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While teachers are key to a school’s instructional success, there are two key leaders in public school systems that guide faculty and staff to help them meet school- and district-wide goals: principals and superintendents.

In the educational leadership space, what are the differences between a school superintendent vs. principal? The key distinction is scope—principals oversee a specific school while superintendents manage an entire school district. 

If you’re considering pursuing a role in educational leadership, Alliant International University has Administrator Services Credential programs to prepare you for either role. But which is right for you? This guide compares superintendent vs. principal in detail to help you choose a career path aligned with your goals. 

What is a Superintendent? 

Superintendents are leaders of entire school districts. They help school leaders, faculty, and students achieve state standards and function smoothly.1

If you’re wondering, “What does a superintendent do?”, we’ll cover the superintendent’s key leadership role, their qualifications, and common challenges they face. Understanding these areas will help you understand what makes a good superintendent as you continue your path.

Primary Duties and Responsibilities

Some of the key responsibilities of a superintendent include:2

  • District oversight – Superintendents, along with their assistant superintendent, oversee every school in their district, ensuring that schools and their staff follow district regulations and meet federal and state standards.
  • Financial management – With support from budget experts, school superintendents allocate and manage funds for an entire district. When schools request additional funding, superintendents typically have the final say in approval or denial.
  • School visits – Most superintendents visit the schools in their district with some regularity. While they may not visit every school once each week, superintendents visit enough to retain familiarity with a school’s operations and challenges. 
  • Reporting – In many districts, superintendents must prepare and present annual reports on the schools in their jurisdiction to relevant authorities like departments of education or state agencies.

Qualifications and Experience

In California, superintendents must possess an Administrative Services Credential. To meet this criteria, superintendents must obtain one of the following:3

  1. A general Administrative Credential
  2. An elementary Administrative Credential and a secondary Administrative Credential

The Administrative Services Credential isn’t only available to superintendents. Many school administrators throughout the state pursue this certification to qualify for roles in school leadership. 

California’s credentialing process has two key steps:4

  1. The preliminary credential, which is valid for five years
  2. The clear credential, which must be renewed every five years

Preliminary Administrative Services Credential candidates must have some experience in the public school system before they can apply. To qualify for credentialing, applicants must:

  • Possess a clear or life California teaching credential, or
  • A clear or life Designated Subject Teaching Credential, or
  • A clear or life non-instructional support credential, like:
    • The Pupil Personnel Services Credential
    • The Teacher Librarian Services Credential
    • Speech-Language Pathology Services Credential
    • Clinical or Rehabilitative Services Credential
    • School Nurse Services Credential

All of the above require applicants to complete a bachelor’s degree or an education program, a clear credentialing preparation program, and professional development. In addition, applicants must accrue five years of work experience to apply for their preliminary Administrative Services Credential.

Key Challenges

With its large scale of leadership, the superintendent’s role isn’t without its challenges. District leaders commonly contend with:

  • Budget challenges – District budgets are typically reliant on state and federal funding. When this funding changes, superintendents must navigate pressure from school leadership, parents, and even students as they make budgeting decisions.
  • Organizational conflicts – Since superintendents are typically the highest-ranking officials in a school district’s leadership structure, they often must resolve organizational conflicts between other district employees.
  • Public pressure – Superintendents are, to a degree, in the limelight. Policies they make are subject to pushback from parents, students, district employees, and community members.

What Does a Principal Do? 

While superintendents typically oversee an entire school district, principals are the primary education administrators of one school. Let’s explore their responsibilities in more detail.

Primary Duties and Responsibilities

Principals are the highest-ranking members of individual schools’ administrative teams, meaning they:5

  • Manage staff and activities at their schools
  • Offer oversight on class scheduling 
  • Develop curriculum standards in accordance with district, state, and federal regulations
  • Provide counseling, mentorship, and discipline to students
  • Discuss students’ progress with parents and instructional staff
  • Manage the school’s budget
  • Organize professional development and training opportunities for staff
  • Report on student test scores and advancement
  • Develop security protocols and procedures (e.g., fire drills)
  • Manage, order, and maintain instructional materials like textbooks and software

But principals don’t work alone. Their administrative teams assist with these tasks to support school improvement and success.

Qualifications and Experience

Like superintendents, school principals in California must have an Administrative Services Credential. The requirements for pursuing this credential are the same for principals as they are for superintendents:6

  1. An existing clear or lifetime instructional or support credential
  2. At least five years of experience working in their credentialed position

As such, people pursuing a career as a principal typically:

  1. Complete a bachelor’s degree or education program
  2. Apply for a preliminary credential in teaching or student support
  3. Accrue the experience and training required to receive a clear credential
  4. Work in the public school system for at least five years in California

Like the superintendent role, a career as a school principal requires preparation, dedication, and experience.

