Data Exploration Journal: Looking at Superintendant turnover rates

Many parents and families are upset with the current state of the Boston Public School system and I want to learn more about how we’re failing the children of this district. Are there gaps in funding between publicly funded entities? Are priorities in the wrong place?

Today I’m cleaning some data to start working on some preliminary visualizations for my final project. 

First thing I’m looking at isn’t exactly complicated data. It’s a list of all of the BPS superintendents overtime

I want to see if the superintendent turnover rate really is high or not. 

Articles such as this one from the Boston Globe, Boston has had a turnstile of superintendents. Why can’t BPS hold onto them? suggest that there is a high turnover rate. 

I’m making a quick table to determine how many years each superintendent served. I put it into Excel to calculate an average.

Just to clarify: 

  • Interim means that the current superintendent resigned or was removed and the interim superintendent fills in during that transition. 
  • Acting superintendent is usually labeled because the current superintendent is ill, absent, or prevented from doing their usual duties. The difference in the terminology is a very fine line. 
SuperintendentTermYears served
Nathan Bishop1851-18565
John Dudley Philbrick 1856-187822
Samuel Eliot 1878-18802
Edwin P. Seaver 1880-190414
George H. Conley 1904-19062
Stratton D. Brooks1906-19126
Maurice P. White 1912-1912Acting1
Dr. Franklin B. Dyer 1912-19186
Frank V. Thompson1918-19213
Jeremiah E. Burke 1921-193110
Patrick T. Campbell 1931-19376
Arthur L. Gould1937-194811
Dennis Haley1948-196012
Frederick J. Gillis1960-19633
William H. Ohrenberger1963-19729
William J. Leary1972-19753
Marion J. Fahey1975-19783
Robert Wood1978-19802
Paul A. Kennedy1980-1981Interim1
Joseph M. McDonough1981-1981Interim1
Robert R. Spillane1981-19854
Joseph M. McDonough1985-1985Interim1
Laval S. Wilson1985-19905
Joseph M. McDonough1990-1990Interim1
Lois Harrison-Jones1991-19954
Arthur W. Steller1995-1995Acting1
Thomas W. Payzant1995-200611
Michael Contompasis2006-2007Interim1
Carol R. Johnson2007-20136
John P. McDonough2013-2015Interim2
Tommy Chang2015-20183
Laura Perille2018-2019Interim1
Dr. Brenda Cassellius2019- 2022

From 1851 until the present, the average superintendent has stayed on the job for 5 years. 

Just reviewing the data, it’s apparent that there are some big highs and lows in how long a superintendent has stuck around in the BPS system.

I put the data into Tableau to create a quick visualization to see if there were any patterns:

Over time though, there is a pattern of superintendents staying in their position for a shorter amount of time but not as significantly as I thought. The number of interim superintendents also increases over time. 

According to this article, in the top 100 schools in the country, 25% of them had new superintendents in 2022. In 2018 there was a report that stated the average superintendent in a large school district sticks around for about 6 years.

This timeline of data made me ask more questions. There was a high turnover rate from 1972-1995, what was happening during this time? The superintendent from 1995-2006 stayed for 11 years, what did he accomplish? Why did he stay a longer time than those before and after him? Was he successful in implementing any policy?

I still don’t know how big of an issue superintendent turnover rate is, but I’m curious how much funding goes into the superintendent search. When this search has to be conducted more frequently, how much does that cost? Where do these funds come from. 

I’m now going to think more about funding as we look to expand our project.

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