Public school superintendents have a lot of responsibilities on their shoulders. Running a school district, large or small, requires close involvement and communication with the community. It impacts both local families with children and local employers and community members. Much is at stake when it comes to approving curriculum, school standards, and budgets.
But it turns out that there is another kind of superintendent’s job with even more power, more responsibility, and far more at stake.
That’s the role of the state superintendent of public instruction.
If you’re looking for a position near the very peak of educational leadership opportunities, you’ll find it at the head of your state’s department of education. With broad power and influence over education policies that affect every student in the state, there’s no more important role in supporting community schools.
Yet this is a case where consequences roll up-hill. If a humble district superintendent has much to answer for in the performance of their own local schools, imagine what is at stake for the state superintendent of education?
It’s not an easy role to get, and even harder to keep. And it’s absolutely something you shouldn’t dream of taking on without an advanced education in educational administration and leadership.
What Does a Superintendent of Public Instruction Do?
A superintendent of public instruction, or SPI, is the public official in charge of a state department of education. The role is typically enshrined in the state constitution or legal code.
Depending on the state, the job may also go by such title as:
In one odd case, in Oregon, the top school official is titled the Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction—the governor themself is technically the Superintendent, though all the duties are delegated.
It’s as much a political office as one of educational leadership. The job involves overseeing and coordinating every public school system in the state. In some states, they also bear some responsibility for managing private or charter school systems.
Putting Operations and Policy Decisions Under One Roof in Paradise
The job of the Hawaii Superintendent of Education is one that stands alone.
In most states, the SPI role is exclusively administration and policy – the state department of education sets rules, while direct oversight is handled by superintendents and principals who lead locally-run districts and individual schools.
Hawaii is different. The entire state effectively forms a single school district, with the Superintendent of Education as leader of all 238 public and charter schools. That makes them directly responsible not just for the high-level policy and standards applied to state schools, but for everything, right down to lawn care and leaky plumbing.
Of course, like any sizable school district, the super has plenty of help… the state is divided up into both sub-districts and entities called “complex areas” with local educational leaders to handle many of the details.
But it does make the State Superintendent of Education role in the Aloha State a uniquely challenging one. Even Washington D.C., a single city district, separates the daily business of running school districts from the state superintendent role! The top educational leader in Hawaii must be a master of every level of educational leadership.
Although it requires some of the same skills when it comes to balancing competing interests, negotiation, and engaging in strategic communications, the spectrum of concerns SPIs deal with are vastly broader than that of a typical district superintendent.
The Daily Duties of the State Superintendent of Public Instruction Are Almost Entirely Policy-Oriented
Unlike other types of superintendents, the duties of an SPI are typically outlined in state law. One thing is certain, however: they are all high-impact, high-visibility responsibilities that involve complex and sometimes controversial issues.
Effectively, their greatest role is leadership itself:
This all comes to life through a lot of meetings and public appearances. And the SPI can’t make it all happen by themself—they head a department with thousands of staff working out the details. So direct management skills are also a part of the work, from setting performance standards to delegating tasks.
In some states where the SPI is independently elected or appointed by a board, the role is further complicated when the governor appoints a separate secretary of education to exercise their own educational policy preferences.
Another feature of the role of the SPI is that the focus of their work is often channeled through the concerns and attentions of major public debate. If state literacy scores have been on the decline, media outlets are likely to declare a crisis, pundits will take to the air waves, and interest groups will start picking up their phones. Everyone will have an opinion on how significant the issue is, and exactly what you should do about it.
It takes a particular kind of leader to be effective in such high-pressure, high-stakes positions.
State School Superintendents Take a Unique Path to Their Positions
Being chosen for such a unique role doesn’t bear much resemblance to the typical hiring process for other superintendency positions.
In 12 states, it’s an elected office, chosen by the voters of the state. In the remaining states and the District of Columbia, the position is appointed. In some cases, the appointment is made by the current state governor; in other cases, it’s the decision of a state Board of Education or Board of Regents.
Keep Your Bags Packed if You’re Aiming for a Superintendent of Public Instruction Position
Due to the political nature of the position, these aren’t often long-term jobs. Even where the position is appointed, changing tides among the elected officials who make the appointments all but assure turnover in these jobs that is more frequent than in conventional superintendent roles.
As of 2023, Ballotpedia, a nonprofit resource on public officials, showed that the longest tenured SPI in the country had only held the position for a decade. The majority were new to their roles within the past two or three years.
