Educational Leadership & Policy

Superintendent: Be More Than the Face of Your District

Superintendent:  Be More Than the Face of Your District
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Noodle Staff January 31, 2018

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How to Become a Superintendent

Does the idea of making a difference in the school system and leading the school district sound like a career you are interested in? The role of the superintendent is a powerful one, but it is not a career someone simply lands. This is a lifetime goal career for many in the world of education, meaning it takes years of preparation and beating out competitors for this prestigious role in education administration.

The role of the superintendent is the highest title you can earn as an educator. If you like the idea of being the top boss in the realm of education, then this is what you should aspire to as a career goal. The superintendent plays a major role in shaping the educational system, but it is also daunting at times. Superintendents head all the schools in their districts. With one superintendent per district, it also means competition for the position can be high.

However, if this is your dream and you are passionate about education, then you can make it an achievable goal. If you have this career in mind, by the time you have finished reading this article, you will know which steps to take next and what the route to earning this title looks like for most.


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What is a superintendent?

A school superintendent is the leader of the school district. The person hired for this contractual role is the overseer of all the schools in a particular district. The superintendent works to bring the school board’s vision to life in the district. The superintendent has a keen sense of the school board’s plans and the ability to make important decisions to bring these to life. Ultimately, the school superintendent is the person trusted with ensuring the students in that district earn a solid education.

What does a school superintendent do?

The superintendent is much more than simply “the face of the district.” This is a key role in the school district that involves working closely with the school board, the principals, and the schools in the district. Primarily, the school superintendent makes important decisions regarding staffing, programs, facilities, and the budget.

What does a superintendent do? Consider what a principal of a school does. The superintendent does many of the same things; however, he does these things on a much larger scale. Instead of hiring teachers, he is hiring principals. Instead of making sure his school is meeting goals, he is focusing on making sure the entire school district is meeting goals.

Additionally, the superintendent is critical in forming relationships. He must work closely with the school board and principals. He must also work with those in the community, as well as teachers, parents, staff, and students. This role is responsible for communicating the school board’s vision with the community and promoting student achievement across the district.

Superintendent job responsibilities

A superintendent’s job is essential for the school district’s success. Specifically, what does a superintendent do? Here is a list of some of the main responsibilities of a superintendent:

  • Promotes student achievement across the district
  • Understands and promotes the school board’s vision
  • Implements board’s policies
  • Hires school principals
  • Evaluates school principals
  • Follows school board guidelines for school programming
  • Regulates school programming
  • Communicates education trends with school board and the district
  • Communicates with the media
  • Supports teachers and students
  • Manages administrators
  • Encourages forward thinking
  • Meets with school administrators regularly
  • Attends school board meetings and other various district programming meetings
  • Visits schools and facilities and make notes of what improvements are needed
  • Understands and communicates district policies
  • Prepares and follows a budget
  • Collects data and prepares documents as needed
  • Implements audits with measurable goals
  • Suggests improvements as needed
  • Perform tasks as assigned by the school board

Ultimately, the superintendent is tasked with making the crucial budget and hiring decisions that will help the school district meet their objectives. In this position, the superintendent will also be responsible for any other task the school board has outlined in his contract. This will also vary depending on the size of the school district.

Given the list of job responsibilities, it is understood that this position is time-consuming and stressful at times. Superintendents work year-round and often work long hours.

Skills needed to be a superintendent

While many people like the idea of being in the highest rank, few have the skills necessary to do the job well. According to Derrick Meador, “They are most responsible for the successes of a district and most assuredly responsible when there are failures. The role of a school superintendent is broad. It can be rewarding, but the decisions they make can also be especially difficult and taxing. It takes an exceptional person with a unique skill set to be an effective school superintendent.”

Becoming a school superintendent has much more to do with an individual’s characteristics than anything else. For example, a superintendent must be a fantastic communicator. Even if someone is highly intelligent, it does not mean they can communicate ideas effectively. A significant amount of time as superintendent is spent communicating important ideas publicly.

First, the most effective superintendents have a passion for education. The best superintendents are visionaries in their field. This often means they have a background in education and a desire to influence positive change in school environments. They enjoy working with educators and students. It also means they keep up with trends in education and in their community with hope of influencing student achievement.

Next, leadership skills are absolutely necessary for superintendents. Superintendents must be able to lead others well as the district lead administrator. They should inspire others, as well as manage a wide number of people daily.

Additionally, a superintendent must be exceptional at decision-making. Much of his time will be spent making important decisions; therefore, it is imperative that a superintendent know how to make decisions that will help the districts achieve their goals.

Along these same lines, the superintendent must have a solid grasp of finances. He will be managing the budget for the school district, which means the superintendent will have to make decisions regarding purchases, repairs, and renovations regularly.

Finally, a superintendent must be both organized and capable of multitasking. Managing multiple schools requires you to be able to keep up with information, as well as be able to switch from one school to the next with ease and confidence.

