Not everyone has what it takes to become a school district superintendent. It’s a job with long hours, high stakes, and stress that arrives by the bus load.
There aren’t actually all that many superintendency jobs out there. But all of them demand leadership that has elite qualifications and skills.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, as of 2019, 13,452 public school districts serve communities throughout the United States.
Each of those districts represents multiple schools, and hundreds, if not thousands, of children, teachers, and parents. In many areas, school districts may be the largest single employer in their town or county. That gives them an economic impact that is significant even to residents who don’t have kids.
Becoming a School Superintendent Means Taking a Role in the Modern Town Square
The local school system plays a far bigger role in communities than purely economic, however. It’s part of the character of a town or city. People follow the sports teams, they go to school plays, they see in the newspaper when new graduates go on to prestigious universities or jobs.
The local school district is one of the last bastions of undisputed civic pride left in the United States.
But that pride and sense of ownership doesn’t come without dispute. School districts today are at the center of a whole host of deeply important and contentious debates that will shape the face of American education, and in fact the entire next generation of Americans themselves. They face a set of challenges that are both broad and deeply entangled with cultural and political values:
And that’s to say nothing of the very routine, but also very important, challenge of simply keeping kids attentive and in class and absorbing information every single day.
In charge of managing and leading all of those districts is a superintendent. In that role, you will set the tone and act as the public face for community schools. Even if everyone in the community doesn’t know you, they inevitably will feel the impact of decisions you make each day.
It’s a supreme responsibility, one that you will feel every day on the job. If you thought that teaching a single classroom, or even managing a single school, was a big deal, it pales next to the kind of weight you’ll have to carry as a public school superintendent.
Superintendents Take Responsibility for Educational Success and Shortfalls
A school superintendent isn’t just an upgraded principal. As the chief administrative officer of their district, they have a wide range of responsibilities and strategic concerns that never show up on a principal’s desk. At the same time, they continue to be responsible for all the same things that a principal is responsible for:
On top of that, however, superintendents add a whole host of new concerns. They are where the buck stops with respect to:
Beyond and above all those administration and managerial tasks, however, superintendents have to be something else: inspirational.
Superintendents are responsible for developing a vision for the future that families and teachers can believe in.
Superintendents orchestrate all the various kinds of other educational administrators under their supervision to make sweet academic music together. They don’t just oversee principals, but also dozens of different kinds of specialists:
And they are also frequently the ones who work with other specialists and professionals outside the district itself. Everyone from engineers to architects to attorneys may wander into the superintendent’s office on any given day, seeking approval or critical decisions that only the supe can make.
How School Boards Serve as a Superintendent’s Partner in Leadership
Superintendents may be the educational equivalent of a CEO, or Chief Executive Officer, but like CEOs, they aren’t the ultimate authority in their school district. That power rests with an elected or appointed School Board.
The School Board, or Board of Trustees or Board of Education, is ultimately responsible for providing guidance on district policies, budgeting, and curriculum with input from both the community and the superintendent they oversee. The superintendent is effectively the professional manager and expert advisor to the board. The board itself is the designated community representation to the superintendent.
In the best cases, these cooperative partnerships enable school districts to accomplish great things. With the right guidance that takes into account both professional educational standards and the views and needs of the local community, superintendents can meet the goals of educating the next generation of citizens while staying within budget and addressing local needs.
The largest school districts have half a million or more students enrolled, and cover cities with millions of citizens who depend in one way or another on the education system.
Some school districts are large in the geographic sense, turning superintendents into educational nomads: Alaska’s North Slope Borough District covers 95,000 square miles. With an enrollment of only around 2,100, that comes out to about 45 square miles per student.
It’s an enormous amount of responsibility to shoulder. And you’ll need to develop a broad new range of skills and insights to handle the role.
Expanding Your Leadership Skillsets is Key to Learning How To Become a Superintendent
Because they work at the center of the web of relationships and services offered by the district, superintendents need a broader perspective than principals or other administrators. You won’t have the luxury of specializing in, say, reading and language development, like a curriculum coordinator might, or in secondary ed administration, like a high school principal.
