Why Can't Seattle Hold Onto A Superintendent?

Former KUOW journalist and radio personality in Seattle, Steve Scher, recently contacted me. He wanted to know, from my perspective as a former administrator and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation program officer overseeing our investments in Seattle Public Schools, how I would answer this question: Why Can't Seattle Hold Onto A Superintendent?

Here was my reply:

Let’s first be clear: it’s not just Seattle that cannot hold onto a superintendent. Superintendents cannot hold onto Seattle either. The superintendency is a bucking bronco ride in virtually every large school district in the United States. The average tenure for urban district superintendents is 3.6 years[1] and that’s gone up from 2.2 years just fourteen years ago.

Even with these stunning national figures, Seattle Public Schools (SPS) is beating the average - negatively. We are now on our fourth Superintendent in four years. Since 2005, SPS has had 7 chief financial officers, 7 VPs of human resources, 6 executive directors of special education, 4 chief academic officers, 4 chief operating officers, 5 chief information officers, 3 general counsels, 3 communication directors, and 3 deputy superintendents. [2] In 2012 alone, 36 principals and assistant principals – 20% of the total school leadership corps – left the district.

It almost makes you laugh if it weren’t so tragic.

Successful school districts need a lot of things; but at the core they need stability. If you have a revolving door of leaders, there's little chance to establish real reforms. Superintendent turnover disrupts management operations, wastes time and money, frustrates the public and, worst of all, negatively impacts student performance.

The teachers and administrators who are successful with students in SPS are doing so in spite of, not because of, inspiring and sustained district leadership. We are falling short of our ultimate goals of raising achievement, closing a troubling achievement gap and restoring general (not just school-specific) pride to our city’s schools.

“An Impossible Job”

Ten years ago, the University of Washington’s Center for Reinventing Public Education published report following an in-depth survey from 70 urban superintendents in the United States. An Impossible Job? The View from the Urban Superintendents Chair[3] was dusted off this spring by one of its primary authors (Christine Campbell) who was struck by how little things have changed since its publication.

The report is refreshingly candid: “The pressures for districts to respond to adults’ financial demands rather than the children’s educational needs is a frustrating reality for many superintendents. Most describe it as ‘politics’ interfering with their educational mission, and politics are almost always about the distribution of jobs and economic benefits.”

Superintendents are unable to take the bold action necessary to improve all students’ performance and experience – their ultimate job. When they do propose bold action, like closing low-performing schools, firing poor-performing principals, allocating funds with more flexibility and allowing principals to make their own personnel decisions, they usually pay the price with their jobs.

Given all this, is it any wonder that we don’t have exceptional leaders lining up to take on the urban superintendency? Even if they were, there just aren’t a lot of people who have the trifecta of credible instructional acumen, solid business management experience and political savvy. The Alliance for Education (Seattle’s Lead Educational Agency) has repeatedly stepped in to help SPS superintendents with connecting to the community leadership and stabilizing political support. They have also footed the bill on school board training. But this extra support is still not enough.

The school board needs massive restructuring. We’ve had too many board members who continue to meddle in administrative decisions and make decisions based on the narrow interests of individuals and small neighborhood constituencies. This is a perennial problem and not the first time that someone has suggested overhauling the accountability structure. Over twenty years ago, then state representative Gary Locke proposed to have City Hall appoint Seattle school board members.

This might help diversify the board in terms of talent and experience, but we still need board members who are capable of putting the special interests aside and overseeing the work from the balcony, not the dance floor.

In the end, however, we the citizens of this city are responsible for electing a school board and holding onto a superintendent worthy of our city’s aspirations for all children. We don’t seem to take this responsibility seriously…or at all. School board elections happen off-cycle and turnout is famously low. In the end, we get what we vote for. And most of us aren’t voting.

 To stop the bronco ride, we must:

  • Encourage our city’s most talented and thoughtful citizens to run for the school board
  • Balance media portrayals of school board candidates and get out the vote
  • Insist that superintendents are supported to make the tough decisions that will close our persistent achievement gap
  • Hold our superintendents primarily accountable to student outcomes, not just style points and effort


[1] According to the last survey published by Council of Great City Schools in 2010

[2] http://crosscut.com/2012/04/10/seattle-schools/22191/Seattle-needs-stable-school-leadership/, plus tally since 2012

[3] http://www.crpe.org/thelens/buried-treasure-impossible-job-view-urban-superintendents-chair