Leading a school district is ‘one of the hardest jobs in America’

School district superintendents spur innovation to help students succeed

With the push to better prepare K-12 students for the workforce, the pressure is on the superintendents – the CEOs of school districts.

“By elevating the profile of superintendents and thought leaders, we want everyone to understand – A, this is one of the hardest jobs in America and B, there are some really brilliant people doing it,” says Doug Roberts, CEO and founder of the Institute for Education Innovation (IEI).

Doug Roberts, CEO and founder, Institute for Education Innovation

IEI works to raise awareness of the work done by superintendents. The job requires everything from overseeing educators in elementary and secondary schools, managing multi-million-dollar budgets, solving problems daily, and creating a roadmap to success for students.

Roberts notes the ability to find solutions to unexpected situations is a big part of the supervisor’s job.

“Look what we saw during the pandemic. It was whack-a-mole city. ‘Oh, we’ve got to figure out how to serve food to people in their houses. Oh, we’ve got to figure out how to get mental health support to kids and families.’ All the stuff that they’ve figured out on the fly.”

“Superintendents are among the most entrepreneurial thinkers I know, and they’re not doing it to make millions on some IPO. They’re doing it in the name of kids, their families, and learning,” says Roberts.

It’s estimated there are more than 7,292 superintendents in the U.S. earning a median salary of $156,468. About 71% are male and approximately 29% are female. Over 65% are white and the average age is 47 years.

By some estimates, it takes at least 11 to 14 years to become a school superintendent, requiring bachelor’s and master’s degrees as well as experience in the classroom and in an administrative or supervisory role.

Prepping Students for the Global Economy

Currently, the organization is working to bridge the gap between education tech companies and school district leaders to devise solutions for issues faced by public education.

As schools become more vital to developing the talent pipeline, the challenge lies in creating a workforce on-ramp for young people.

“Education has to change because now we are preparing kids for this global economy that’s being driven by artificial intelligence,” says Dr. Vilicia Cade, Ed.D., CEO and superintendent of the Capital School District in Dover, Delaware.

Vilicia Cade, Ed.D., CEO and superintendent, Capital School District

Since becoming superintendent in 2021, Cade has developed a partnership between parents in her school district, the United Way, the Delaware Workforce Development Board, and the Racial Justice Collaborative. The result is a pilot program at Dover High School called Success for our Seniors.  It takes an individualized approach to providing seniors guidance on finding a career path and how to pursue it. 

“We have a workforce gap in our state. We have a need for more people to fill open vacancies. How do we get our young people to stay in our state?” notes Cade. “We started having these conversations, ‘Hey, let’s do something. Let’s stop having these conversations. Let’s actually do something.’”

Cade cites one example when the Delaware Department of Labor had four accounting specialist positions to fill. The agency inquired about giving paid internships to seniors interested in entering the workforce – with the possibility of being hired full-time, earning between $30,000 and $40,000. Cade says that salary is significant since more than half of the district’s students come from low-income communities.

An Opportunity to Influence National Policy

In April, Cade was appointed to the Presidential Advisory Commission on Advancing Educational Equity, Excellence, and Economic Opportunity for Black Americans. Among the Commission’s goals – focus on promoting career pathways for Black students through internships, apprenticeships, and work-based learning initiatives.

Cade is determined to spread success. “It’s building those structures, creating the groundswell, galvanizing others. We’re changing children’s lives, one life at a time. And I believe that is scalable.”

Cade adds, “Success is contagious.” 

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