School Superintendents: Vital or Irrelevant?

Matthew M. Chingos, Grover J. (Russ) Whitehurst & Katharine M. Lindquist:

Superintendents are highly visible actors in the American education system. As the highest ranking official in a school district, the superintendent receives a lot of credit when things go well, and just as much blame when they don’t. But should they?

Research emerging over the past decade has provided strong evidence of the substantial effects that teachers have on their students’ achievement. More recent findings suggest that principals also have meaningful, albeit smaller, effects on student achievement. However, there is almost no quantitative research that addresses the impact of superintendents on student achievement. This report provides some of the first empirical evidence on the topic.

In an earlier report, Do School Districts Matter, we found a small but educationally meaningful association between the school district in which a student is educated and learning outcomes. The present report addresses the extent to which these district effects are due to the district leader vs. characteristics of districts that are independent of their superintendents. We do so by examining five specific questions using K-12 student-level administrative data from the states of Florida and North Carolina for the school years 2000-01 to 2009-10: