How to Become a School Superintendent

School superintendents work with a variety of stakeholders within their school district to improve learning environments and student outcomes. Becoming a superintendent involves completing certain education programs, gaining relevant experience and meeting certification and licensure requirements. Read on to learn how to become a superintendent.

What Is a School Superintendent?

A school superintendent is responsible for managing and coordinating school systems. School superintendents, principals and teachers all work in education, but there are some distinctions between these roles. Teachers work directly with students. School principals oversee the operations of a specific school, managing teachers and other staff. Key aspects of a school principal’s job include managing curriculums, establishing procedures and fostering a safe and productive learning environment. 

Wondering what the difference is between a principal vs. superintendent? While principals manage a single school, a school superintendent is a chief executive officer who oversees and supervises educational progress across all schools within a district. 

Superintendent Job Description and Responsibilities

What does a school superintendent do? A superintendent may oversee budgeting and resourcing, provide leadership to staff and implement and evaluate school policies. In short, a school superintendent is typically responsible for the district school system’s day-to-day operations.

The duties of a school superintendent are likely to vary from district to district. A school superintendent may either work under the direction of a school board or operate as the chief executive officer of the school board. With support from the board of education, the superintendent could supervise staff and establish priorities for the schools within the district. In addition to ensuring that established board policies are implemented, they may make recommendations to the board of education for new policies. Superintendents also work closely with teachers, students and families on a daily basis.

4 Common Steps to Becoming a Superintendent

There are various paths you may take on your journey to becoming a school district superintendent. However, prospective superintendents generally begin with completing specific education requirements. This may include earning a master’s degree or doctoral degree related to education. 

After completing school superintendent education requirements, future school superintendents may choose to gain relevant experience in teaching and administrative roles. Becoming a school principal is one way to help prepare you for the role of school superintendent. 

On top of obtaining relevant education and experience, you may also need to complete state-specific programs and pass a certification exam before becoming a school superintendent. Specific requirements for licensing and certification vary from state to state. 

  1. Become a Teacher

    If you are new to the education field, a potential first step in becoming a school superintendent could be completing a bachelor’s degree in education and gaining experience as a teacher. Experience as a teacher can be important to help prepare you for education administrator roles. As a teacher, you’ll gain experience enforcing administrative policies and assessing the educational outcomes of students. 

    Becoming a teacher generally requires a bachelor’s degree and a state-issued license or certification. Specific degree requirements and licensing requirements depend on where you live and what you are planning to teach. Some states may require teachers to earn a degree that is relevant to the subject they are teaching, as opposed to a general education degree. This is especially true for high school teachers. Be sure to check with your state’s education licensing requirements for more information.

  2. Pursue a Graduate Degree

    Once you have your bachelor’s degree and teaching license, you may be required to gain several years of teaching experience before pursuing a master’s degree in a field like educational leadership. Specific prerequisites vary from program to program, but most master’s programs in education likely require you to hold a current teaching license.

    There are several master’s degree options available for those looking to become superintendents. You may choose to earn a Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT), Master of Education (MEd), a Master of Science in Teaching (MST) or a similar degree. Courses on educational leadership, curriculum and instruction design, and similar subjects may prepare you for school administrator roles. It generally takes two years to complete a master’s degree program, though some programs may be completed sooner. 

    Holding a doctoral degree such as a Doctor of Education (EdD) may be beneficial for prospective school superintendents. EdD programs tend to require a master’s degree as well as work experience in an educational leadership role. 

  3. Gain Experience in an Administrative Role 

    Becoming a school superintendent usually requires gaining a number of years of experience in a school administrative role. In many cases, school superintendents first become vice principals or principals of an elementary school, middle school or high school. 

    The role of a principal is similar to that of a school superintendent. As a principal, you oversee school operations and manage staff. You are also responsible for regularly meeting with students, parents and teachers to discuss student progress and behavior.

    Most states require school principals to have a master’s degree in education administration or leadership. You may also need to get licensed as a school administrator and have teaching experience. Licensure requirements vary by state.

  4. Meet Certification Requirements

    Another step to becoming a school superintendent is meeting any superintendent certification requirements. These certification requirements vary depending on where you live and the specific role you are applying for. Some states may administer their own exams, while others rely on tests provided by the Educational Testing Service (ETS).

    ETS provides several assessments for school leadership roles, including the School Leaders Licensure Assessment (SLLA) and School Superintendent Assessment (SSA). Visit the ETS website to determine whether an ETS exam is required in your state.

    After completing the necessary certification and licensing requirements, you may start applying to superintendent positions. Be sure to thoroughly review any other job guidelines, such as education requirements or recommended work experience. 

What Skills Do School Superintendents Have?

A certified superintendent of schools needs skills that are very similar to those of school principals or other administrators. Because they interact with students, parents, teachers and members of the school board, school superintendents should have strong communication skills. A key aspect of the role is keeping the public informed about the school district’s successes and challenges. 

As the head of staff for multiple schools, superintendents benefit from having exceptional leadership skills. Decision-making and problem-solving skills also come into play when determining what types of improvements are needed for school systems. 

Furthermore, school superintendents are often skilled in finance, accounting and budgeting. When creating the annual budget, they may be asked to provide explanations of expenses to the board of education. 

School Superintendent FAQs

The career path for a school superintendent involves obtaining relevant education, gaining experience and meeting specific certification requirements. Here are a few answers to some frequently asked questions about becoming a school superintendent.

Is a doctoral degree required to become a superintendent?

Requirements vary by state and specific role. In some states, superintendents must hold a doctoral degree in educational administration or educational leadership from a regionally accredited college or university. Some states may only require a master’s in teaching, education or a similar field along with several years’ teaching or related experience. However, some employers may prefer candidates with a doctoral degree. Be sure to check your desired job description for all education requirements.

How long does it take to become a school superintendent?

How many years it takes to become a superintendent depends on how quickly you finish your degrees and how many years of work experience you acquire. Generally, earning a bachelor’s degree takes about four years, while earning a master’s degree takes another two years. Pursuing a doctoral degree may add another three years or more to your timeline. You can also expect to spend about three to five years gaining experience as a school administrator or principal, though the exact amount of time required depends on the employer.

What is the superintendent career outlook?

According to a survey of 1,500 superintendents conducted by the American Association of School Administrators (AASA), the median school superintendent salary from 2020 to 2021 ranged from $140,172 to $180,500. While the Bureau of Labor Statistics does not provide information on superintendents specifically, they estimate that employment of elementary, middle and high school principals will grow 8% from 2020 to 2030. This is on par with the average growth rate for all occupations. 

Last updated in July 2022