School district superintendents draw on many of the same skills as principals. They just apply them on a larger scale.
You’ll have to become a generalist, with a little bit of knowledge touching on the full range of students at every grade level and of every ability in your system. And you’ll need the vision to see what kind of education they will need for fulfilling and meaningful lives and careers in the future… all while dealing with the full blast of challenges coming from culture and society today.
So your diplomatic and communications skills may be exercised with state legislators, non-profit organizations, and major community groups. You’re tying together a staff of professionals that include principals from many different schools, curriculum and accounting experts who are dealing with big concepts and big budgets. And while students are still your ultimate responsibility, your actual contact with them will be less involved and less frequent.
Leadership skills are more crucial at the superintendent level. While every principal has to have the ability to pull together a team, they have the advantage of primarily working with people in the same building every day. There’s a level of hands-on involvement and support that a superintendent can’t count on.
That means cultivating strategic communications skills is a must. Not only does the superintendent have to reach out to and engage with their district staff, but also with the community. Saying the right thing in the right format at the right time can be a critical part of being successful.
Superintendents also rely far more on big-picture strategic planning and vision skills than a principal. After all, they are the individuals who will be giving those principals goals to achieve and the direction to march. And since superintendents are also responsible for providing the resources to make it all happen, they need to be able to look far ahead in terms of demographics, educational trends, and the national and local environment.
Superintendents have to be able to delegate effectively, which also means they are reliant on their skills as instructional leaders and mentors. They need to be able to cultivate principals and other staff who fully embrace the philosophy and methods set by the superintendent and can make things happen without micro-management.
How To Become a School Superintendent in 6 Steps
By the time you get to the level where you are seriously considering becoming a school superintendent, the steps required to get there are going to seem like a well-worn path.
Just as the steps to become a school principal are basically a reflection of those required to become a teacher, the steps needed to move up to the role of superintendent are very similar to those required of principals or other educational administrators. You’ll have to put together a combination of qualifications that include:
These requirements for superintendent certification are not quite as consistent from state to state as they are for principal licensing. On the other hand, they do tend to line up in ways that make sense with the licensure requirement for principals in the same state.
Because there are relatively few district superintendent jobs versus principals who may want to apply for them, not everyone is going to go out and get the education and licensing required ahead of time. Particularly in smaller districts that are promoting in-house, you may actually begin your licensure process after getting hired. Most states have a process for this, assuming you hold some sort of administrative license currently.
It’s a formidable amount of preparation to go through. On the other hand, you’re going to have to be a formidable candidate to take the helm of any of those nearly 14,000 school districts.
1. Become a Principal or Professional Educational Administrator
It’s a rare superintendent who hasn’t worked their way up the ranks of teaching before then serving as a principal or other educational administrator first.
In many states, you are expected to have three to five years of school administration experience before being eligible to apply for superintendent licensure.
One of the reasons it’s unusual is that most states require that you hold a principal certificate before you can even apply for a superintendent’s license. In fact, in many states, you are expected to have from three to five years of school administration experience before even becoming eligible to apply for a superintendent license.
There’s a lot of variability in this requirement, though. In other states, you’ll only need a teaching license, or some combination of licensure and advanced degrees, or a background in other related student services like counseling or social work.
Regardless of official licensing experience requirements, most districts will prefer to hire superintendents with previous educational administration credentials and experience.
Even in states that don’t expressly require that you hold an administrative license, for the most part the experience requirements for superintendents almost always specifies educational administration experience… for which you will need to have been appropriately licensed.
Unique Superintendents Create Unique Opportunities to Inspire
Not many school superintendents wind up being buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Even fewer have “Major General – United States Army” engraved on one side of their headstone and “Superintendent of Schools” on the other.
But John Stanford was anything but typical.
Retiring after 30 years in the Army, Stanford took a job as county manager of Fulton County in Georgia. Impressed with his leadership record there and in the military, the Board of Seattle Public Schools actively recruited him, despite having no education administration experience. He took the job of superintendent in 1995 and had an immediate impact that won praise of parents and students alike.