Educational pathway to becoming a superintendent

As we’ve already mentioned, the path to becoming a superintendent is a lengthy one. As in any school administration role, the first step to becoming an administrator lies in serving your time as an educator first. While there are some alternative routes to becoming a superintendent, it is highly unlikely that you will earn this title without first serving as a teacher, and then as a school administrator. Most school superintendents were teachers and then principals.
In “The Principal’s Pathway to the Superintendency” Daniel A. Domenech explains, “As a principal, you have the advantage of being close enough to teachers and students to best understand their needs and to personally observe the effectiveness of the programs being implemented. That is why, in this day of high expectations, growing accountability, and the need to do more with less, the principalship is the best training ground for the superintendency.”

Considering that school administration is part of becoming a superintendent, here is a clear educational pathway for how to become a superintendent:

  • Obtain a bachelor’s degree in education or a related field.
  • Pass required teaching certification examinations, which will vary depending on the state.
  • Hold a state license.
  • Work as a classroom teacher for several years.
  • Pursue a master’s degree in school administration or educational leadership.
  • Pass required school administration examinations. These tests vary by the state.
  • Hold a state license for school administration.
  • Serve as a school administrator (such as principal) for two to five years.
  • Pursue a doctoral degree in education (such as educational leadership, school administration, or education administration).
  • Pass appropriate licensing tests as required by state.
  • Seek open positions as a superintendent.

The steps will be different for each person. Plus, state requirements to be a superintendent vary. Some states require candidates to have a doctoral degree, while other states accept a master’s degree for this role. Ultimately, the higher degree makes you more qualified for this role. Since this position is highly competitive, it is wise to earn a doctorate to eliminate some of the competition. Additionally, earning this degree requires more classes in educational leadership, which will provide you with the knowledge base necessary to do the job well.

In some states, the requirements to be a superintendent are significantly different. For example, while many states do not require superintendents to hold a school administration license, they are still required to be certified teachers. Some states now offer alternative pathway programs for superintendent certification, which allows individuals with less education experience to apply for the job. According to [Governing], in these few states, they are hoping this opens the doors to more candidates with an understanding of public relations and finance.

While some states do allow this untraditional route, it is more advisable to follow the career path above to achieve your goal. This educational pathway provides you with the experience and knowledge necessary to do the job well.

Special requirements to be a school superintendent

Most states require superintendents to hold at least a master’s degree in educational leadership or school administration and have at least four years’ experience in the classroom as a teacher. Some states specify you have a certain number of years’ experience as a school principal or administrator also. Additionally, many states require you to complete a state certified superintendent program. Since these requirements vary from state to state, it is best to check your state’s department of education website.

Licensure requirements to become a superintendent

Like degree and teaching experience requirements, the licensure required for superintendents also varies. Traditionally, you earn a license by completing a state program and passing a certification exam. However, the state programs vary in length, and the required tests for licensure are different from state-to-state. For example, in Texas, candidates must pass the TExES Superintendent Test, where many other states are required to take various Educational Testing Service exams such as the School Superintendent Assessment and the School Leaders Licensure Assessment.

Types of work environments for superintendents

Superintendents primarily work in the public school setting. Private schools act as their own entities rather than as a part of school districts. Since the superintendent is over more than one school, this position is not applicable to the private school setting.

In the public school setting, the superintendent will work on the district level overseeing all the schools. Typically, the superintendent has an office at the board of education rather than in one particular school. The superintendent spends a significant amount of time traveling from one school to the next to observe and make improvements.

One of the key factors in the type of environment is the school district itself. The size, location, and demographics make a tremendous difference in the work environment. For example, some superintendents are responsible for overseeing 100 public schools in large cities, whereas, in smaller districts, a superintendent may be responsible for far fewer schools.

The School Superintendents Association and National Association of School Superintendents provide helpful information for those interested in this career, as well as supporting those acting as superintendents already.

Potential superintendent job titles

While superintendent is the most common title for this position, sometimes it is referred to as “Chief Executive Officer.” You may also be referred to as one of the following job titles:

  • School superintendent
  • District superintendent
  • Area superintendent
  • Regional superintendent
  • Chief superintendent
  • Deputy superintendent
  • Superintendent of schools
  • Board of education administrator

Additionally, depending on the size of the district and the position, you may have a specific superintendent role. Some examples of this are Superintendent of Academics or Superintendent of Elementary Schools.

Salary potential for school superintendents

A superintendent of schools’ salary is based on several factors. Like most jobs, the superintendent of schools’ salary will vary depending on location, years of experience, and qualifications. For the number of responsibilities of the school superintendent, you should expect to be paid well. Statistics show the average salary of a school superintendent is $122,000 with a median salary of $113,000. In fact, many superintendents are being paid far above average. As Fox Business reports, “A growing number of school superintendents are now the highest paid government employees in the country, earning gold-plated compensation in the mid-six-figure range. That pay is often ten times what their teachers get paid—and often double the salaries governors get to run entire states.”

