Key points shaping the educational landscape and what that means for the next superintendent
The Florida education landscape has changed since the last time Duval County was seeking a new school superintendent. In this article, you'll learn:
- The forces that are impacting the education landscape.
- What it takes to be a superintendent today.
- The role of the community.Super challenge: What it takes to be a school superintendent in 2023
Dr. Shannon Varga, Director of Data and Research
Florida education leadership is in transition, with 61 out of 67 school superintendents leaving their positions in the past four years (Solochek, 2023). As the Duval County School Board begins its search for a new superintendent, JPEF looks at how the education landscape has changed since the last transition in 2017 and what is needed in a chief executive today. We find that overall success will depend on community support of a superintendent who can build coalitions with a variety of stakeholders around an affirmative vision for students.
How has the landscape changed?
Politicization. The role of superintendent has always been difficult to fill and is only getting more difficult. Historically, the rate of turnover for superintendents has been around 15%, but from 2020-2022 that rate jumped to 46% (ILO Group, 2022). Previous research suggests there’s not a single set of characteristics that make a superintendent right for any one school district (JPEF, 2017). However, there are multifaceted duties every superintendent must take on in some way, including:
- Instructional leadership
- Relationship building
- Resource allocation
- Food and transportation management
The center responsibility, though, is children and their learning. While the position was always political as superintendents are often seen as civic leaders in their community, the politicization of the role seemingly outweighs the other duties in 2023.
As Claremont Graduate University Professor Carl Cohn said “the superintendency[is] an impossible position given the current state of politics. As more superintendents are left grappling with controversies, they have little time to focus on equity, student learning, teaching, or building relationships” (Anderson, 2022). This is an unprecedented political time to be stepping into the spotlight as a superintendent and the next superintendent will have to contend with this context.
Landscape. The Florida education landscape looks vastly different today than it did in 2017, unrelated to technological shifts. Florida has expanded school choice measures several times over the past decade, allowing more students and families to choose schools and private schools to proliferate. The Florida Policy Institute estimates the number of private schools has grown by 30% in Florida in the past decade, in contrast with national trends, which declined 9% over that same time (Florida Policy Institute, 2023). In 2017, fewer than 500,000 students were being educated using choice scholarships, in 2023 that number is reported to be 1.3 million students (FL.gov). With the introduction of HB1 this year, which will remove restrictions for utilizing choice vouchers, economists predict the cost will be three-times the current amount for the family empowerment scholarship (Florida Policy Institute, 2023). In sum, the landscape has drastically shifted and will continue to shift due to policy conditions.
Technology. DCPS already had a plan in 2018-2019 to ensure teachers and classrooms were equipped with technology tools to enhance learning, but the COVID-19 pandemic rapidly accelerated an expansion in discussions to include ensuring parents and students are better equipped with hardware and wifi for learning at home. Experts estimate between 20-40% more students have technology at home now than before the pandemic (EdWeek, 2021). The increase in a variety of schools models comes with greater availability of distance programs, where 80% or more of the instruction is delivered using some form of technology remotely, and hybrid programs, where 30-79% of the instruction is delivered remotely. The next superintendent will be stepping into a landscape with such variety, they will have to expertly navigate the nuances of when distance and in person learning can be best leveraged for which students.
What do we need today?
As JPEF found in 2017, there is still no single profile of a superintendent that would excel in every district, but there are characteristics that would be particularly helpful for the future of education in Duval County. The below characteristics have always been helpful for superintendents but the need for them has been exacerbated by the above contextual changes.
Coalition building across sectors. In 2023, the challenges facing the community go beyond the school building. Superintendents have always had to be relationship and coalition builders in their own schools, but with the increase in privatization as well as increased interest in from other sectors such as business and health, a superintendent of Duval County will need the skills to leverage the interest of non-school partners to truly bring about equitable change for students.
Knowledge of the community. Historically, the superintendent's vision alignment with the school boards and districts existing vision has been correlated with their tenure (JPEF, 2017). Today, with the increase in public scrutiny and involvement, the superintendent must ensure they align with broader community vision and goals. This can be done through working closely with key community engaging and serving organizations. A poor working relationship will likely lead to decisions and policies that are not supported, valued, or bought into by the community. A good working relationship is more likely to lead to welcome change and longevity.
Flexible relationship building skills.Before COVID-19, many superintendents could passively rely on natural touch points with school staff and community members built into the school day and calendar.Today, there is no guarantee of in-person time with all those individuals. Post-COVID-19 pandemic, it is essential for a superintendent to have relationship building skills that do not rely solely on frequent in-person interactions and a very intentional plan for relationship building.
Ability to see when equity can grow in the light or shade. The reality of discussions of education and equity in Florida are extremely polarized. There are restrictive policies emerging more quickly than schools can review curriculum and resources, which affect the most historically marginalized students. As Jen Cheatham states, superintendents need to have “the political acumen to know how to protect equity work, allow it to grow…[and] how to get things done on behalf of kids. It means making decisions about when to shine the spotlight on issues and how and when to allow equity focused work to grow and take root in more protected spaces out of the political spotlight.” These are necessary choices in such a polarized landscape and can help with stability while making equitable impacts for students who are in schools today.
Affirmative vision. In 2023, there is a wealth of negative information and news about public schools. Duval County needs a leader who can:
Rally the community behind common affirmative goals centered on student learning and resiliency,
Hold space for difficult conversations in an increasingly polarized context,
Understand how to leverage the strengths of students, teachers, family members, and the broader Duval County community and
Refocus the community's energy and passion on the promise and hope that public education should provide.
Call to Action
The role of superintendent is at an all-time high in turnover, yet experts believe there will never be “a shortage of people who want to do right by their communities… we just have to do a better job of supporting them” (Anderson, 2022).
To succeed, the community and the school board need to support a superintendent who can build a coalition across sectors and party lines and leverage the specific strengths of our students, teachers, families, businesses, and local non-profits to achieve an affirmative vision for our schools.