On day one, he made poor customer service a firing offense and suggested district staff spend one day a week actively helping in a school. Within five days, he proposed tougher academic standards. He ended segregated busing, funneled more funds to schools with challenged student populations, and raised some $2 million in private donations to support district initiatives.
Dropout rates declined and SAT scores rose. But after only three years on the job, Stanford was diagnosed with leukemia. He passed away within a year.
Today, he lives on in Seattle as the namesake of John Stanford International Elementary, christened to commemorate his drive for every student to learn a foreign language. More than 2,500 people attended his memorial in the city.
A day later, he was put to rest in Arlington with full military honors, with General Colin Powell and Education Secretary Richard Riley in attendance.
Also on the gravestone that was placed above his casket was a message to former students and staff back in Seattle: “Love ‘em and lead ‘em”
Becoming a Superintendent Without Being a Principal First
While principal is the most common administrative role that future superintendents will hold before applying for the top job, it’s not the only one.
It’s almost a certainty that you will get your initial qualification in the world of education as a teacher, with all the licensing and endorsement requirements that come with it, because that’s typically a requirement for initial administrator licensure.
But the path splits at that level—although you may become licensed as a principal and get your education experience in that role, you may also obtain a different type of administrative license and work in jobs like special education director, curriculum development director, or administrative supervisor.
In the many states where assistant principals carry the same credential as full principals, you can jump directly from the assistant position to a superintendent role without having to earn any additional license in between.
All of these are generally adequate to fulfill the experience requirements for superintendent licensing, as well.
But while states are relatively consistent in having a license for the principal position and in the requirements for that license, other educational administration credentials aren’t quite as standardized. Some states may not license those positions at all; others will do so with different names and responsibilities.
It will be up to you to sort out which credentials unlock the path to superintendency in your state.
2. Earn an Advanced College Degree With Qualifying Specialty Coursework in Superintendency
Superintendents are typically only required to hold a master’s degree for licensure, the same as principals. But make no mistake: you’re far more likely to find the competition at this level holding doctoral degrees.
There are several reasons for this. The first is because most candidates for these jobs already have that master’s degree—they either picked it up in order to get a license as a school administrator or just in the course of fulfilling the continuing education requirements that face every teacher in American schools.
Some states do require an EdS, EdD, or PhD to qualify for superintendent licensure, or may allow a doctoral program to be considered in lieu of APP requirements, even if the coursework isn’t aligned.
The second reason is that most superintendent credentials also require you to complete a specific educator preparation program that includes anywhere from 8 to 36 credit hours of additional graduate coursework. You’ll often find this in programs such as a Doctor of Education (EdD) in Leadership in Educational Administration with Superintendent Endorsement.
This is similar to the APP or ITP (Initial Teacher Preparation) requirements for teaching or administrative credentials that you’ve already earned. Each state sets its own curriculum standards—in some cases earning a license requires attending a school where that coursework has been pre-approved by the agency involved.
In any event, just like it probably made the most sense to stack those credits toward earning your bachelor’s or master’s degree in those cases, it’s going to make a lot of sense to apply these credits toward earning a doctorate.
There’s nothing stopping you from meeting those additional educational steps through a post-master’s certificate program that meets APP requirements, or an EdS (Educational Specialist) in Educational Administration with a concentration in Supervisor of Instruction, or even just going back and getting a second master’s degree if you already have one. But if the top job is what you want, the full spectrum of doctoral studies is the best preparation.
How Is an EdS Different From a Doctoral Program?
The EdS, or Educational Specialist, is a post-master’s degree program that doesn’t quite rise to the level of a doctorate. It’s specifically designed for educators who don’t have the time or interest in a full doctoral program, but still need additional specialist training… such as the coursework required for superintendent licensure.
Because of this narrow focus, EdS degrees are closely associated with their specialization, so something like an EdS in Instructional Leadership is probably what you’ll need to qualify for a superintendent’s license. They don’t have the strict research and culminating project requirements of a doctorate, but they do include the coursework you need for practical work as a superintendent.