Key Challenges

Principals can certainly encounter challenges as they oversee student, staff, and school development:

  • Student conflicts – Since they’re at the top of the disciplinary chain of command, principals are often involved in resolving significant student conflicts. They also support faculty and staff in the conflict resolution process when necessary.
  • Pressure from parents – When they create, modify, or enforce school policies, principals can be subject to pushback from parents.
  • Budget concerns – While superintendents allocate funds to individual schools and programs, principals must manage their school budgets. Fund management can be difficult, especially when funds change from year-to-year.

Despite these challenges, a career as a school principal can be a rewarding one. Principals get to mentor students, help school staff succeed and advance their careers, and serve as community leaders.

Superintendent vs. Principal: What's the Difference?

What are the similarities and differences between principals and superintendents? Let’s compare the two leadership roles in more detail.

Similarities Between Principals and Superintendents

As both professionals serve as leaders in the educational space, there are certainly similarities between the two roles:

  1. Responsibilities – While the scope of their leadership differs, superintendents and principals have similar responsibilities: managing budgets, assessing school and student achievement, developing staff, and overseeing curricula, to name a few.
  2. Skills – Since they’re both leadership roles, principal and superintendent careers demand similar skills. Management, delegation, budgeting, and organizational skills are all key for both superintendents and principals.
  3. Credentials – In California, both principals and superintendents must receive their Administrative Services Credential to qualify. 
  4. Public pressure – Both principals and superintendents must contend with pressure from the public—like parents, students, staff, and community members. Both leaders must learn to manage community relationships while in the public eye.

Plus, superintendents and principals are collaborators. They work together to support school and district success, develop quality curricula, manage funds, and help students grow.

Key Differences Between the Positions

There are certainly discrepancies between the superintendent and principal roles:

  1. Scope – While principals oversee operations at individual schools, superintendents are responsible for entire districts (multiple schools and facilities). Being higher in the chain of command, superintendents have purview over significantly more students and staff.
  2. Student and teacher interaction – While principals actively interact with students and teachers at their schools, superintendents only get a chance to meet students and staff at organized events or during school visits. Superintendents spend more time interacting with other district administrators. 
  3. Supervision – Principals are supervised by superintendents and other district leadership, while superintendents answer to leaders outside of their district, like state agencies or departments of education.

Being higher in the chain of command, superintendents are much more involved in a school district at large. Principals, on the other hand, primarily engage with issues related to their specific schools.

Which Path to Choose: Superintendent or Principal? 

If you’re considering the superintendent vs. principal career paths, but you aren’t sure which one is right for you, consider:

  • Your ideal level of student interaction – If your favorite part of being an educator is interacting with students, you might prefer a principal career. While superintendents primarily meet with administrators, principals have a more active role in students’ day-to-day school experiences.
  • Scope – While both roles are important, superintendents have a much larger job than principals. If you’re adept at large-scale management or organizational leadership, a career as a superintendent might be compatible with your professional skills.
  • Public interaction – While principals must interact with parents and community members, they’re not in the public eye as much as superintendents can be. Since their policies only impact one school, principals typically must only interact with community members impacted by their policies. On the other hand, superintendents’ decisions can impact entire communities—thus, they’re more likely to interact with the public at large.

Benefits of Alliant's Administrative Services Credential Program

In California, both superintendents and principals must achieve their Administrative Services Credential. 

If you’re looking for a program that will prepare you for the California Administrator Performance Assessment (CalAPA) and set you up for a successful career in school leadership, explore the Administrative Services Credential program at Alliant International University.

The program offers three key benefits for prospective school administrators:

  • CalAPA alignment – Our curriculum is specifically geared toward preparation for the CalAPA—Helping future leaders pass their credentialing exam is our top priority.
  • CTC approval – As part of the credentialing process, prospective Administrative Services Credential recipients must complete a training program approved by the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing (CTC). Our program is CTC-approved and prepares students for the CalAPA exam.
  • Flexibility – Students can complete the coursework entirely online—and in less than one year if they’re looking for a rigorous pace.

Develop a Career in Educational Leadership at Alliant International University

For future school leaders, quality training and passing scores on credentialing exams are a must. At Alliant International University, we prepare future educators, support staff, and administrators with the professional skills and exam preparation they need to achieve their credentials and develop successful careers. 

Discover our educational programs and apply today to start a fulfilling career in education.


  1. “Statutory Functions of County Superintendents of Schools & Count Boards of Education.” California County Superintendents Educational Services Association. January 2020. Accessed August 17, 2023. 
  2. “Statutory Functions of County Superintendents of Schools & Count Boards of Education.” California County Superintendents Educational Services Association. January 2020. Accessed August 17, 2023. 
  3.  “California Education Code, