America needs more talented, student-focused leaders overseeing our state and district education systems. With more than 3 million teachers in the United States, it would seem there is a natural pool of excellent educators who could develop into impactful systems leaders. Yet a Change Research poll commissioned by Chiefs for Change shows the overwhelming majority of teachers are not interested in the top job.

Chiefs for Change is a bipartisan network of state and district education leaders from across the nation. In this multimedia report, we present the poll results and share the stories of a number of bold, innovative chiefs as they outline their career journeys, detail the meaningful rewards of their role, and describe how it allows them to make a difference in children’s lives. The report also provides recommendations for how to encourage teachers to consider the highest level of education leadership and explains how systems can create meaningful pathways to help teachers get there.

The Education Gadfly Show Podcast

Mike Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, and Elizabeth Green, cofounder and CEO of Chalkbeat, speak with current, former, and aspiring chiefs about their career journeys and how to establish leadership pathways for teachers.


Most teachers in the poll think the role of a state chief or district superintendent is consumed with politics and mired in bureaucracy, with little opportunity to make a difference for kids. In fact, less than half of teachers surveyed said they believe a state or district chief can have a meaningful impact on children’s lives.

0 %
of current teachers plan to stay in education for the remainder of their career
0 %
Of current teachers say their job is satisfying
0 %
of current teachers expressed an interest in becoming a chief
0 %
of current teachers believe state chiefs make a very big difference in the lives of students
0 %
of current teachers believe district superintendents make a very big difference in the lives of students
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Lewis Ferebee

Chancellor, District of Columbia Public Schools

Lewis Ferebee says there is nothing like being a classroom teacher day in and day out that prepares a person to lead a school system. Ferebee tells teachers not to be afraid of the politics because the core work is always focused on teaching and learning.


Our members, 91 percent of whom began their careers in the classroom, believe teaching is one of the most important professions. They deeply honor teachers—but have found that serving as a chief is an opportunity to make a profound impact in a different way, at a different scale:


  • Chiefs set the vision for the system, engaging with teachers; principals; other staff; parents; students; elected officials; and the community to identify shared priorities and establish a plan for success.
  • Chiefs shape the conditions and policies that help educators succeed, raise expectations for all students, and promote well-rounded and enriching learning opportunities across classrooms and schools.
  • Chiefs work to combat systemic inequities by removing barriers and directing high-quality supports to students and classrooms throughout their systems.
  • Chiefs serve as community leaders, galvanizing broad support and marshaling resources to help students excel.
  • Chiefs create a culture of transparency and respect, ensuring educators and families have opportunities to share their perspectives, understand how decisions are made, and receive regular and timely communications from school and system leaders.
  • Chiefs serve as role modelsand students need more leaders who look like them. Only 6 percent of district leaders and 12 percent of state leaders are people of color.  At the district level, 30 percent of those who lead large local systems are women, and just 11 percent are women of color. At the state level, women hold 45 percent of chief roles, and only 8 percent are women of color.
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Susana Cordova—Superintendent, Denver Public Schools

Susana Cordova attended Denver Public Schools and has spent her entire career in the district. She remembers how meaningful it was as a teacher to have input on decisions for her school. Now, as superintendent, Susana has a team of teachers advising her on district-level decisions.

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Carey Wright—State Superintendent of Education, Mississippi

Every day, Carey Wright is focused on supporting teachers across Mississippi. She says, “We involve teachers in everything that we do” and explains how a state chief helps to shape education policy.


Chiefs for Change created the Future Chiefs leadership development program to build the pipeline of talented, diverse educators ready to lead district and state education systems. The program, however, is designed for people who are one or two steps away from becoming a chief. There is also a need to reach educators earlier in their careers so they have a fuller picture of the chief role and the pathways to leadership—and believe they are capable of succeeding in the top job—should they choose to pursue such a position. Based on our poll results, most systems do introduce teachers to the natural next step in their careers. Systems should also help teachers think about their long-term professional aspirations, which could include becoming a chief.

0 %
of current teachers have been encouraged to pursue grade-level or departmental leadership
0 %
of current teachers have been encouraged to earn an administrative credential
0 %
of current teachers have been encouraged to become a superintendent
Play Video

Donald Fennoy

Superintendent, The School District of Palm Beach County

Donald Fennoy says opportunities present themselves to amazing teachers. When it comes to taking on leadership roles, he has heard teachers say, “I can’t do that.” His response: “You can!”