An EdS is not a terminal degree, so a full PhD or EdD is still on the table after you complete it. But they are lightning quick compared to a full doctorate, taking barely more than a year of full-time study in most cases. That also translates into lower costs. And some schools offer bridge programs, which allow you to apply your EdS credits toward a full doctorate later on.
And that’s the final reason that most people headed for superintendency will earn a doctoral degree along the way—dedication to the job. You don’t climb this high in educational administration unless you have a core belief that education itself is a game-changer. And when you want to make a difference at this level, then you have to be committed to getting yourself the best education you can for the job.
A doctorate means that you have achieved the ultimate height of educational administration training. In fact, it means you have gone beyond training, and forged new ground in original thought and experimentation in educational leadership. And that’s something everyone in your district deserves in a leader.
The Most Popular Degrees for Learning How To Become a Superintendent of Schools
So what sort of degrees does that put on the table for your superintendent training? You’re probably looking at programs like the tried and true Doctor of Education (EdD) in Education Leadership, or a PhD in Education Leadership, or even a PhD in Education with a specialization in Educational Leadership.
Depending on your state, you could have quite a lot of flexibility in the specific degree, however. Doctoral programs are about breaking new ground and coming up with original thinking in leadership and in education. So you shouldn’t feel restricted in the focus of your studies. If you believe you can add value through a deep dive into curriculum development, changing population studies, or organizational change, don’t hesitate to follow your heart!
Picking a Degree With the Right Coursework To Build Your Educational Leadership Skills
Whether you are pursuing a master’s or a doctorate to qualify for your superintendent’s license, you will be covering basically the same ground as far as required coursework. That’s because states lay out the curriculum requirements for these positions regardless of the qualifying degree—whether you’re smashing it in a two-year master’s program or have your nose to the grindstone in a four-year PhD program, you’ll have to meet the legal requirements.
Those typically call for a specific number of credits in subjects such as:
The exact titles of the courses aren’t as critical as the concepts. In general, these programs are going to pull your administrative and leadership expertise up a notch by giving you a high-level, strategic perspective on educational policy and operations. You’ll build on what you learned to qualify as a principal with more extensive views on state and national education policy, revenue and financing, operations and HR, and legal issues that rise to the district level.
Of course, you’re not restricted to such classes. Particularly at the doctoral level, you’ll be encouraged to put together a far deeper course of study in topics that interest you. The typical education department has all kinds of upper-level electives to help you put such a program together. Those might include:
Your Choice of Culminating Project Can Make or Break Your Superintendent Goals
Additionally, both levels of educational administration degree will require either a capstone project or a dissertation (doctoral) or thesis (master’s) paper to round off your training.
Indeed, the entire point is to synthesize the total span of knowledge and understanding you have acquired during the program. All your coursework, every research project, and all your on-the-ground experience will fuel your final project.
Culminating projects serve as the beating heart of a doctoral program, driving almost all your other coursework.
That importance is reflected in how your degree will be seen, as well. You can bet that the first item on the agenda of any hiring committee looking at your resume will be to check out your dissertation title and at least thumb through the conclusions. You’re basically writing the first page of your application for any superintendent job with your capstone experience.
While the dissertation option will consist entirely of writing and research, a capstone project is more open to novel definition and expressions of your ideas. Both require original thinking and research, but a capstone project is designed to allow you to put your ideas into practice in some way—everything from community-building among BIPOC students to developing methods for identifying homeless students in urban high school populations.
Specialty Accreditation Ensures Your Degree Will Make the Grade for Licensing
You’re already plenty familiar with CAEP (the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation) at this point in your education career. In order to get a degree that was accepted for earning your teaching endorsements, and then again to qualify for principal licensure, you needed to choose a program that held a specialty accreditation from CAEP or their predecessors, NCATE (the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education) or TEAC (Teacher Education Accreditation Council) if you’ve been in the game long enough!
NCATE and TEAC have rolled up into CAEP at this point, so there’s only one agency you have to worry about when vetting your superintendency degree program. But it’s just as important as it was at lower levels. State licensing bodies still use CAEP as a seal of approval.