In some states where the role is an elected position, there are even term limits. So you know going in that you have a limited amount of time to achieve your goals.
On the plus side, this rate of turnover means that the job is not as out-of-reach as you might assume from there only being 51 positions in the country. If becoming the SPI in your state is your ambition, you may just have to work hard and wait your turn… but move fast when you get your opportunity! It probably won’t last long.
In states where the position is an elected office, there may be a few constitutional qualifications required; a candidate may need to be an American citizen, or to be a certain age, of a qualified state voter eligible to hold office. In most states, it’s a nonpartisan position.
Where the job is appointed by the governor or selected by a board, the laws often leave the matter of qualifications to those bodies. In some cases, it’s specified that candidates hold a terminal degree in education, or even an active teaching certification in that state.
The political nature of SPI jobs can shift the qualification requirements quickly; Arkansas passed an emergency measure in 2015 to waive legal requirements for experience in teaching and administration. It even waived the requirement for a master’s degree! It was all done to seat the governor’s preferred candidate, who met none of those requirements.
But the lack of formal qualifications doesn’t mean these are easy jobs to get. States understandably look for the absolute best in educational leaders to head-up their entire system of education. Higher education combined with extensive experience is an absolute must.
The Most Respected and Effective People in Educational Leadership End Up Holding SPI Jobs
Due to the unique way that SPIs are selected, there are rarely formal educational qualifications for the job. The legal standards are often quite general, specifying the candidate must be “an experienced educator” or “…a person of literary and scientific attainments.”
Of course, some of the best ways to demonstrate such attainments is through an advanced degree in educational leadership. It’s unusual for SPIs to have anything less than a master’s degree, and common for them to hold a doctorate.
While a Master of Education in Educational Leadership is excellent preparation for any sort of high-level role in educational administration, if your sights are set on becoming a superintendent of public instruction, you should aim for a Doctor of Education in Educational Leadership or a PhD in Education Administration.
These doctoral degrees extend the already-solid training you will have absorbed over the course of your bachelor and master’s education. But they both deepen and extend that education, allowing you to dive into highly specific matters of the most critical importance. They also take you through high-level explorations of the role of senior leaders in education.
That means gaining a bedrock understanding of the mechanisms of leadership in educational contexts. You’ll study what it is that makes an effective leader and how they can develop, share, and realize their vision of a better school system. And you’ll go further into the role and responsibilities of the American education system as a public service. Exploring policy ideas, history, cultural trends, and emerging challenges are all typically part of doctoral studies in educational leadership.
A Doctoral Degree Offers the Perfect Launchpad for the Unique Responsibilities of the State School Superintendent
There is plenty of practical work that comes along with doctoral studies. Particularly in an EdD (Doctor of Education… sometimes abbreviated as DEd) degree, practice-oriented training includes plenty of real-world scenarios and even internship or practicum placements to put you out in active educational policy and administration environments.
Just as important, you will tailor your own studies to line up with your personal goals and interests as part of your capstone or dissertation project. This is a unique piece of work that reflects your extensive research and personal ideas about a matter of singular importance in the field of education. The result reflects your abilities and thinking like nothing else—which will be the first thing the governor or ed board members in your state read when considering you for the top job.
The Surprising Salary Scales for State Superintendents of Public Instruction
It would be possible, but misleading, to attempt to create a picture of the average salary range for superintendents of public instruction. There are only 51 such jobs in the entire country, counting the District of Columbia. The Bureau of Labor Statistics, which normally calculates industry and career compensation averages for American jobs, understandably doesn’t put a lot of time into diving into such a narrow category.
On the other hand, you probably aren’t salary-shopping as an SPI candidate… there’s only one position in your state, and if it’s available, you’ll find out quickly what it pays.
It’s extremely easy to find out what the SPI job pays in your state—as public officials, the salaries are a matter of public record.
Although in most cases it’s safe to say that pay ranges into six figures, that’s not always true—at the low end, for instance, the Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction was only paid $85,000 per year as of 2022.
The Superintendent of Education in Mississippi, on the other hand, makes $300,000 annually, the highest in the country.
Of course, it’s not really the sort of job that anyone takes for the salary. Public school superintendents at the state level are there because they want to make a difference in the education and well-being of children in their state. They have big ideas and need the big leverage the job comes with to turn them into reality.
If that describes you, then you’re not going to let salary sway you. And there’s no question that you have a tough path ahead of you to get there. But earning a degree in educational leadership will ensure that you have the knowledge and skills to do the job that the kids deserve when and if you make it to that top office.