How to Become a District Administrator

Against a background of school lockers, a district administrator in a suit and tie and carrying a stack of folders checks the time on his wristwatch.

Professional athletes, rap artists, former mayors, and civil rights activists have all graduated from the Peralta Community College District (PCCD) in Northern California. School districts, from K-12 to community college, play a vital role not only in our educational system but also in our local economies.

District administrators make key decisions affecting the future of the districts they lead, supporting schools and preparing graduates to become leaders. A case in point: the stewardship of a PCCD administrator.

Leadership Revitalizes a District Under Fire

In 2018, the San Francisco Chronicle reported PCCD was in dire trouble, as years of mismanagement had left the district vulnerable to insolvency. To save PCCD, Peltra’s trustees searched for a new district administrator who could help resolve the district’s financial crisis.

In 2019, the trustees chose Dr. Regina Stanback Stroud, who holds a doctorate in education and a master’s in educational leadership from Mills College, to lead PCCD’s recovery as the new chancellor. Dr. Stroud has addressed the district’s financial crisis while championing positive and vital learning policies for students.

What Does a District Administrator Do?

District administrators, such as Dr. Stroud, are leaders and support staff of K-12 and higher education networks who ensure schools under their management are functioning properly and meeting students’ needs. All district administrators, from college chancellors to K-12 superintendents and administrative staff, ultimately support student and teacher success, though they do so in varied ways.

Chancellors and Superintendents

Chancellors and superintendents head school districts. Though some states appoint chancellors to oversee K-12 schools, more typically a chancellor serves in higher education, while superintendents work in elementary schools, middle schools, or high schools.

Chancellors and superintendents are similar to company CEOs. They are responsible for their districts’ overall health. As senior leaders, chancellors and superintendents manage funding, oversee staffing, advocate for their students and teachers, and make critical decisions surrounding issues such as school safety, bias incidents, and natural disasters.

Research demonstrates the measurable impact superintendents have on student success. Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning, a nonprofit education research and development organization, found that if a superintendent can move their leadership abilities from the 50th percentile to the 84th percentile, student achievement in that district, as measured by standardized testing, will increase by 9.5 percentile points.

Chief Academic Officers and Assistant Superintendents

Research shows that funding has a big impact on student performance. Early childhood education, a rigorous curriculum, and excellent teachers help students—particularly those who are marginalized and come from low-income backgrounds—achieve at higher levels.

Many K-12 schools now have chief academic officers or assistant superintendents—district administrators who are focused solely on increasing student achievement. By working directly with principals and teachers to execute the superintendent or chancellor’s vision, chief academic officers create learning environments that best support the students in their districts.

Administrative Staff

District administrators act as upper-level managers to oversee centralized functions such as special education, assessment, and finances. Directors of special education, for example, report directly to the superintendent and oversee special education hiring, set classroom policies, manage special ed budgets, and plan program development.

Nearly 13% of K-12 public school students receive some form of special education. Public schools have limited funding, yet they need special education teachers who are qualified to work with students across a spectrum of learning abilities. Special education directors balance the staffing of teachers to meet all students’ diverse learning needs.

Regardless of role, all district administrators work to better serve students and facilitate learning outcomes.

What Are the Responsibilities of a District Administrator?

As leaders responsible for setting policy and maintaining positive learning environments across multiple schools, district administrators execute three key functions.

Instructional Leadership

Instructional leadership looks to improve student learning by helping teachers become more effective. Research shows that students who learn from highly effective teachers actually receive the equivalent of six additional months of learning each year.

Development of District and School System Policies

District administrators work with everyone from local governments to teachers and students to help set effective school system policies. Two studies conducted in the 1980s showed a primary driver of student success is “strong instructionally focused leadership from the superintendent and [their] administrative team.” Importantly, subsequent contemporary research continues to support this finding.

Implementation of District and School System Policies

Through leadership and a centralized vision, district administrators create positive, meaningful learning environments for students.

Skills Needed to Become a District Administrator

District administrators work with students, parents, teachers, and even local governments. The skills needed to perform the job mirror the breadth of responsibilities.

A school chancellor is the highest level of district administrator, and Dr. Stroud’s appointment at PCCD reflects a lifetime commitment to advancing educational opportunities both in and out of the classroom. Dr. Stroud began her career as a professor of nursing and then held administrative roles—first as a dean, then vice president, and then president. In addition to her work as an educator, Dr. Stroud served on President Barack Obama’s Advisory Council on Financial Capability for Young Americans.

While each district administrator’s career path will be influenced by the role they pursue and even the state they choose to work in, Dr. Stroud’s career exemplifies the skills and experience required. To become a district administrator like Dr. Stroud, educators must earn an advanced degree, accrue classroom experience, and, above all, champion equity and equality for all students.

Advanced Degrees

District administrators hold advanced degrees in education. Some, such as special education directors, hold additional certifications.

Experience

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) cites five years as the average minimum work experience needed to hold a leadership role in schools. District administrators set classroom policy, which makes classroom experience important to the job.

Commitment to Equity

A district administrator’s most important job is to make sure students are learning in safe, positive, and effective environments. To do this, district leaders must demonstrate a proven commitment to promoting equitable learning.

Job Outlook for District Administrators

The combination of education and experience required of candidates makes it competitive to become a district administrator, but the job outlook is positive. The BLS predicts 7% job growth for educational administrators from 2018 to 2028—faster than the average rate. District administrators also command a high salary, with annual average wages across states ranging from $70,720 in Louisiana to $127,390 in Connecticut.

High salaries for district administrators reflect the critical work they do. Education builds character and reshapes the way students see both the world and their positions in it. A career as a district administrator lets professionals lead their communities forward by shaping educational policies that change lives.

Educational Pathways to Becoming a District Administrator

Dr. Stroud began her career in education as a professor of nursing before earning a master’s and doctorate in education from Mills College. Dr. Stroud credits Mills with giving her “a theoretical framework for considering leadership toward social justice.” Under Dr. Stroud’s leadership, PCCD has the potential to continue changing the thousands of students’ lives every year.

These highly skilled leadership roles require teaching experience and postgraduate education. Barriers to entry are one of the primary challenges aspiring district administrators face. Traditionally, graduate school has not always been feasible for students who either cannot relocate or cannot take time off from their current jobs.

As a solution, Mills College offers an online Master of Arts in Educational Leadership. Grounded in the college’s principles of social justice and equality, the degree program prepares educators to assume leadership roles. Like Dr. Stroud, graduates can create, design, and run learning environments that will help build student character and foster brighter futures.

Leadership is about making change—Are you ready?