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Posts Tagged ‘How BC School Superintendents Spend Their Time’

This is the third in a series of posts that will share some of my findings from my recent doctoral dissertation – How BC School Superintendents Spend Their Time.

Before doing this research, I definitely had some pretty clear ideas on the experience levels of the 60 BC school superintendents.  I had assumed most superintendents had at least five years in their current job, and had between 10-15 years of experience in their districts.  I was very wrong on both counts.

Fifty-nine percent of BC superintendents are in their first five years in their current job. This high percentage is stunning. While there may have been a particularly high turnover in recent years, having such a high percentage of superintendents new to their job offers a huge challenge and opportunity in support for these leaders.  The narrative I often have heard is that rapid superintendent turnover is an American phenomenon and Canadians superintendents tend to spend far longer in their positions.  The data does not support this.

While the study did not look at the reasons for such a high rate of change in the last five years, given the level of experience of superintendents when most assume the position, it is likely that many superintendents retire out of the job in under five years. Those who support superintendents, including universities, boards, and their own association, must recognize the high level of newness in the group and the need for ongoing support and mentoring.

I assumed that many superintendents had experiences similar to mine, which would have seen them move into the district in a board role and advance to the superintendency, thus often having between six and 15 years of experience in their current district. The data shows that almost three-quarters of BC superintendents fall into two categories—they are either in their first five years in the district, which likely means they moved into the district to become superintendent or have more than 16 years of experience which likely means they grew up through the system in their district from teacher to school administrator to district administrator and superintendent.

There are likely very different kinds of supports required for superintendents who are newcomers to a school district compared to educators who have spent their career in a district and move into the position.  For those new to a district, there is an entire culture to learn on top of a new job, while those who advance in the same district have the experience of redefining themselves in a new role as a key challenge.  This career trajectory for superintendents is important for the Superintendents’ Association and Ministry of Education to understand as they support their leaders.

The level of experience of BC superintendents was largely unsurprising. Most superintendents have worked from 16–35 years in the system. It is interesting to see that nine of the leaders have worked for more than 35 years. Educators reach their full pension at 35 years in BC, so it is often discussed that there is little financial incentive for them to continue working beyond this point.

One regret in this part of the research was not asking for superintendents’ ages, whether they thought this job would be their final job, and how many years they planned to work until they retired. All of this data would be useful for further study to understand the position better. Given the data around experience, one could assume that almost 75% of superintendents definitely plan to retire in the next decade, but it would be useful to have this information more specifically.

While there were striking numbers of new superintendents, their experience with how they spent their time was not much different from their more experienced colleagues. In looking at 33 management and leadership tasks, the level of involvement of superintendents in their first five years was largely the same as those who were more experienced.  Whether it is human resources, facilities or student services, the differences between the level of direct involvement from superintendents in their first five years and those more experienced was minimal.

It was noteworthy in looking at the time new superintendents reported spending each week on educational leadership that four of the five who indicated they spent more than 21 hours a week were in their first five years, and 10 of 14 who spent at least 16 hours a week were in their first five years. This data may indicate a shift in the type of people being hired into the superintendency that are more focused on making time each week for educational leadership related activities, or it may indicate that superintendents early in their tenure invest more time in educational leadership activities.

Of all the data in the survey, learning that so many of the BC superintendents are in their first five years is something that really stands out.  There are real needs to support a group of superintendents who are often new to districts and where over half of those in positions are new to them in the last five years. Superintendent recruitment and retention is an ongoing issue. It is also worthy of further study to learn more about the commitment of less experienced superintendents to educational leadership activities and whether this potential trend indicates any changes in the focus of educators being hired into the position.

Want to read more?  My full dissertation is available under the research tab.  Next week I will look at the struggle superintendents have between being a community leader and an educational leader.

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This is the second in a series of posts that will share some of my findings from my recent doctoral dissertation – How BC School Superintendents Spend Their Time.

It won’t surprise anyone that the size of a school district impacts the work of the superintendent.  It is true in likely almost any organization, the smaller the organization the more hands-on the boss is in the daily work.   

While BC has 60 school districts, they have a tremendous range in student populations. Two districts, Surrey and Vancouver, combine for a greater student population than the combined population of more than 50% of the other 58 school districts in British Columbia.  The 60 districts range in populations from a few hundred students to more than 70,000 students.  As an example of the diversity, the Stikine School District (School District 87) has fewer than 300 students in an area of over 80,000 square kilometers—twice the size of Switzerland.

