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School Superintendents’ Contracts
For academic innovation, 5 years is better than 3
Jonathan T. Jefferson
Too many people in leadership positions are there for the wrong reasons: ego, money, power, etc. Subordinates are often left wondering if their supervisor was the best available person for the job. In the world of public school education, choosing the wrong superintendent could have a detrimental impact on our greatest resource: children. During my career I have worked with many exceptional educators. Most of them state that they would only consider a superintendency at the very end of their careers. In essence, depriving students of many years of leadership from the best and brightest innovators.
Why is this so? Why are so many talented individuals opting to avoid or delay moving into a superintendency? The answer is simple. Moving into a superintendency is a risky proposition. After years in education, earning tenure, and providing their families with financial security, who would risk it? Superintendents are more often than not offered three-year contracts. That is less than most elected officials. How many superintendents have the courage to make controversial changes even when backed by empirical evidence? Fear of offending a board member or an influential member of the community are real considerations.
Public and private schools today are essentially the same as they were in the 1920’s. Our school systems are notoriously slow to change. Fortune 500 companies would fail if they progressed at the same pace. Most superintendent searches are not only limiting their pool of candidates by advertising three-year contracts, they also look for people who have traveled the same career paths: building administration, central administration, etc. These limitations ignore the fact that successful leaders do not need to hail from traditional pathways.
What might offering five-year contracts do? For one, it may increase the pool of candidates considerably. Second, innovation would be given a chance to flourish. Instead of fearing the backlash of decisions that create discomfort, superintendents would gain the benefit of time to watch their choices bear fruit.
Naysayers could raise concern that a school district signing a “bad apple” for five years is risky. That would ring true if the candidate were not thoroughly vetted. In today’s digital age, there is no reason why the candidate’s blogs, podcasts, and media interviews should not be readily available. Their professional contributions to newspapers, journals and/or book publications can also offer insight. Lastly, if possible, visiting their current place of work to interview colleagues, teachers, and students would provide the best character references.
It is time that we begin making real changes in our schools. Motivating more people to join the ranks of chief school officer with five-year contracts may get the ball rolling. Otherwise, the snail's pace of progress will continue.