By the numbers

How long does a big-city superintendent last? Longer than you might think.

PHOTO: Ruma Kumar
Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson visits classrooms and students in 2015. He's led Tennessee's largest district since 2013.

The statistic comes up nearly every time a big name in education steps down: the average big-city school superintendent only lasts three years in the job.

The factoid reinforces a common view of urban school districts as dysfunctional places with ever-rotating leadership. The problem, according to a report released Tuesday by the Broad Center, is that the three-year figure isn’t accurate — and it’s not clear it ever has been.

In fact, recent leaders of the 100 largest school districts in the country have lasted an average of just over six years; for big-city districts, it was five and a half years.

“While some districts struggle to retain the leaders they hire — and that should not be discounted — many discussions about the average tenure of superintendents appear to be rooted in a fundamental misinterpretation of results from past superintendent surveys,” the report says.

The analysis tracks the leadership of the country’s 100 largest school districts based on a survey, media reports, and district announcements. It focuses on the 242 superintendents who completed their tenure between 2003 and 2017.

Why is the number so far off from conventional wisdom? The three-year figure comes from a survey by the Council of the Great City Schools, most recently conducted in 2014, about how long current superintendents have been in their roles. Since those leaders were still serving, their tenures may last much longer. But that number is often reported as the average length of a superintendent’s tenure, start to finish. (A more precise figure from that same survey, looking at completed tenures, has been more often ignored.)

The three-year number has been mentioned, often without caveat, in outlets including the New York Times, Washington Post, Education Week, and, yes, Chalkbeat.

“The three-and-a-half year number has stuck around, I think, because it fits a narrative that people like and there isn’t any counterfactual,” said Josh Starr, a former superintendent in Connecticut and Maryland and the CEO of PDK International. Still, he said, the new information is just one more data point in a confusing landscape, since it’s not always clear how to distinguish between urban and suburban districts and because especially long-serving leaders can skew averages.

The new Broad Center report includes all 100 largest U.S. school districts; the Great City Schools survey included 53 of its 65 district members.

The Broad Center report also runs the tenure numbers for those 53 specific districts. It finds the average full-length tenure for a leader there was five and a half years.

Turnover hits some districts harder than others

That’s not to say to turnover among district leaders isn’t a problem. The latest report finds that nearly a quarter of superintendents leave before serving for three years, and the majority leave before serving for six.

Broad Center report.

Then there’s the fact that certain districts — namely those with more low-income students and more students of color — see much more churn than others. As far as stable leadership goes, students who may already lag behind are more often in districts that lack it.

There’s not much research on whether longer superintendent tenures are linked to higher student achievement; one recent study focusing on Florida and North Carolina found only inconsistent evidence.

The Broad Center report also documents stark gender disparities. Over the time period of the study, just about one in five superintendents in the largest 100 districts were women. Among those who were hired, they stayed in their jobs for shorter periods — 5.2 versus 6.4 years.

Perhaps most surprising is the candid admission in the report that superintendents associated with the Broad Center — which runs a controversial training program for aspiring school system leaders, funded by Los Angeles philanthropist Eli Broad — have substantially shorter tenures than other district leaders. Broad-trained leaders last for an average of just 3.5 years.

The sample size here is fairly small, as 29 Broad-trained leaders have completed superintendencies. Among the 12 current Broad-trained district heads, the average tenure is 3.4 years; the average length of a current superintendent’s tenure nationwide is 3.8 years.

“Regardless of where our network members work, they should act with urgency on behalf of the students, families and communities they serve, and we are deeply concerned when they don’t make lasting improvements,” the report says.

Follow the ratings

Illinois education officials laud their school ratings — but critics say they don’t go far enough

Illinois rolled out its new school accountability system in the Illinois Report Card late last month.

State education officials publicly lauded their new school rating system Friday, even as a new, nationwide analysis of school improvement plans criticized Illinois’ approach as too hands-off.  

While the state developed a clear rating system as the federal government requires, Illinois falls short in follow-through, according to the report from the Collaborative for Student Success, a non-profit advocacy group, and HCM Strategies, a policy analysis group.  

“The state is taking too limited a role in leading or supporting school improvement efforts,” said the report, which examined how 17 states are implementing school improvement plans under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which was passed in 2015 and replaced the No Child Left Behind Act.

Both those federal laws task states with identifying and helping improve underperforming schools and with creating criteria to judge which schools are doing well. Illinois rolled out its new school accountability system in the Illinois Report Card late last month.

State officials disagree with the criticism.

“Illinois is being held up as a model for other states to follow,” said Ralph Grimm, chief education officer of Illinois, speaking at the monthly state board of education meeting on Friday. “The entire (state) team has to be commended for providing useful information.”

Illinois’ rating system places every public school in the state into one of four categories based in part on scores on the annual PARCC standardized tests (click here to see how Chicago schools ranked).

Only about a third of Illinois students scored proficient or higher on PARCC tests administered last spring. In reading, 37 percent of students in grades 3 through 8 met that benchmark, while in math 31 percent did. Despite that, the state awarded 80 percent of its schools a “commendable” or “exemplary” rating. 

