Dr. John Covington’s resignation from his job as chief administrator of the Kansas City, Missouri School District generated news coverage not just locally but nationwide. However, he was not the only local school superintendent to resign this year. Less well covered have been the resignations of superintendents in the Hickman Mills and Park Hill districts. On average, about two superintendents in the Kansas City metropolitan area resign each year, according to statistics gathered by the KC Education Enterprise.
Short stays by superintendents are not just local. They are a national trend.
“The estimated mean tenure of superintendents is 5.5 years, but 15 percent of superintendents have served just one year, another 15 percent have served two years, and 15 percent have served 10 or more years,” according to information available from the District Administration magazine website.
Dr. Covington’s job with Kansas City lasted a little more than two years, so his stay was slightly longer than the tenures of about a third of his peers nationwide. In contrast, Dr. Dennis Fisher of Park Hill School District is retiring after seven years on the job, and Dr. Marge Williams of the Hickman School District is retiring after 12 years. Among them, they seem to reflect the national range of superintendent experience.
Slightly more than half of superintendents surveyed by the American Association of School Administrators last year say they expect to still be on the job in 2015, which means that there will be a fair amount of turnover nationwide. Next year the metro area will probably see another one or two superintendents move on.
Of course, Dr. Covington’s departure was notable, because he was leading a troubled urban district and because his departure may be one of the reasons why the Missouri State Board of Education removed Kansas City’s accreditation earlier this week. Critics say he may not have stayed long enough on the job to help children in the district. Michigan’s Education Achievement Authority hired him away from Kansas City to lead changes in low-performing schools in that state, partly because of Dr. Covington’s leadership in attempting to improve performance here. However, now the Detroit Free Press in Michigan is questioning his ability to lead.
“The unanimous decision by the Missouri State Board of Education is an embarrassing blow to the beleaguered school district,” the Free Press reported earlier this week. “The decision also could raise questions about Covington’s ability to turn around the state’s [Michigan's] chronically low-performing schools.”
Dr. Williams is leaving Hickman Mills in somewhat better condition than that in which Dr. Covington left Kansas City. Her district was faced with possible loss of accreditation this year, but the state board gave them another chance and will reconsider their status next year. Dr. Fisher leaves Park Hill — which received a Distinction in Performance Award again this year — in much better shape.
How long superintendents stay on the job “is positively correlated with student achievement,” according to the Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning. However, “the positive effects manifest themselves as early as two years into the job,” they add. If this research is correct, then Dr. Covington’s instructional leadership — even though his tenure was brief — may still have had a positive impact on students in Kansas City.
Instructional leadership is just one of the roles superintendents play in their districts, according to Education Resources Information Center senior research analyst Larry Lashway. In his article The Superintendent in an Age of Accountability, he explained that district heads such as Covington, Fisher and Williams also must play managerial and political roles.
New superintendents will soon play all those roles in the Hickman Mills, Kansas City and Park Hill school districts. Of course, Dr. Covington has already moved on, and the Kansas City school board has not yet chosen his successor (although Dr. R. Stephen Green is serving in the interim). Dr. Fisher and Dr. Williams plan to retire at the end of the current school year. The Park Hill School District this week interviewed search firms as the first step in a national effort to replace their superintendent, and Hickman Mills has already promoted a new superintendent from within their own administration. Dr. Evelyn Williams, former associate superintendent of elementary schools, will replace Dr. Marge Williams.
Nationwide there is talk of a shortage of qualified superintendents, although it is not clear whether such a shortage actually exists. Even if it does exist, it would not necessarily have a great impact on most superintendent searches in the Kansas City metro area. Although Park Hill has announced that it is looking nationwide, many local districts hire superintendents from smaller nearby districts or promote from within, as Hickman Mills has done.
Wherever they come from, over the next year at least three new superintendents will be leading districts in the metropolitan area. And they won’t be in the minority. By examining the tenures of local superintendents, the KC Education Enterprise has determined that more than half have served fewer than five years in their current jobs.
Some say that in the new economy, most workers in the United States can expect to change jobs every 3-5 years. In that respect, school superintendents do not seem to be much different from the rest of us.
UPDATE Friday, Sept. 23, 3:40 p.m.: This just in from Park Hill School District:
Board Hires Search Firm to Help Find Park Hill’s Next Superintendent
At a special Board meeting on Tuesday, the Board interviewed three search firms who were bidding to perform the district’s superintendent search. At last night’s meeting, the Board voted to hire Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates to conduct the search for someone to replace Superintendent Dr. Dennis Fisher after he retires in June 2012.
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