By the numbers

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

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg, standing with school board member Landri Taylor, offers high fives to Northfield High School students on their first day.

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.


A student is in custody after Noblesville West Middle School shooting that injured another student and teacher

Police asses the scene outside Noblesville High School after a shooting at Noblesville West Middle School on May 25, 2018 (Photo by Kevin Moloney/Getty Images)

A male student shot and injured a teacher and another student at Noblesville West Middle School on Friday morning, police said.

Noblesville police Chief Kevin Jowitt said the shooting suspect asked to leave a class and returned armed with two handguns. The suspect, who police said appeared to be uninjured, is in custody and has not been identified by police.

The teacher, 29-year-old Jason Seaman, was in “good” condition Friday evening at Indiana University Health Methodist Hospital, police said. The female student, who was not identified by police, was in critical condition at Riley Hospital for Children.

News outlets were reporting that Seaman intervened to stop the shooter, but authorities said they could not confirm that on Friday afternoon.

The Noblesville Police Department has a full-time school resource officer assigned to the school who responded to the incident, Jowitt said. Local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies also responded to the shooting.

“We do know that the situation resolved extremely quickly,” Jowitt said. “We don’t know what happened in the classroom, so I can’t make any kinds of comments about what [the resource officer’s] involvement was.”

Students were evacuated to Noblesville High School on Friday morning, where families met them.

Jowitt said an additional threat was made at the high school, but they had “no reason to believe it’s anything other than a communicated threat.”

Police continue to investigate. They said they do not believe there are additional suspects. Noblesville Police spokesman Bruce Barnes could not say how the student acquired the guns, but he said search warrants have been issued.

Noblesville West Middle School enrolls about 1,300 students. Noblesville is a suburb of Indianapolis, about 20 miles north in Hamilton County. The district has about 10,500 students.

The frenzied scenes Friday outside the school have become sadly familiar. Already, there have been 23 school shootings in 2018 that involved someone being injured or killed, according to media tallies.

Just last week, 10 people were killed and 13 others were injured in a shooting at Santa Fe High School outside Houston. A student at the school has been arrested and charged.

In February, 17 people — 14 students and three staff — were shot and killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and a 19-year-old faces multiple charges.  The Parkland tragedy set off a wave of student activism across the country — including in Indianapolis — calling for stricter gun control.

“We’ve had these shootings around the country,” said Noblesville Mayor John Ditslear. “You just never think it could happen in Noblesville, Indiana. But it did.”

Noblesville Schools Superintendent Beth Niedermeyer praised the “heroic” efforts of school staff and students, saying they followed their training on how to react to an active shooter situation.

Barnes also hinted at the broader trauma that school shootings can have on students and communities.

“We ask for your prayers for the victims in this case,” he said. “I think that would include a lot of kids, not only ones that were truly the victims in this case, but all these other kids that are trying to make sense of this situation.”

Watch the press conference:

A Chalkbeat reporter is on the scene:

In a pattern that has become routine, Democratic and Republican politicians offered prayers on Twitter.

temporary reprieve

Parents score a temporary victory in slowing the closure of a small Brooklyn elementary school

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Protesters gathered at the education department's headquarters to protest a recent set of closure plans.

A judge blocked the closure of a small Brooklyn elementary school Thursday — at least for now.

Three families from P.S. 25/the Eubie Blake School filed a lawsuit in March backed by the public interest group Advocates for Justice, arguing the city’s decision to close the school was illegal because the local elected parent council was not consulted.

Brooklyn Supreme Court judge Katherine Levine did not make a final ruling Thursday about whether the closure plan violated the law. But she issued a temporary order to keep the school open while the case moves forward.

It was not immediately clear when the case will be resolved or even if the school will remain open next year. “We are reviewing the stay and will determine an appropriate course of action once the judge makes a final decision on the case,” education department spokeswoman Toya Holness wrote in a statement.

The education department said the school has hemorrhaged students in recent years and is simply too small to be viable: P.S. 25 currently enrolls just 94 students in grades K-5.

“Because of extremely low enrollment, the school lacks the necessary resources to meet the needs of students,” Holness wrote. The city’s Panel for Educational Policy, a citywide oversight board that must sign off on all school closures, voted in February to close the school.

But the school’s supporters point out that despite low test scores in the past, P.S. 25 now ranks among the city’s top elementary schools, meaning that its closure would force students into lower-performing schools elsewhere.

“Why close a school that’s doing so well?” said Leonie Haimson, the executive director of Class Size Matters and one of the lawsuit’s supporters. “It doesn’t make sense to me.”

The lawsuit hinges on a state law that gives local education councils the authority to approve any changes to school zones. Since P.S. 25 is the only zoned elementary school for a swath of Bedford-Stuyvesant, the department’s plans would leave some families with no zoned elementary school dedicated to educating them, forcing students to attend other district schools or enter the admissions lottery for charter schools.

That amounts to “effectively attempting to change zoning lines” and “unlawfully usurping” the local education council’s authority to determine those zones, according to the lawsuit.

But even if the education department loses the lawsuit, the school’s fate would still be uncertain. The closure plan would theoretically be subject to a vote from the local education council, whose president supports shuttering the school.

Still, Haimson hopes the lawsuit ultimately persuades the education department to back away from closing the school in the long run.

“My goal would be to get the chancellor to change his mind,” Haimson said. “I don’t think the future is preordained.”