The state labeled 20 percent of schools “underperforming” or “low performing,” the only designations that could trigger state action. Intervention measures include improvement plans, visits from specialists, and additional funding.

The state released its ratings just days after Chicago released its own batch of school ratings, which take into account a different set of metrics and a different standardized test.

Grimm said the next step will be asking the state’s lowest-performing schools to draft improvement plans and then connecting them with experts to implement their changes.

The state ratings pay particular attention to how schools educate certain groups of students — such as children of color and English language learners. Improvement plans will focus on ways to raise their achievement levels.

Under the latest state rankings, nearly half of Chicago schools failed to meet the state’s threshold for performance, with a disproportionate number of high schools on the low-performance list. Nearly all of under- and low-performing Chicago high schools are on the South Side and sit in or border on the city’s poorest census tracts.

The state could grant underperforming schools $15,000, and  the lowest performers can apply for $100,000 under its IL-Empower program — which helped schools improve by funneling federal funds to them. Advocates have welcomed the change to a carrot to help schools pull themselves up, after years of sticks that overhauled and cut funding for low-performing schools.

Nationally, the Collaborative for Student Success report applauded Colorado for its streamlined application system, and Nevada for asking districts to directly address equity.

The collaborative criticized Illinois for failing to involve parents and community members in its plan. The group also said the state needs to give districts more guidance on putting together school improvement plans. 

carry on

These 16 Denver charter schools won renewal from the school board

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Sebastian Cruz waves to Rev. Leon Kelly as he works with children in a classroom during his after-school program at Wyatt Academy in September 2018.

The Denver school board on Thursday night unanimously renewed agreements with 16 of the district’s charter schools. The lengths of those renewals, however, varied from one year to five years — and signaled the board’s confidence in the schools to deliver a quality education.

The board also accepted Roots Elementary’s decision to close and surrender its charter at the end of this school year. The Park Hill school is facing low enrollment and high costs.

Denver Public Schools is a charter-friendly school district that has for years shared tax revenue and school buildings with its 60 publicly funded, independently operated charter schools. The schools are controversial, though, with opponents viewing them as privatizing public education.

Every charter school in Denver has an agreement with the district that spells out how long it’s allowed to operate. To continue running after that time period, the charter school must seek renewal. The arrangement is part of the deal for charters: They get the flexibility to operate independently, but they must periodically prove to the district that they’re doing a good job.

The school board relies on one set of recommendations from Denver Public Schools staff and a second set of recommendations from a districtwide parent committee in deciding how long a leash to give each charter school. The district staff and the parents on the committee consider factors such as test scores, school culture, financial viability, and the strength of a school’s leaders when making their recommendations.

They also consider a school’s rating on Denver Public Schools’ color-coded scale based largely on academic factors. The School Performance Framework, or SPF, labels schools either blue, green, yellow, orange, or red. Blue means a school has a distinguished academic record, while red means a school is not meeting the district’s expectations.

The staff recommended the school board renew the charters of all 16 schools that applied. Two other charter schools — DSST: Cole Middle School and Compass Academy — are also up for renewal this year. But because they earned the district’s lowest rating, they must go through a separate process in which they will present a detailed improvement plan. Their renewals will depend on the strength of their plans, which is why they weren’t included in this batch.

The board approved the 16 renewals Thursday without discussion. All of the new terms begin next school year. Here’s the rundown:

STRIVE Prep Federal, a middle school in southwest Denver
Year opened: 2006
School rating: Green
Renewal: Five years

DSST: Green Valley Ranch High School, a high school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2011
School rating: Green
Renewal: Five years

Rocky Mountain Prep Creekside, an elementary school in southeast Denver
Year opened: 2012
School rating: Green
Renewal: Five years

DSST: College View High School, a high school in southwest Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Green
Renewal: Three years, with a possible two-year extension

KIPP Northeast Denver Leadership Academy, a high school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Blue
Renewal: Three years, with a possible two-year extension

KIPP Northeast Elementary School, an elementary school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible three-year extension

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest, an elementary school in southwest Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible three-year extension

Wyatt Academy, an elementary school in northeast Denver
Year opened: 2003
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible two-year extension

KIPP Northeast Denver Middle School, a middle school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2011
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible two-year extension

Downtown Denver Expeditionary School, an elementary school in central Denver
Year opened: 2013
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible two-year extension

Denver Justice High School, an alternative high school for at-risk students in central Denver
Year opened: 2009
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible one-year extension

REACH Charter School, an elementary school in central Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible one-year extension

Monarch Montessori, an elementary school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2012
School rating: Orange
Renewal: One year, with a possible two-year extension

STRIVE Prep SMART, a high school in southwest Denver
Year opened: 2012
School rating: Orange
Renewal: One year, with a possible two-year extension

Academy of Urban Learning, an alternative high school for at-risk students in northwest Denver
Year opened: 2005
School rating: Red
Renewal: One year, with a possible one-year extension

Rise Up Community School, an alternative high school for at-risk students in northeast Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Red
Renewal: One year