It seems that providing all 60 superintendents with the same support when their populations are so different is a poor idea. Superintendents in the smaller districts regularly commented in the study that they had to take on a greater number of roles, as there are just not enough staff to take the different responsibilities. Often, superintendents of the smallest school districts described a job that seemed completely different from those of the larger school districts.  In many ways, it seemed as those the superintendents in the study were reporting on two different jobs – those done by superintendents in the largely urban, higher student population school districts and those done by superintendents in the largely rural, lower student population school districts.

In looking at 33 management and leadership tasks, my study confirmed what other researchers had found before, the unsurprising finding that those in smaller student population districts are more directly involved in the daily operations than their large student population colleagues. In mapping the data though, it was not as simple as plotting all 60 districts by population and you would see the shift in levels of direct responsibility continuously decline from the smallest to the largest district.  

Superintendents with student populations below 6,000 and particularly below 2,000 students had higher levels of direct involvement in tasks, but above 6,000 students, there was not very much difference. Superintendents of districts with between 6,000 and 10,000 students reported a lower level of direct responsibility than each of the three higher population categories.

Superintendents in districts of 2000 students or fewer averaged 2.77 on their level of involvement on the 33 management and leadership tasks (this is based on a 4 point scale, where a 4 would indicate primary responsibility for all tasks). The next highest were the districts of up to 6,000 students, at 2.48. All of the remaining superintendents in the other four population categories averaged between 2.23 and 2.38. It appears there is a threshold at which superintendents’ direct involvement drops, and then it levels off.

A superintendent of a district with a population of about 8,000 students would likely have the same level of direct involvement in activities as a superintendent of 18,000 or 28,000 students. It seems that at a threshold of about 6,000 students, a district is large enough that it has senior-level staff that can be delegated some of the specific tasks that take place in the board office. The remaining tasks stay with the superintendents as a primary responsibility even in the largest school districts.

Superintendents from smaller districts were far more likely to spend additional hours each week on educational leadership than those from larger districts.  Educational leadership includes tasks like spending time with teachers and administrators focused on learning initiatives, being in classrooms, and supporting the district efforts around curriculum and assessment.  Thirteen of the 14 superintendents who spent at least 16 hours a week on educational leadership related activities were from districts with student populations of no more than 6,000 students. Conversely, three of the six superintendents from the largest districts of more than 22,000 students indicated they spent more than 21 hours a week on average with their Board.

Moreover, superintendents from smaller districts had more time for educational leadership activities than those from larger districts, who often spend a lot of their hours with their board and on governance issues. In the districts of up to 6000 students, 25 of the 31 superintendents reported they spent more than 10 hours a week on educational leadership activities, while only seven of the remaining 28 superintendents in districts with more than 6000 students reported they spent more than 10 hours a week on educational leadership activities.

So, if you want to be a superintendent and spend time on educational leadership, one of the conclusions you could make is that you want to be a superintendent of a school district of with a population of no more than about 6,000 students.  Of course, if you want to be immersed in board governance, one of the large districts may be the right spot for you.   

Want to read more?  My full dissertation is available under the research tab.  Next week I will look at the level of experience with BC School Superintendents.  

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This is the first in a series of posts that will share some of my findings from my recent doctoral dissertation – How BC School Superintendents Spend Their Time.

For my study, I surveyed all BC school superintendents, collecting demographic data and information on how they spent their time.  Following the data, I wrote more on gender that I had anticipated I would.  The data showed a real gap in the gender of superintendents, and also a difference in the work that male and female superintendents do in the job.

A critical factor in understanding the work of superintendents is who they are and what experience they bring to the job. And while women occupy a higher share of superintendent positions in BC than in the United States, there is still a dramatic difference between the percentage of female superintendents in British Columbia relative to teachers and principals and vice-principals.

In BC, 64% of school superintendents are men, which is lower than the 76% in the United States but far higher than the percentage of male teachers (25%)  and school administrators (40%). While both teachers and administrators are continuing to become more female-dominated professions, the gender mix of the superintendency has stayed quite consistent for at least a decade. Researching for a blog post in 2011, I found that 67% of superintendents were male, so this gender divide is basically unchanged in a decade.  Of the 60 school districts in BC, 21 had female superintendents in the spring of 2021. 

Female superintendents lead some of the smallest districts in BC, 15 of the 21 women head-up districts of 6000 students or fewer. They also lead some of the very largest, as three of the six districts with more than 22,000 students are led by women. However, mid-size school districts seem to lack female leaders, as only three of the 21 districts in size from 6001 – 22,000 students have female superintendents.

