Recent years have seen a host of changes in Mississippi education policy designed to increase accountability and improve academic performance.
At the top of the accountability chart in any school district is the superintendent. Expectations of the office are higher than they’ve ever been in Mississippi, and it’s taking a toll on school district leaders.
As Daily Journal education reporter Chris Kieffer reported in the Sunday Journal, turnover among superintendents is increasing and average tenures are shortening. Nearly half of Northeast Mississippi positions will have changed hands between the end of the past school year and the conclusion of the current county superintendent election cycle.
The average tenure for a superintendent is now three to four years in Mississippi, and in this region 75 percent of the superintendents in January will have been in their current positions four years or less. In addition, fewer applications are being submitted for appointed positions that open up, such as Tupelo’s.
Former Tupelo Superintendent Randy Shaver experienced first-hand the multiple pressures on school chiefs these days when public criticism of his leadership contributed to his decision to seek an early release from his contract.
Superintendents are honest about the reasons for the relative instability in a field in which long tenures were once the norm. They’re under much greater stress from increased state and federal standards that keep changing. They’re expected to meet sometimes unrealistic expectations, often with reduced budgets. The speed, severity and emotional impact of public criticism is heightened by the proliferation of online and social media communication.
All of these factors and others no doubt make a superintendent’s job tougher than it used to be. And it’s certainly true that communities often expect too much of a single person at the helm of a district without examining whether all sectors of a community are doing what they should to help the schools succeed.
But as hard as they’ve been for school leaders, the changes that have raised standards, increased academic rigor and made transparency and accountability the order of the day were necessary. Elements of the changes may require alteration and improvement, but there’s no going back on those basic commitments.
In every sea change, the transition from an old order to a new one is fraught with difficulty. But new kinds of leaders attuned to the demands of the new order usually emerge over time, and that no doubt will happen with school district leadership. In the meantime, superintendents and the communities they serve must find ways to work in concert rather than in conflict, and to recognize that success requires everyone pulling in the same direction.
NEMS Daily Journal