The American Association of School Administrators (AASA) recently found that about 25% of superintendents across the country have left their jobs in the past year, a marked increase from previous years. That number is even higher in some states, such as Alaska, which AASA Executive Director Dan Domenech said is experiencing a turnover rate of about 50%.

Another group, the Seattle-based National Superintendents Roundtable, released an eye-popping report about the pandemic-era struggles of its members, notes a recent report from Education Next. It carried the memorable subtitle: “Panic Attacks, Strokes, and Threats of Violence Meet Prayer, Exercise, Meditation, and Booze.” Culled from responses to a questionnaire returned by 400 district leaders, the report found that superintendents had encountered “abusive online behavior and physical threats, plus the whiplash of navigating ever-changing state and local policies” during a “coldly politicized” pandemic.

As a result, the group found, nearly two-thirds (63%) of respondents said they had considered quitting during the 2020–2021 school year, though 83% eventually decided to stay in their jobs, at least for the time being.

Other research calls into question the notion of an upward spike in superintendent departures. A RAND survey on the topic augmented the typical “Do you plan to leave?” survey with a new twist, capturing the leaders’ names atop 3,500 of the nation’s 14,000 school districts and comparing them to previous years. Researchers found turnover hovered around 13%, statistically on par with pre-pandemic turnover of 14% to 16%

But RAND and others cautioned that the survey didn’t capture departures announced at the end of the 2021–2022 school year.

Asked about their plans in the RAND survey, half (51%) of superintendents said they would likely stay, while 26% said they’d likely leave soon. Another 24% were undecided.

RAND found turnover higher – 17% – among superintendents in districts where a majority of the young people served are students of color.

Another study by the ILO Group found that the pandemic had a “disproportionate impact” on female leaders across the 500 largest public school districts in the U.S. It found that 70% of districts that appointed permanent replacements placed male candidates in those jobs. Of the 51 female superintendents who have left since March 2020, 76% were replaced by men.

Experts say conversations with school leaders about career trajectories inevitably boil down to one of three categories: they’re retiring early “because they can’t take it anymore,” they’re too young to retire but are quitting “because they can’t take it anymore,” or they’re in the process of being fired by their school board.

The job, in other words, is getting more difficult to do effectively, and what two years of COVID lockdowns, quarantines, mask mandates and distance learning couldn’t accomplish, more recent battles over curriculum have. In school board meetings nationwide, superintendents are being threatened and harassed – taking a huge emotional toll on these leaders.

In the best-case scenario, observers say, the long-term effect of all this turnover may well be a kind of renewal and refreshing of leadership, with younger and more diverse candidates stepping into the fray to lead school districts with new ideas and energy in a post-pandemic era.

Others say what comes next might not be so attractive. While the number of openings nationwide is inching up, the number of applicants for those openings is proportionately down.

Public battles between superintendents and school boards do little to help attract smart, young talent to a district, despite the politically exciting spectacle that plays out on public-access TV or Facebook.

Research on superintendent turnover doesn’t necessarily point to negative outcomes for students. While one study found that high turnover can hamper teachers’ sharing of research-based ideas and practices districtwide, others suggest the results aren’t so clear.

A 2014 Brookings Institution study found that neither hiring a new superintendent nor keeping a long-serving one around longer translated into improved student achievement, at least in math and reading. While individual leaders may preside over impressive gains, the researchers found, those who have an “exceptional impact” on student achievement “cannot be reliably identified.”

Ultimately, the study found, when academic achievement in a district improves or deteriorates, the superintendent is likely to be playing just one part in an “ensemble performance.” In other words, it’s the system, not a single district leader, that promotes or hinders student achievement. “Superintendents are largely indistinguishable,” they wrote.