The school principal's guide on how to become a superintendent

How to Become a Superintendent

 For principals like you, the desire to progress to school superintendent is a natural next step. It’s an administrator role that builds upon many of the skills you’ve already developed, including leadership, communication and the ability to establish a clear vision for your school.

Now that you’ve gained experience as a principal, not to mention the time you spent teaching, you’re ready to move up and start making a difference at a higher level. You’ve seen what works for students and what doesn’t. This is important because being a good superintendent requires a deep understanding of the students and other people you serve.

Whether you’re in a district of 10 schools or 100 schools, you would have the ability to positively impact students, parents and teachers as a superintendent. You’d get to make decisions about everything from how to best allocate resources to which job candidates should be hired. If this role sounds appealing to you, you’re probably eager to learn how to become a school superintendent – we’ve outlined the steps you’ll need to take below.

How to become a superintendent in 5 steps

If you don’t yet have all the qualifications you’ll need to manage a school district, there are some pretty clear steps you can take. While the exact process may look a little different for everyone, expect to go through these major phases in order to meet the typical superintendent requirements.

1. Gain valuable experience as a principal

You’ve already accomplished one of the most important steps toward becoming a superintendent you’re serving the valuable role of school principal. While there isn’t a clear consensus on how much time you should devote to your current position, it’s a good idea to plan on gaining two to five years of experience before attempting to advance.

Working as a principal isn’t the only route to this leadership role, but it is one of the best. Being a school superintendent is actually similar serving as a principal, but on a larger scale. Just as you hire and support teachers, superintendents hire and support all the principals and other administrators in their districts. Your experience managing school budgets can also prove useful when you’re tasked with handling an entire district’s budget.

So, as you look toward taking on additional responsibility, be sure to invest in developing the skills that will help you transition. Spend time interacting with students and teachers. Get to know their goals and challenges. Since you will spend a lot of time traveling from school to school as a superintendent, now is the time to really get to know everyone that your decisions will ultimately impact.

2. Obtain a doctoral degree

You likely already have a master’s degree. While this may be enough in some cases, superintendent education requirements typically call for a doctoral degree – especially if your district is particularly competitive. 

There are several different options for doctoral study in education. Though you may be considering a Ph.D., this type of degree involves a significant amount of research and isn’t really ideal for those hoping to become superintendents.

An Ed.D., on the other hand, focuses on applying research in a practical setting and aims to cultivate leadership skills. Considering that a school superintendent is often considered the CEO of their district, an education that targets the intersection between scholarship and business is a good option for this career path.

You can typically choose one of several concentrations when pursuing an Ed.D., including organizational leadership, educational leadership and education administration. While there will be some differences between these programs, the core classes will be similar. Expect to complete coursework in subjects like resource management, strategic thinking and organizational communication.

You’ll also have the opportunity to explore a topic that’s relevant to your career by completing a dissertation. You’ll gather and analyze information, and then write and defend an original composition. This process typically takes a full year, in addition to the time you spend completing courses. The Ed.D program at UMass Global, however, is unique in that students are able to start their dissertations on day one, and continue to work through them as the progress in their coursework.

Obtaining a doctoral degree is no small task. No matter what the concentration offerings are or what dissertation model is used in the Ed.D programs you’re considering, it’s important that you find a program with adequate support for its doctoral students.

Learn how educators can benefit from a doctorate in organizational leadership by reading our article.

3. Pass any necessary exams and gain superintendent licensure

Superintendent requirements vary by state, but you will most likely need to pass an exam to obtain licensure that qualifies you for the position. This will be nothing new to an experienced educator like you. But you will need to prepare by familiarizing yourself with the exam format.

State-specific details may fluctuate, but the School Superintendent Assessment from the Educational Testing Services (ETS) is a common exam option many superintendent hopefuls will encounter. This specific assessment includes 120 multiple-choice questions that cover educational, instructional and administrative leadership. There are also three written-response questions based on a case study. Though you will have to check with your state’s department of education for details on whether you’ll complete the ETS exam or a different test, this format gives you an idea of what you can expect.

4. Apply for the position and secure appointment as a superintendent

While a few superintendents are elected, most are appointed by their district school board. Filling this position is one of the board’s most important tasks, so they’re on the lookout for someone who shares their vision of success.

The superintendent and school board operate similarly to an organization’s CEO and board of directors. While the superintendent makes plenty of autonomous decisions, they’re still responsible for partnering with the board on overarching goals. As you go through the interview process, be sure to take the opportunity to understand what the school board expects from you and how they plan to measure progress.

Being hired as a school superintendent typically involves a contract stipulating job responsibilities, salary information and more. The terms of this contract can be negotiated with the board, so it’s important to fully understand all the details to have an informed discussion. Most contracts last between two and four years, but that time range could also be extended.

Because there is only one superintendent per district, it’s often a sought-after position. Having plenty of experience as a teacher and administrator, holding a doctoral degree and being state certified are great ways to boost your potential of landing this role.

5. Start leading your district

The road to becoming a superintendent may take time, but the payoff is well worth it. In addition to hiring principals, traveling to different schools and managing the district budget, you can tackle bigger initiatives that work toward improving education across communities.

Each school will have its own challenges, but identifying areas for improvement and working with school staff to implement needed initiatives is one of the most important aspects of your job. You’ll have both the freedom and the authority to implement the changes you want to see in your district.

Implement lasting change as a school superintendent 

So how do you become a superintendent? Following the outline above will put you on the right track to earning this influential role. 

You’ve been in education long enough to know that it takes dedicated staff at every level to provide quality education to students. You also know that it takes an effective leader to drive everyone toward district-wide goals. You could be that person, the one who makes education more inclusive and accessible. 

As you continue to gain valuable experience as a principal, you might want to start planning your next step. In many cases, that means pursuing additional education. To learn more about how you could begin working toward a career that allows you to make a real difference for numerous schools, check out UMass Global’s Doctor of Education in Organizational Leadership.

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