In looking at the work of female superintendents, four of the five superintendents in the province that reported spending at least 21 hours a week on educational leadership related issues were women. In American literature on school and district leaders, female leaders were far more likely to have a background in teaching or curriculum. This background may help explain the time female superintendents spend on the topic.

Considering time with their Board, five of the seven BC superintendents that spent at least 21 hours a week on governance were also female. It would be worth further exploration to consider why female superintendents were more likely to spend higher numbers of hours both on curriculum and on governance related issues than their Board.

For the research, all BC school superintendents were surveyed for their level of involvement in 33 management and leadership tasks – everything from purchasing and busing to facilities decisions to interactions with governments.  Superintendents scored their direct involvement on a four point scale.

Female superintendents were slightly more likely to be involved in the 33 leadership and management tasks than male superintendents, with an average score of 2.59 versus 2.45 for males (on a 4-point scale in which a 4.0 would mean they had primary responsibility in all areas). However, with female superintendents occupying the position in many of the province’s smallest districts, the district population could also be the driver, not gender, for their higher level of involvement. It is true that, on average in BC, female superintendents have more direct involvement in leadership and management tasks and are more likely than their male counterparts to spend 21 hours a week or more with their board and on educational leadership activities.

There are real opportunities to understand better how more women can move into the superintendency. Tom Glass, writing for the AASA in 2000 on the US experience, argued, “The two most widely cited reasons for the paucity of women in the superintendency are that women are discouraged from preparing for the superintendency and school boards will not hire them”. It would be useful to understand if American experiences for females aspiring to the superintendency are similar in British Columbia. Further exploration would also be needed to understand the findings that such a high number of female superintendents are the heavy time spenders with boards and on educational leadership.

If our teaching staff and principal and vice-principal pools are becoming increasingly female, it is important for organizations like the those who support superintendents and the Ministry of Education to look at how they can ensure females are supported into the superintendency.  And I was left with other questions, like why are women superintendents in the smallest and largest districts but not in the mid-sized districts?  Why do female superintendents spend more time in a week both with their boards and on curriculum and instruction than their male counterparts?  While not data collected in my study, is there ethnic and racial diversity in the female superintendent pool (for that matter the superintendency in general) in BC?  If the pool of candidates (teachers and administrators) is increasingly female will this change the make-up of the superintendency?

There is a lot of useful American literature looking at gender and the superintendency.  My research has nothing truly profound to say to answer the question why there are not more female superintendents or what we should do about it (that was not within the scope of the research).  It does seem clear that the public dialogue about gender and the superintendency in the United States is one that we should also be having in British Columbia and Canada.

Want to read more?  My full dissertation is available under the research tab.  Next week I will look at the impact of student populations on the work of the superintendent.  

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It had been a while since I had been a student. I finished my Masters degree in 1999 – that was last century! At the time, I had imagined continuing on immediately into my doctorate. I actually visited a school and did a lot of research on programs, but other things began to take priority and I moved on.

The opportunity re-emerged about five years ago in conversations with my friend and mentor Dr. Yong Zhao, who was then at the University of Oregon, now at the University of Kansas.  And all the sudden, by the fall of 2018, we had a cohort of 17 students ready to do a Doctorate in Education through a Vancouver cohort of the University of Kansas. My fellow classmate, Gerald Fussell (I guess it is Dr. Fussell now) recently wrote a very good summary of our experience HERE that is a great read for anyone looking to better understand the doctoral experience or maybe join the next cohort.  I won’t cover the same ground, but here are some of my student lessons from my experience:

Sometimes You Need to Start Over

I wrote about eighty pages of my dissertation over the Christmas break.  It was most of my first three chapters.  I knew it wasn’t great.  It felt like I was pasting together a bunch of different ideas and trying to make it coherent.  I needed someone’s opinion, so I sent it off to my advisor.  He got back to me quickly, and we set up a Zoom call.  His advice – don’t try to fix it, start over.  I had assumed he would give me a list of things to fix, and that would give me a good to-do list.  I was not so lucky.  Well, actually I was.  I had all the ideas, my paper just lacked voice or energy.  It was bland.  Not trying to fix it was the absolute best advice.  Two weeks later, 70 pages had become 50 pages and it was a completely different paper – one that was something I was proud to have written.  We always try to fix and edit papers, but sometimes we just need to start over.

Don’t Lose Your Voice

The biggest problem with that first draft I discarded is that I was trying to write how I thought it should be written and not in my voice.  I write a lot.  On this blog and elsewhere, I publish thousands of words each month. And I know I have a casual tone, but I thought I needed to abandon that for my doctorate.  My advisor told me just the opposite was true.  So, in version two, my dissertation read more like my blog posts with my voice coming through. At first it was excruciating not to write in my own voice, and then the words just flowed when I could “just write.”