Superintendent contracts and compensation

An important part of a superintendent’s salary is his contract. The superintendent contract is for a set number of years or term. Most superintendent contracts are for three to four years, but some contracts include an evergreen provision (which allows the contract to continue into a new year if the job is done well). In addition to the length of time, the contract also stipulates salary, yearly compensation package, vacation days, benefits, job responsibilities, and termination information. Do not sign the contract before you have read it in full.

Remember – contract negotiations are expected. Therefore, it is imperative to familiarize yourself with superintendent contractual agreements and average compensations for superintendents in your state. Contract negotiations between the superintendent and the board can be rife with problems; however, if you handle the contract negotiation with fairness and clear leadership, you are off to a great start.

The superintendent hiring process

The superintendent hiring process is unlike other educational administrator positions. This is because the superintendent role is filled by the school board. Due to the nature of this position, it is common not to be asked for an interview your first time. You should plan to apply multiple times. If your application is accepted, you will be invited to an interview.
Since this role is largely political, your interview may be in a private location with the school board. Typically, there is more than one interview. Each interview weeds out candidates for the final interview. In many cases, a site visit is a final step before a contract is offered.

The search for a school superintendent is a timely process. School boards take their time to find just the right candidate for the job usually allowing at least four months to find this individual. In the meantime, many school boards hire an interim school superintendent.

Once you sign your contract, it’s time to get to work. As the Superintendent Survival Guide suggests, you will do well to remember that just because you were hired does not mean you are trusted. Therefore, you should begin forging relationships with trusted advisors and focusing on how to bring the board’s vision to life.

The role of the school board with a superintendent

The school board is comprised of elected or appointed public leaders working to make sure their district’s schools are helping students succeed. Most of these school board members tend to be elected volunteers. One of their most important responsibilities is hiring the superintendent.

As Derrick Meador explains, “Once the superintendent is in place, then the board of education and the superintendent should become partners. While the superintendent is the CEO of the district, the board of education provides oversight for the superintendent. The best school districts have boards of education and superintendents who work well together.”

Therefore, the superintendent and the board work together regularly. The superintendent keeps the school board up to date. Additionally, the superintendent attends the board meetings and then must work to make sure the district is meeting their expectations. The school board, on the other hand, evaluates the superintendent and has the power to terminate him.

The difference between superintendents and principals

The main difference between superintendents and principals is the authority. A superintendent is the principal’s boss. The superintendent is responsible for hiring principals and working alongside him to achieve district goals. The superintendent will hire principals that he believes will be able to run a school effectively without too much instruction from him. These two positions work together regularly. Through meetings and communication, this relationship is essential for school success.

Additionally, superintendents do not need to have strong relationships with teachers. Instead, the principal is tasked with supporting the teachers at that individual school. In the chain of command, the superintendent it at the top.

The superintendent’s role in the district

The superintendent’s role in the district involves communicating your district’s vision to the community. The superintendent will represent the community on a regular basis. You will be asked to speak to the media, politicians, and other community members. As you will be hired by people in elected positions, it is imperative to be recognized as a leader in your community.

Reasons to be a superintendent

Now that you have learned about all that comes along with the title of superintendent, you may think the job sounds daunting. It is a hard job, but those who have landed this job find it fulfilling and are staying in the position longer. This chief executive title means you have the power to influence positive change and make a difference in your district.

You will get to serve alongside others with a passion for education and their community. Each day will hold its own set of challenges, but you may find these challenges thrilling. Each challenge brings the opportunity for positive change. This is a career where you truly can make a difference in the lives of students. Your role allows you to change curriculum, implement new programs, and inspire others.

The most effective superintendents have found ways to turn education around in their districts. Exceptional superintendents know how to fit the pieces of the puzzle together – where to rearrange the budget, which technology to invest in, and how to inspire their teachers. Their dropout rates have lowered, and their graduation rates have risen. Their students’ test scores have improved. They are making a difference.

Cournoyer, C. (2011, July). Do Superintendents Need Classroom Experience? Retrieved January 19, 2018, from
Domenech, D. A. (2009, March & April). The Principal’s Pathway to the Superintendency. Principal, 28-29. doi:
Farrell, E. F. (2013). Superintendent Survival Guide. Retrieved January 21, 2018, from
MacDonald, E. (2013, March 20). Superintendent Pay at Top of the Class. Retrieved January 22, 2018, from
Meador, D. (2017, May 8). The Key Roles of a School Superintendent That Make Them Effective. Retrieved January 20, 2018, from
Meyer, L. (2015, February 25). Report: School Superintendents Earn Average of $122,000 Annually. Retrieved January 22, 2018, from
State Requirements. (n.d.). Retrieved January 22, 2018, from
Texas Educator Certification Program. (n.d.). Retrieved January 22, 2018, from

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About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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