3. Getting On-the-Job Experience in District Administration
Some states also have a field-based experience requirement, just as they do for student teachers or aspiring principals.
If you are pursuing a degree program that includes the coursework to meet state APP qualifications, then it most likely will include an internship or practicum component designed to meet this requirement.
In keeping with the fact that most people pursuing these licenses are already fairly high up in the administrative food chain, the ways you can fulfill this experience tend to be very flexible. For example, you may be able to perform your internship at your current place of employment if you are already working in school administration.
The exact amount of practical experience necessary to become a superintendent varies a lot from state to state.
Some states don’t list any specific number of hours; others rely primarily on your previous experience in other administration roles.
There also tends to be more exceptions to this rule than there are for principals, or at least different ways to satisfy the requirement. In some states, you can avoid this step entirely if you have the right amount of prior experience in another educational leadership role.
You’ll usually find that degrees in the state that qualify as APP programs have a built-in experience requirement that works in that particular state. If you are earning your degree in a state other than the one where you plan to work as a superintendent, you may need to explore other options for getting your experiential learning box checked.
4. Take and Pass a Test Demonstrating Your Competency as Superintendent
What’s good for the goose is good for the gander when it comes to standardized testing. Just like your students will face regular tests of national standards in their various subjects of study, you’ll typically have to take and pass a standardized examination in order to become licensed as superintendent.
And you’re probably already familiar with the test series, too. Most states that require superintendent testing rely on the Educational Testing Services’ (ETS) SLS series of exams—School Leadership Series.
If you are a teacher already, you’re probably familiar with the Praxis ETS tests that are often required to establish subject-matter expertise for endorsements. If you’re a principal, chances are you took the SLS SLLA (School Leaders Licensure Assessment).
To qualify for superintendent certification, you’ll be looking at the SSA, the School Superintendent Assessment.
The SSA is a three-hour, 123-question test covering categories of administration such as:
Three of the questions are essay style, while the rest are multiple choice. All content is aligned with the 2015 Professional Standards for Educational Leaders issued by the National Policy Board of Educational Administration, and the National Education Leadership Preparation standards.
The exams can be taken in person at a testing center, or online with remote proctoring if your state allows it.
Even states that don’t rely on the SSA specifically generally offer their own exam that more or less follows those same standards. Not every state has the same score requirements, however.
Each of the categories and standards should line up pretty closely with the types of subjects you studied as part of your APP coursework. You can find a comprehensive study guide on the ETS site, while states with their own exams usually have similar materials available.
In some cases, you may have to take and pass additional exams on state-specific rules and regulations, or in ethical or other standards. This isn’t as common for superintendent licensure as it is for principal credentials, though. For one thing, you probably already took and passed the relevant tests to earn your earlier administrative license; for another, the sort of work a superintendent performs from day to day rises above many of those specifics.
5. Apply for and Become Licensed as a School Superintendent in Your State
Applying for your superintendent’s license is basically a process of gathering up all your various qualifications and submitting them in the state-approved format to have them evaluated and recognized. Fortunately, this paperwork shuffling is usually consistent with principal and teacher licensure in each state, so you have probably been through the drill before.
The One Superintendency Job You Don’t Need a License To Get
Although you might think that becoming superintendent of a school district is about as high as you can climb in the educational leadership hierarchy, you’ll find there’s one last rung left on the ladder after you get there: state superintendent of schools.
Also called secretary of education, superintendent of public instruction, or chief school administrator depending on the state, this is the superintendent job to rule all superintendents. The fifty individuals at this level are responsible for some of the highest-level decision making, affecting students and teachers statewide in terms of curriculum, pay and benefits, and educational policy.
You can do a lot of good at this level, but you can also draw a lot of fire. It’s an even more political post than district superintendent, although it’s only an elected position in 12 states. In others, the role is appointed by the governor or a state board.
The best part is, you can skip the license! But you had better have top qualifications if you’re gunning for the top job.
Unlike principal licensure, most states simply call their superintendent’s credential a superintendent license or endorsement. But you will also find a few variations, such as Oregon’s Professional Administrator license or New York’s School District Leader certificate.
