Several years ago, when Rachel S. White was compiling a list of every public school district superintendent in the country, she began to notice something peculiar.
As she flitted from one district website to the next, manually — and painstakingly — entering each superintendent’s first and last name into her database, White saw a pattern emerging.
“There were a lot of Marks and Scotts and Daves,” she says. “Those names kept coming up.”
Curious, she started to chart the first names of thousands upon thousands of these district leaders. It was “just for fun” at first, but has since evolved into a research project four years running.
White, an assistant professor at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, recently published data for the current school year on gender gaps in the American superintendency. What she found is that, well, a lot of educators work for a superintendent named Michael, John, David or James.
Those four names account for 10 percent of all district superintendents in the United States.
Put another way, more than 1,300 superintendents are named Michael, John, David or James.
Meanwhile, one in every five superintendents has one of just nine names: Michael, John, David, James, Jeff, Robert, Chris, Brian or Steven.
“Once you start getting into [the data], it just becomes so evident how male-dominated the field is,” White shares, “simply because it seems like you’re writing in the same 10 first names.”
Indeed, it seems that way because … it sort of is that way.
For the 2022-23 school year, women make up about 28 percent of the American superintendency. Men with one of just 15 names make up a similar portion of the field: the names above, plus Scott, Mark, Kevin, Jason, Matthew and Daniel.
The infographic White published last month — a teaser released ahead of the publication of her full research findings in the journal Educational Researcher — caught the attention of some educators on social media.
One teacher, who posts under the username Sabocat, says on TikTok that she came across White’s infographic and “can’t stop thinking about it.”
“I mean, is your superintendent named Kevin? Because there’s a very good possibility of that,” the teacher says sardonically in a video that has received about 35,000 views.
Over the years, White has standardized her research gathering process. She now has research assistants to help with the tedious work of tracking down each superintendent’s first and last name and then confirming their gender. She has also consolidated the timeline of her data collection for consistency; she gathers the names and gender identities of superintendents between October and November of each year.
White estimates that, all told, it takes between 300 and 400 hours.
She found this slice of educational research somewhat organically — White was looking for a master list of superintendents to support a project she’d received grant funding for, only to realize no such list existed. But she’s stuck with it because she sees it as filling a gap in the field.
There is no other exhaustive data on district superintendents in the U.S., to White’s knowledge. In fact, there isn’t even an official count of the number of public school superintendents, according to AASA, the School Superintendents Association.
AASA puts out an annual superintendent salary and benefits study — the most recent one was released March 10 — with details about demographics and pay, but White points out that the study is based on survey responses and therefore incomplete. This year’s study is based on 2,443 responses, which the association says is the highest response rate since the survey began in 1999. White, in comparison, gathers the gender data of about 12,500 superintendents (she thinks the total is closer to 13,000). She is working with a team now to explore ways to collect data on other demographic characteristics of the country’s superintendents, such as race and ethnicity.
The infographic White put out in February estimates that the U.S. superintendency will reach gender equality in 2035 — a milestone that seems not so far off and encouraging, White realizes. But she says that’s somewhat misleading. The country would get to that rate nationally because of the “tremendous progress” of a handful of states, while other states remain severely imbalanced.
“To me, it’s a little bit disheartening how slowly the gap is closing. It feels slow. It feels very much like molasses at this point,” White says. “There could be a stronger push to close this gap at a faster rate.”
There’s also the question of what the goal really should be. Women and men are not represented equally in the education field. Women dominate the role of classroom teachers, for example, making up nearly 80 percent of the teacher workforce.
So if the leadership pipeline were to be proportionate to the gender breakdown in the classroom, the goal for parity in the superintendency would need to be a lot higher than 50 percent.