Ask an Expert: What’s it Like to Be a Superintendent?

By Brian Soika

Dr. David Cash addresses the 2019 USC Rossier Leadership Conference.

Dr. David Cash addresses the 2019 USC Rossier Leadership Conference. Photo by Josh Krause

If you’re curious about how to become a superintendent, then Dr. David Cash is your go-to resource.

Cash recently joined USC Rossier as an Executive in Residence and governance chair of the Educational Leadership doctoral program, where he teaches classes. As a school with 80 alumni who are active superintendents and a superintendent advisory group with 200 members, USC Rossier was a perfect fit for him.

Previously, Dr. Cash served as school superintendent for the Santa Barbara Unified School District for five years after taking on the same role for Clovis Unified School District, Claremont Unified School District and the Buellton Union School District.

Additionally, he served as principal, education administrator and teacher in grades K-12, and earned his EdD degree from USC Rossier.

School superintendent is a complex, high-profile job, and a career goal for many people in educational leadership. So we asked Dr. Cash to talk about his experience and offer some practical guidance for aspiring superintendents.

But first, some context about the role…

What Is a Superintendent?

Superintendents are the educational leaders of a community. They’re tasked with the challenge of achieving big-picture educational goals for the school district while managing administrators, programs and a variety of other high-level tasks.

Additionally, superintendents are responsible for the academic achievement of a district. Specifically, this might include test scores and graduation rates. But in general, the success or failure of programs, teachers and students ultimately lies with them. They face substantial pressure, but also have the opportunity to make a significant impact on education in their district.

The Superintendent Answers to the School Board

Superintendents are hired by their community’s school board to execute the board’s vision for the school district. In California, superintendent contracts typically last between two to four years, but can be extended.

Once a year, the school board evaluates superintendents’ performance (i.e., how well they executed the board’s goals) through a formal process. Because it’s a high-profile position, the public is notified that an evaluation has occurred, but the results are kept private. However, Dr. Cash notes that good superintendents share the results with their administrative teams.

Superintendent Responsibilities – There Are no Typical Days

There are no typical days, explains Dr. Cash. Because superintendents oversee all facets of a school district, their daily priorities constantly change. Here are just some of the areas that they are expected to manage—and tasks they need to execute—on any given day:

  • Classroom instruction
  • Student transportation to and from school
  • Student safety
  • School maintenance
  • Hire principals and other administrative positions
  • Visit schools for meetings and review
  • Attend school board meetings
  • Meet with administrative team
  • Review budgets

In addition to the revolving door of responsibilities, superintendents must possess core educational leadership skills to excel in the job. Communication is key, as the position requires coordination between administrators, the school board, and the media.

Superintendents should also be driven by service. The role exists to ensure that the needs of an entire community of public schools—and the children who attend them—are met.

Superintendent Salary

Superintendents’ salaries can vary significantly depending on factors like location and school district size. According to national data from the School Superintendent Association, median superintendent salaries range from $101,000 – $236,000 annually, and are primarily determined by the number of students enrolled in a district. The association also notes that there is little discernible difference in reported salaries between men and women.

Now that we’ve covered some background, here are key insights from Dr. Cash that anyone pursuing the role of superintendent should know.

Key Insights About Superintendents

  • The Career Path Is Changing
  • Superintendents Need Doctoral Degrees
  • EdD Programs Are Excellent Preparation
  • Superintendents Are Scrutinized by Everyone
  • Superintendents Work 24/7
  • Superintendents Face Complex Challenges
  • Superintendents Need to Address Equity
  • The Work Can Be Very Rewarding

The Superintendent Career Path Is Changing

Superintendents are like the CEOs of a school district. As a result, you have to work your way up to the position. Dr. Cash followed a trajectory that was, until recently, fairly common. He worked as a classroom teacher, special education administrator, principal at the elementary, junior high and high school levels, assistant superintendent, and finally superintendent.

However, he notes that the superintendent career trajectory is shortening. Whereas it used to take 20 years to rise up to the job, now people are being hired after as little as eight years. Part of the reason is that school boards are becoming increasingly politicized. While experience is still necessary, Dr. Cash points out that the preferences of the board and its relationships with potential candidates play an important role in earning a school superintendent job.

