this way: “Board members that consistently demonstrate a deep knowledge of the governance role of the school board, work well with each other and the district administration, and treat their superintendent appropriately and professionally are the ones who will end up with [and keep] the highest skilled superintendents serving in their districts.”

Average Number of Superintendent Applicants from 2013-2017

Ironically, while more superintendents are leaving their current positions, there are more applicants for positions. When considering just numbers, it appears the forecasters got it wrong. Michigan districts have experienced a steady increase in the number of applicants for superintendent vacancies since June 2013. At that time, a school board conducting a search could expect somewhere around 20 applicants for their vacancy. As of June 2017, that number was more likely to be closer to 35—a significant increase! The issue is more complicated, however, when we consider how many of those applicants have superintendent experience and/or specific preparation to be a superintendent.

Most vacancies are filled by individuals with no prior experience as a superintendent. Three-quarters of the superintendent positions in the last four school years were filled by first-time superintendents. Why? Because the average applicant pool for a local district superintendency contains relatively few individuals with prior experience. Most applicants are principals and, to a lesser extent, frontline administrators in central office positons.

To further complicate matters, first-time superintendents today begin their superintendency in larger—and often more complex—districts than their predecessors did a decade ago. Wigent describes it thusly, “There are superintendents being hired in districts that may have been a second stop on a superintendent’s career ladder but, now, because of the reduced number of [experienced] applicants, they begin their career as a superintendent in larger districts than in prior years.”

Michigan needs to shift from quantity to quality by developing a pool of prospective superintendents that are well prepared for the rigors of the job. Job experience is but one factor in preparation. When choosing a superintendent, school boards must also seriously evaluate the extent to which applicants are highly qualified. One aspect of that is Michigan’s K-12 Administrator Certificate. While Michigan doesn’t require individuals to have their certification to be hired, if an individual is hired without his/her administrator certificate, they must begin a program to earn it within six months and complete it within three years. Because the certificate is appropriate for any K-12 administrator (principal, central office, superintendent), this is a minimum expectation, and districts whose administrators fail to comply are fined heavily. When it comes to superintendent qualifications in many cases, it’s appropriate for boards of education to have higher expectations than just certification.

MASB’s Executive Search Services estimates that only around a quarter of applicants have participated in professional learning programs designed specifically to prepare them for the role of superintendent. Wigent believes this can be an important point of distinction in hiring a superintendent. “It is critical that those who are interested make the decision to pursue this career opportunity based on the reality of the positon and not just what they might observe in their district or read in the media. [Universities] also need to continue to adjust their advanced degree programs to ensure that they are preparing superintendent candidates with the information and skills that are relevant to what is actually occurring in today’s public education environment.”

When selecting a superintendent—especially when considering applicants without prior experience in the position—it makes sense for school boards to evaluate the nature and quality of preparation applicants have participated in that are specific to the superintendency. Earning a Superintendent or Central Office Endorsement or Specialty Endorsement on an Administrator Certificate illustrates that an applicant has engaged in specialized, performance-based professional development to prepare him/her to be in a district leadership position. (This is often considered applied learning.) Similarly, candidates that have earned doctorate or education specialist degrees have demonstrated a commitment to preparation and developing mastery-level knowledge related to education. (Some view these programs as more theoretical or research related.) Just the act of committing to and completing either type of program separates the opportunists from those who have intentionally developed themselves to be district leaders.

In closing, school board members can take heart in knowing that superintendent applicants are not disappearing – we have more applicants now than ever before. However, we do need to take our work of attracting, vetting and retaining a superintendent very seriously because we must discern those who are well prepared to succeed from those who require additional preparation. Remember, people buy into the leader before they ever buy into the vision.5

Is your board looking for a new superintendent, to tighten up its governance structures or explore a different governance model? MASB’s skilled consultants can help! Contact the Leadership Development and Executive Search Services Department at 517.327.5900 to request assistance.

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1 Keane, W.G. and Moore, D. The disappearing superintendent applicant; the invitation to apply goes unanswered. The New Superintendency, 6 / Edition 1, 2001.

2 Kowalski, T., McCord, R., Petersen, G., Young, I., and Ellerson, N. The American School Superintendent: 2010 Decennial Study. Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2010.

3 Michigan Association of School Boards. Superintendent Vacancies 2013-2018 dataset. 2017.

4 Domene, D. A study of factors influencing superintendent departure. ProQuest LLC, Ed.D. Dissertation, California State University, Fullerton, 2012.

5 Maxwell, J. The 360 Degree Leader: Developing Your Influence From Anywhere in the Organization. Thomas Nelson, 2006.