American schools are building the future of the country, one child at a time. Somewhere along a curving suburban street, or just off a busy urban avenue, kids throng to one of the more than 100,000 schools in the country each morning from fall to spring, chatting, laughing, and dreading the quiz waiting for them in 4th period math.
Whether they realize it or not, the lessons they learn are going to be instrumental in shaping their lives, and all our lives, in the decades to come.
They probably aren’t thinking about the person that woke up long before they did, organizing the bus they took to get there, arranging funding for school supplies they use in their assignments, and settling on those math textbooks that they hate. But the superintendent had to do all of that to open the doors to the building and bring those lessons to life.
It’s hard to think of jobs in the United States that have more impact in their community or on the future than that of the local school district superintendent.
And they’ll be in their office long after school gets out for the day, making big decisions about funding, hiring, and contract negotiations. They’ll deal with tough questions from the school board and be confronted with big asks from principals, parents, and local businesses.
School superintendents are some of the least recognized big players in both the future and the present in their communities. Yet those 100,000 schools, and the communities that are built around them, couldn’t function without them.
Superintendent Definition: What Is a Superintendent of Schools?
The superintendent is the leader of a local school district. They are the professional educators with decades of on-the-job experience and years of college behind them who are responsible for keeping the lights on and the doors open. They take the directives of the local school board, state education agencies, and feedback from their principals and staff and put it all together into a coherent, effective education system for kids in their community.
They are also the public face of those schools, heading up damage control and public relations while always offering an honest, action-oriented appraisal and plan for any situation that arises. They are the person who gets interviewed when test scores are low, and the person who ends up talking to the press when a teacher gets fired for saying something controversial in class.
Superintendents catch a lot of flak, and it can have real consequences: EdWeek reported in 2022 that the rate of turnover among all superintendents for the prior two school years approached 25 percent. That’s up from an already high baseline of about 15 percent, but not as bad as it is for urban school districts, which turned over a whopping 37 percent of superintendent jobs in 2021/2022.
It’s clear that it’s a job that takes maximum effort, and Captain America-level leadership skills. And it’s a heroic job that every community needs.
Superintendents Have an Impact That Goes Far Beyond the Classroom
Public schools are more than just places where kids show up every morning to slog through their lessons. In the United States, they are a focal point in their communities. They offer the foundations of knowledge and skill that society relies on. Their graduates share experiences that bond them long after graduation. Locals who don’t even have kids still follow the high school teams, and everybody knows at least one of the teachers.
That last little item speaks to a larger and deeper truth about American school districts. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of 2021, more than 8 million janitors, teachers, coaches, and other staff were employed in elementary and secondary schools across the country. In many counties, they represent the single largest employer. When a superintendent makes business decisions, they are felt all over town.
It’s clear that there is a lot more that goes into the superintendent job description than just scholastic activities. The super doesn’t just deal with schools—they have a significant impact on day-to-day life in their communities.
Superintendent of Schools Job Description: What Does a Superintendent Do?
At the big-picture level, a district superintendent calls the shots in establishing the vision and direction of education in their community. They are the CEO and face of the public schools. They are the individual that is ultimately responsible for how the money gets spent and what the test scores reveal about what’s being taught in the classroom.
The formal superintendent of schools job description usually covers the general processes behind making all those things happen. They include tasks like:
Of course, the superintendent themself doesn’t usually do any of those things directly. Instead, they exercise authority through creating policies, procedures, and offering guidance to a wide range of subordinates. People that report directly to the superintendent can include:
And, of course, all the various assistant superintendents in their different areas of responsibility are overseen by the superintendent. Any department head or individual that provides services across the district will come under the superintendent’s supervision.
The supe, in turn, almost always reports to the local school board.
School Superintendents are at the Top of the Ladder, but They Still Answer to the Board
The local board of education is the ultimate authority within a given school district. This is the body that hires and fires the superintendent, sets district goals, oversees financial affairs, approves policy, and weighs in on any matter of importance.
Although they are above the superintendent in the hierarchy of authority, board members are not usually professional educators. Instead, they are typically elected members of the public, representing a unique form of public input into school administration.
That combination of authority without experience makes boards particularly dependent on the expertise of the superintendent. The superintendent, in turn, derives their own authority from the confidence and backing of the board. It’s a partnership the superintendent must manage effectively to be successful.