Grades Don’t Matter as Long as They are Good

I know grades in grad school don’t matter.  And I have spent much of my 25-year teaching career trying to elevate the importance of learning, and decrease the obsession with grades.  But . . . when all of a sudden you are getting grades again, it is the first (and sometimes only) thing you look at.  I was guilty.  I appreciated ongoing feedback until I got my grade and then I was done.  As long as the grade matched the expectation I had, I was no longer interested in ongoing feedback, I was ready to move on.

Professors Want You to Succeed

Again, remember it has been a while since I have been in school.  I think I have been jaded by television and movie characters of college professors over the last two decades. Every professor I worked with really wanted all the students to do well.  None of them wanted a bell curve, or for some to succeed at the expense of others, they just wanted everyone to do well.  Professors challenged me, pushed me, and made me defend my positions.  Especially as I approached some key deadlines over the last six weeks, they went above and beyond to help me hit targets, so I could graduate now.  

Study What Interests You

It sounds simple that you should study what interests you, but I hear from many people that they are not  even interested in their research.  I knew early on what I wanted to study, and it was something I had been wondering since I started as superintendent more than a decade ago, just what do superintendents really do?   I know what I do, but it is that the same as everyone else?   As I began to collect my data, I became obsessed by it.  I had the good fortune of having 59 of 60 BC School Superintendents respond to my survey so I had a complete picture of the province.   If I am going to invest so much time into research and writing, it should be something I care about.  And full credit to every professor along the way in the program who allowed us to design papers and projects that had direct relevance to our work in our school districts.  

Enjoy Challenging and Being Challenged

Having people disagree about ideas was one of the best parts of the program.  I find we don’t debate ideas well in the school system.  We debate people most of the time. Of course, this is so true in the state of world politics and is true in education, that we struggle to take an issue with ideas and we decide if someone disagrees they must be a bad person.   I also find in education most staff are fairly like minded.  So even our disagreements are superficial.  In the program, professors challenged me about my ideas, my data and my future vision.  And they encouraged me to pushback.  I can’t remember another time in my life this has happened.  Even my dissertation defense was loud and tense but engaging and never felt personal.   It is a skill I need to continue to work on as challenging others and being challenged made me better.

Break It into Smaller Chunks

We have all given this advice as teachers to students.  Take a large project and divide it up into smaller parts so you are not overwhelmed.  And a doctorate works with this strategy as well.  There are obvious milestones along the way to work towards.  In addition to individual courses, there is the comprehensive exams, the proposal approval and ethics approval that all serve as useful smaller benchmarks.  I would hear a new term to me often used – ABD – All But Dissertation.  This describes students who finish all the course work but never finish the dissertation.  I see different percentages cited online, but it looks like up to a 1/3 of all doctoral students might fall into this category in some programs.  I know there are a lot of reasons for why this fact is true, but the act of dividing a seemingly overwhelming 100 page research project into small, manageable tasks with obvious small victories sure helped me along the way.  We definitely build up the mystique of the dissertation. 

You Get Out of It What You Want

There are no financial or professional incentives for those of us in the K-12 sector in British Columbia to finish our doctorate degrees.  In some jurisdictions, you need a doctorate to be a superintendent, or you get a pay bump with the added credential, this is not true in BC.  It was interesting for our professors in the program as they universally described our mindsets and engagement as completely different from many of their usual students.  We were there because we really wanted to learn, be challenged, work together, and were driven by intrinsic motivators.  When your motivators are your own, you get out of the doctorate what you want.  You don’t have to do all the readings, or participate in all the discussion boards, or revise a good paper into a great paper.   But you can.  And apparently, we did far more than “regular” students. The program balances the old world of letter grades and credentials, and the new world of personal bests and ongoing improvement.  

Conclusions

I was thrilled earlier this month to successfully defend my dissertation, How British Columbia School Superintendents Spend Their Time, and complete the doctorate process.  I had the sense of accomplishment that Gerald wrote of in his post. I have heard comments before like “a doctorate doesn’t make you smarter.”  I get it and that is true at face value.  But doing my doctorate has made me smarter – it has allowed me to look at issues differently, read papers I would never have read, connect with experts I never might have known, be exposed to new ideas and write, write, write.

My full dissertation is available HERE under the Research tab on my blog site.  Over the summer I am going to take some of my main findings and share them in short, more casually written, and hopefully user friendly posts that will create conversations.  

Next Week . . . . a look at the gender differences in the superintendency.  

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