Our poll indicated that teachers think about leadership roles. Systems should, therefore, ensure teachers are familiar with all of the advancement opportunities available to them and the possible career trajectories. This is especially important since some survey respondents said that if they had a better understanding of how a superintendent can help craft policy and improve operations, they would consider the position.

Despite the absence of mentorship and clear pathways—and skepticism about becoming a chief—teachers in our poll are interested in other school-based leadership opportunities.

  • Thought about becoming a grade or department-level leader63%
  • interested in earning an administrative credential26%
  • interested in becoming a principal14%
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Sonja Santelises

CEO, Baltimore City Public Schools

Sonja Santelises brought her love of teaching to her post as CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools. She is driven by an unyielding desire to ensure that the system is organized around the instructional core and says chiefs have a responsibility to identify outstanding teachers with leadership potential. 


Districts and state education departments should introduce teachers with the potential to become chiefs to the role and establish coherent pathways to leadership with associated compensation structures. Systems should clearly articulate what those pathways and structures are so that teachers understand the possibilities available to them. Pathways may include opportunities for teachers to serve as: 

  • Mentors, where they train novice teachers on instruction, curriculum, assessment, and classroom management practices.  
  • Facilitators, where they support teacher collaboration on effective implementation of curricula. 
  • Department or grade-level chairs, where they oversee budgets, resources, and collaborative processes.
  • Members of school or district committees, where they share their perspectives and influence policy. 

Excellent teachers with demonstrated leadership skills should be incentivized to obtain necessary certifications and be promoted to principals, central office administrators, and, eventually, superintendents. As individuals advance, they should receive coaching on how to navigate complex issues related to school governance and finance; staffing; communications; working with diverse stakeholders to implement a vision;  state and federal laws and regulations; community engagement; strategic planning; and education policy, data, and research. The summer is the ideal time to give teachers exposure to the chief role through job shadowing opportunities at a district’s central office or a state department of education. All pathways should be designed to encourage emerging leaders to reflect on how their expanded roles allow them to make a difference on a broad scale. 


Systems and local partners should collaborate to create targeted networking, mentorship, and sponsorship opportunities for teachers of colorand, especially, women teachers of colorwho are interested in education leadership roles. As a first step toward building a diverse talent pipeline, systems should create programs for teachers of color to connect with mentors. Systems should also provide forums for teachers to hear from current chiefs and other education leaders from diverse backgrounds about their roles and personal career journeys. Then, as emerging leaders move beyond early-stage development pathways and take on higher levels of responsibility, systems should provide opportunities for teachers of color to work with “sponsors” who champion them and provide intensive support as they pursue significant professional milestones and make important career decisions. People of color, particularly those from low-income backgrounds, often have less exposure to professional networks needed to advance. By creating programs that allow teachers of color to more easily build both the skills and relationships that can help them ascend to the chief role, school systems can diversify education leadership and ensure decisions that impact children and families reflect a variety of perspectives.    


Chiefs should establish succession plans to sustain their work over the long term. One way to do this is through “coaching trees,” in which chiefs develop future leaders from their own cabinets who share their vision for educational excellence and equity. This enables promising approaches to take hold and be continuously refined. Effective leaders understand the importance of a deeply invested team and find ways to support those around them, so that talented individuals have opportunities to move up and the system can evolve to produce ever-stronger outcomes for kids.


Currently, there are few organized programs to cultivate “homegrown” educators into systems leaders. While more of these efforts are needed at the local level, we as a network are working at the national level to create initiatives that support early-career teachers who show great potential to become chiefs. This is an extension of our Future Chiefs program and will involve partnerships with teacher organizations and others. Our goal is to spark teachers’ interest in the chief role, introduce them to clear career pathways, and eventually offer placements within our members' systems.


We are grateful to the following sponsors for supporting the production of this multimedia report.


The poll was fielded January 4–20, 2020, by Change Research, which emailed a set of prior survey respondents who identified themselves as current or former teachers, inviting them to participate in the survey. These data include all respondents who identify as a current teacher who completed the survey. While the survey is not a perfectly representative national sample of classroom teachers, the data provide insight and perspective from a broad cross section of teachers across the United States regarding their views on pathways to educational leadership roles.