Superintendents Need Doctoral Degrees

The education requirements for superintendents have evolved over time. Twenty-five years ago, Dr. Cash estimates that a quarter or less of professionals in the role had doctorates. However, now an EdD in education is a typical requirement to becoming a superintendent.

You also have to start building your professional bona fides early in your career. Begin your path to becoming a superintendent by earning a bachelor’s degree and, for your time in the classroom, a teaching credential as well.

Many states require you to have a specific superintendent license/credential, but not in California. Most superintendents in California have Administrative Service Credentials like the one that the USC School Leadership Academy program provides.

EdD Programs Are Excellent Preparation for Superintendents

An EdD degree is ideal for superintendents because it combines research with practice. (Although it’s also a doctoral degree, a PhD in education is usually best for those who want to teach or have a career in research. Learn more about the differences between EdD and PhD degrees here.)

As the leader of the school district, you need to understand the underlying issues affecting learning outcomes while tapping into your leadership experience to drive change.

Dr. Cash emphasizes that an EdD program teaches you how to identify problems, collaborate with other professionals, and find solutions. Specifically, he highlights two very important practical takeaways from a doctoral degree in leadership:

  • Hire people who are smarter than you. A knowledgeable and skilled team increases your chances of achieving your—and the school board’s—goals, and provides you with peace of mind.
  • You’ll never know everything about all of the operations that you manage. Superintendents are tasked with overseeing multiple schools, programs and departments, each with its own complex ecosystem. However, if you get mired in all of the details, you won’t be able to lead at the district level.

Earn Your EdD Degree

Superintendents Are Scrutinized by Everyone

Superintendents are community symbols. As the leader of the district who has to appear at school board meetings and talk to the media, people recognize you. They may also feel comfortable approaching you in public, and ask what you’re going to do about a particular problem.

Dr. Cash recalls once buying beer at a convenience store on a Saturday. Apparently, another shopper identified him. The next morning he received a phone call from a member of the school board asking about the purchase.

Superintendents Work 24/7

While the job can be very rewarding, superintendents have to work hard. It’s not a position that follows a nine-to-five schedule, and you will have to work some nights and weekends. The intensity and volume of work requires a level of commitment that you might not have previously experienced. Be prepared to sacrifice time with your family and friends to get the job done.

Dr. Cash doesn’t recommend becoming a superintendent in your 30s, as it’s too hard to maintain through retirement.

Superintendents Face Complex Challenges

In addition to daily tasks, superintendents must tackle high-level challenges that can affect the entire school district. Indeed, the biggest challenge for a superintendent is achieving equity in schools. 

Throughout his career, Dr. Cash fought to ensure that every child received an equitable education. He notes that school systems are typically designed to reinforce the status quo, without properly addressing the needs of students with cultural barriers. And when push comes to shove, even people who agree in theory that there should be more equity sometimes fail to take action.

How Superintendents Can Address Equity  

Integrated and equitable schools are better environments for children, Dr. Cash argues. There are three challenges that superintendents need to address to increase equity:

1) Make classrooms welcoming to all kids. Hire teachers who will do whatever it takes to meet the needs of every student, regardless of factors like language and where they live. Create mirrors for students among teachers, rather than just windows.

2) Ensure that language isn’t a barrier for families. Students and their parents can be more involved if schools hire multilingual staff, and make every document available in more than one language.

3) Listen to students. Rather than assuming you understand students, ask them what they need. Inquire about their experiences.

The Biggest Reward of Being a Superintendent

If you’re interested in how to become a superintendent just for money or notoriety, you may be unsatisfied in the role. You have to be passionate about education and driven to lead to enjoy the work. For Dr. Cash, the biggest reward is seeing lasting change from his efforts. In particular, his mission to create more equitable learning environments in the Santa Barbara school district continues to have positive effects, years after leaving the job.

USC Rossier Resources

As a school with 80 alumni who are active superintendents, USC Rossier’s Doctor of Education in Educational Leadership program can prepare you to lead school districts and achieve your professional goals.

Find out how we can help you earn your EdD degree.

Learn More

USC Rossier’s ‘Ask an Expert’ blog series poses common questions to the thought leaders among our faculty and staff to provide insight to educational professionals.