Like most of the other tasks a superintendent’s job calls for, working with the local school board requires strong leadership and relationship-building skills. Managing up by building relationships with school board members and the broader school community is something every superintendent has to learn how to do.
Different District Sizes Create Different Organizational Challenges
The scope of these duties can shift depending on the size and character of the school district. A small district may have few staff, and the superintendent can keep more duties on their own desk. Larger districts, with thousands of students, have more staff and more specializations, with various departments and deputy superintendents to delegate to.
Many of these same tasks fall to people in assistant superintendent jobs. The deputy superintendent of schools job description is often much more narrowly tailored than that of the superintendent. Large districts with many assistant superintendents often divide up areas of responsibility for those assistants to focus on, like early childhood education or family and community engagement.
Deputy superintendent of schools jobs are a common way to get the kind of experience and expertise that are eventually needed to move up to the superintendent position. An assistant superintendent of schools will have the same licensing requirements as the superintendent, so they will get the same education and pass the same job tests.
All those deputies and other staff point to the reality that most of what superintendents do is meet with other people and give them direction and support. No superintendent can independently take on all the various specialized tasks and duties that make a district tick. It’s all their responsibility, but in terms of actually making it happen, they must rely on their leadership and management skills to direct and inspire others.
The Qualifications Required for Superintendent of Schools Jobs
A superintendent’s responsibilities are vast and important. And the requirements in each state for becoming licensed to take on those roles reflect the serious and broad nature of those responsibilities. Although the specific qualifications will vary from state to state, in general superintendent licensure requires:
What Is a Superintendent of Public Instruction?
There’s one superintendent job you can get with zero qualifications and more power and prestige than any other. But you may not want it.
That’s because it’s the top job in the state education system, the hot seat for every political, instructional, and funding controversy in the system.
States variously title this role as:
- State Superintendent of Schools
- Secretary of Education
- Superintendent of Public Instruction
- Chief School Administrator
- Commissioner of Education
- Director of Education
In some cases, it’s an appointed position, either by the governor or a state Board of Education, while in other states it’s an elected office. Of course, you do have to meet state constitutional qualifications for holding elected office. And in some states, there are loose requirements for holding a master’s degree, a current teaching license, or relevant experience, but they are not as stringent as for regular superintendent positions.
On the other hand, they don’t have to be. Candidates for these jobs are under the microscope from day one. Anyone without a prestigious degree, decades of experience, and some original thoughts about how to run a school system need not apply.
But checking the boxes on a license application isn’t enough. The most significant part of any superintendent job is something that a test can’t measure – leadership.
A Superintendent’s Skillset Is the Definition of What it Means to Be a Leader
Superintendents must cultivate a particular set of sometimes fuzzy skills to take on the kind of challenges they will face on the job. While these are the same skills that school principals rely on, a superintendent must take them to another level.
For example, while both may exercise strategic communication skills when reaching out to parents and community members, a principal is talking to a limited footprint of parents with kids all in the same age range. A superintendent, on the other hand, will be addressing both parents and people without children, with even more diverse viewpoints and concerns. That means crafting a presentation or press release for a desired effect takes a whole other level of expertise and consideration.
On top of communications, superintendents also need to be:
Masterful strategic planners and analysts
Superintendents must be well-informed bout the current state of their district and community and about developments in the field of education overall. They must be able to assess everything from demographic to pedagogical trends and put together long-term plans to account for realities on the ground that will drive learning for years to come.
Creative negotiators and conflict resolvers
Not only do superintendents have to put all those plans and a broad vision into play, but they also must be able to get players from both schools and the community on board to make them happen. All the thorniest problems end up on the superintendent’s desk, and they need the skills to resolve them diplomatically and effectively.
Insightful psychological and pedagogical experts
Although a superintendent won’t get down into the weeds of curriculum development or instructional technique, they need a breadth of expertise in teaching and in developmental and organizational psychology to make sure their team is on track.
Competent in budgeting and accounting
Superintendents are responsible for forecasting costs and allocating funds to the schools and departments in their district. Keeping a close eye on cost centers, capital expenses, and funding sources can be the difference between a district that starts looking at laying teachers off and one that is thriving and successful.
