December 12, 2022

Updated Analysis Shows Leadership Disruption Impacts Almost Half of Nation’s Largest School Districts

The third update to comprehensive Superintendent Research Project shows gender leadership gaps in nation’s largest districts persist.

Updated Analysis Shows Leadership Disruption Impacts Almost Half of Nation’s Largest School Districts

Rate of Leadership Churn is Up 46 Percent Compared to Pre-Pandemic

Half of the nation’s largest school districts, which collectively represent 12.5 million students, have had a disruption or change in leadership since March 2020. Additionally, the proportion of leadership churn amongst the nation’s largest districts has increased 46 percent when comparing the two years before the pandemic began in March 2020 and the two years following the beginning of the pandemic. The latest update from ILO Group’s Superintendent Research Project builds on prior research which identified growing gender equity gaps and gender pay gaps in educational leadership.

“Despite clear evidence that women leaders are underrepresented in education – even when they are equally or better qualified than the men being appointed – the majority of women who leave superintendent positions are still being replaced by men,” said ILO Group Co-Founder and CEO Dr. Julia Rafal-Baer. “Half of the nation’s largest districts have now had a change of leadership since the start of the pandemic, but women still hold only 30 percent of the superintendent positions in our country. The imperative to close the gender gap isn’t simply about representation, it’s about giving students the kind of leadership that is needed to accelerate learning during a moment of grave educational crisis.”

ILO Group is a women-founded national education strategy and policy firm.

ILO Group’s earlier research found that long-existing gender gaps in leadership were exacerbated by rapid turnover in district leadership. The latest update to the Superintendent Research Project being released today shows that broadbased superintendent turnover is accelerating and the gender divide in leadership persists. Specifically, the latest report finds that of the 94 women who have left superintendent positions since the start of the pandemic, two-thirds (62) were replaced by men.

The most recent data collected for the latest release of the Superintendent Research Project points to an alarming increase in leadership churn during and following the pandemic. Half of all the top districts in the country have had at least one change in leadership since March 2020 and dozens have had two or more changes. 

Key findings in this update to the Superintendent Research Project include:

  • Between March 1, 2020 and September 1, 2022, 246 (49 percent) of the 500 largest school districts in the country underwent or were currently undergoing changes.
    • 40 districts have changed leaders two times since March 2020.
    • 7 have changed leaders three or more times since March 2020.
    • As of September 1, 2022, there were 27 school districts with an interim or acting superintendent in place.
  • The 246 districts that have had a change in leadership support nearly 12.5 million students out of the total 21.5 million in the top 500.

The turnover taking place is historically high.

  • Prior to and immediately after the start of the pandemic (September 1, 2018 to August 31, 2020), there were 155 changes across 141 districts, representing just over one-quarter of the top 500 districts (28 percent).
  • During and following the pandemic, (September 1, 2020 to September 1, 2022) there were 228 changes across 189 districts, representing nearly 40 percent of the top 500 districts. 
  • Following the pandemic, the total number of superintendent transitions increased by 46 percent and the proportion of districts making changes increased by 34 percent.

The rapid rate of turnover has even impacted state education departments which had been fairly stable leading into and during the early stages of the pandemic. Nearly half (47 percent) of the states in the country have had turnover at the state education superintendent or commissioners level since March 2020.

The Superintendent Research Project launched in July 2021 to investigate long-standing hiring disparities for superintendent positions across the country’s largest K-12 districts and is the first centralized, publicly available database of its kind. The latest update shows that previously identified gender gaps in educational leadership persist, including gaps at the regional level. 

  • 49% of districts in the Northeast (18 in 37 districts) are led by women;
  • 37% of districts in the Midwest (24 in 65 districts);
  • 34% of districts in the Southwest (33 in 97 districts);
  • 27% of districts in the West (40 in 149 districts); and
  • only 23% of districts in the Southeast (35 in 152 districts).

This is the third report focused on leadership of the nation’s largest school districts released by ILO Group over the last year. The first report, released in January 2022, focused on the dramatic gender gap in education leadership. The second report, released in April 2022, identified significant pay gaps between men and women leaders at the district and state levels.To view the full data set of the nation’s 500 largest school districts, please click [here].

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