But as with principal licenses, you might find in some states that different levels of superintendent credentialing exist, such as initial, provisional, or professional. These can reflect probationary periods or may be issued along different paths to licensure, such as if you are coming directly from a teaching role without becoming a licensed administrator first, or if you’re currently attending but have not yet graduated from an approved preparation program.
In some states, holding a superintendent-level license also qualifies you to work as a school principal or other educational administrator at a lower level.
There are often fewer hoops to jump through in superintendent licensing, probably because you’ve already jumped through them. For example, while you may have to pass a background check, you’re probably not going to be required to attend suicide prevention training, get CPR certification, or many of the other steps that are common for building admins and teachers.
6. Get Hired as a School Superintendent
Because there are relatively few superintendent roles compared to other educational administration jobs, you will typically need far more than just the minimum qualifications to get hired.
In the state of Hawaii, there’s only one superintendent job available. Since the entire state falls under a single school district, the state superintendent of public schools is also the district superintendent!
Just as with building-level administration jobs, most districts also have assistant superintendent roles. And just as with principals, these assistant positions are one of the main ways that you can get your foot in the door for the top job. Assistant superintendents often require the same level of licensure as superintendents, but have the opportunity to ease their way into the job.
Assistant, deputy, or associate superintendent positions may be general, particularly in smaller districts, filling in the gaps in all of the various responsibilities that the supe themselves has. In other cases, they are highly specialized. For example, large districts might have an assistant superintendent for human resources or an assistant superintendent for teaching and learning with very specific roles in those areas.
What About Becoming a Private School Superintendent?
Unlike principals, who may work in either public or private schools, American school superintendents are exclusively found in public school systems.
Private schools don’t have superintendents because they don’t have districts; most private schools are a singular entity. You may occasionally find a rough equivalent to a superintendency position in some private religious schools, which operate a wider network under the auspices of a particular church, but the role and requirements to fill it can different substantially from public school superintendencies.
You may, however, find that time spent as a private school principal will fulfill experience requirements for your state superintendent license, since private school principals often hold the same credentials as public school principals.
In all cases, though, associate jobs are a valuable way to build your resume and your experience on the way to the top role. Also available are interim superintendent positions, where you may be able to fill a slot at a district which is going through a more comprehensive search and interview process.
For the most part, superintendent positions are hired by school boards. In some states, however, school systems are run by cities or counties, in which case the district superintendent may go through typical municipal hiring processes.
Just like schools themselves, districts have a wide range of characteristics and challenges, not to mention sizes. You’ll need a very different level of experience, and undergo significantly more scrutiny, if you are looking for jobs in big urban districts versus small suburban areas, for example.
A Lengthy Hiring and Onboarding Process is the Last Step to Becoming a Superintendent
The elite status of some of the top superintendent jobs means they are typically head-hunted. You will want to make yourself known to some of the big search firms that specialize in placing school district staff.
The hiring process is typically more involved, as well. In addition to going through screening and reference checks on your qualifications, you can expect multiple rounds of interviews, both with individual board members and all at once. This can take months, which is why interim superintendent jobs are a thing. In some cases, being named as interim superintendent can serve as an even more extended hiring process, as the board gets a feel by watching your performance on the job for several months.
There’s also likely to be public scrutiny, at least during the later stages of the hiring process. You may be expected to chat with local media outlets or community members at a school board meeting.
But this is also an opportunity to check your own fit and expectations for the position. You’ll be getting a better picture of the board you’ll have to work with and the community you’re expected to serve. And you’ll also be negotiating a contract and salary which reflect your value and experience. It’s all valuable information that can feed your own decision over whether or not to take on these high-profile, high-stress positions.
Finding the right fit for a district superintendent position puts you in the driver’s seat to do a lot of good in an educational system that needs all the good it can get. Facing a future that is sure to call on your skills and resources to their absolute limits, you will have to draw on every ounce of experience, education, and mentorship you received along the way. But there is no role in modern civic life that allows you to make more of a difference in your community and in the future itself.