Expert delegators and motivators
Even in the smallest districts, no single superintendent can make everything happen that is required to supply, protect, and instruct all the kids they are responsible for. That makes skills in mentoring and delegation a must. Superintendents must be able to cultivate their vision among both district staff and principals, conveying broad concepts along with specific tasks to make sure everything is done right.
These all come down to cultivating the kind of interpersonal and relationship-building that characterizes all great organizational leaders.
A Commitment to Continued Learning is in the Job Description for Any Superintendent of Schools
If there’s something that the field of education values in a leader, it’s education itself. Superintendents will hold at least a master’s degree. It’s extremely common for district superintendents to have doctorates in education, however.
Either way, part of that advanced education must include a package of classes mandated by each state as part of their licensing process. These courses cover the basics that the state department of education considers critical for new superintendents or assistant superintendents to master. And they will often give you the key knowledge necessary to pass the mandatory licensing exams.
Superintendent Jobs Require Training at the Most Advanced Levels of Educational Leadership Studies
Superintendent licenses in most states only require that you hold a master’s degree. But as a practical matter, most superintendents will either have or be pursuing doctoral-level studies in education administration or leadership.
Part of that is a function of where the typical superintendent candidate is in their career by the time they are considered for the job. Teaching is a process of ongoing formal education, and since most educational administration jobs already require a master’s, getting to the superintendent level means building on that existing degree.
The state-required courses for superintendent licensure are offered at the doctoral level, too, in degree programs such as a Doctor of Education (EdD) in Leadership in Educational Administration with concentration in Supervisor of Instruction, or a PhD in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies.
These are intensive programs that cover core knowledge and skills in areas such as:
Doctoral studies go deep into these areas and offer students the opportunity to specialize in a particular subject through the choice of dissertation or capstone project. The intensive research and thought that goes into such projects builds essential expertise in an area of your own choosing.
The EdD, or Doctor of Education, is considered a more practice-oriented degree while PhD, or Doctor of Philosophy programs, are usually aimed more at research and theoretical studies.
Another option for many superintendents is the EdS, or Educational Specialist degree, with titles such as EdS in Educational Administration – School Superintendent. The EdS is a post-master’s degree, but without the additional training in research and without the extensive capstone or dissertation requirements of a doctorate. In that sense, they are laser-focused at offering the required coursework for superintendency, without the broader training in research and analysis.
This cuts as much as three years off the total time to complete a qualifying degree, which saves both time and expense. It still leaves open the possibility of returning to pursue a full doctorate, as well. In fact, some EdS degrees are offered as bridge programs that allow you to apply those credits to a full doctoral program if you choose to pursue one eventually.
The Responsibility of Being a Superintendent Comes with a Salary to Match
Superintendents tend to be well paid for all the headaches and tough situations they are faced with. Unfortunately, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), which tracks salary levels for different categories of American workers, doesn’t separate out superintendent jobs from other educational administrators working in K-12 schools.
But it’s not a big leap to presume that the top jobs make top dollar. In the case of those administrators, BLS puts the annual salary for the top ten percent at over $153,520 per year.
Of course, working in education also means above-average benefits packages. So on top of take-home pay, most superintendents can count on excellent healthcare and retirement benefits, and generous vacation time.
The different nature of school districts in different states and in various parts of the country will also affect the compensation levels. The New York City Department of Education, for example, has more than a million students under instruction, and, according to the Census Bureau, the highest per-pupil budget in the nation. You can expect the superintendent there to make quite a lot more than the super in Bois Blanc Pines, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, which had a total enrollment of 4 for 2021.
But superintendent jobs anywhere in the country aren’t really something people pursue because of the money. Being a superintendent puts you right in the middle of a set of high expectations and demands in America today. As you can see from how parents, teachers, students, and superiors all view the job, many of those expectations are mutually exclusive.
If education is your passion, though, and if you have the sheer will and ability to develop a vision and lead your community toward more effective, equitable, and involved learning, there’s no job with better leverage to make it happen. And in many ways, there are few jobs in any industry, in any part of the country, that offer such a great opportunity to have an impact in the community.
And if that’s what you want, then that’s the real payoff for pursuing a school superintendent job.
2021 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary and employment figures for Education Administrators, Kindergarten through Secondary reflect national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed March 2023.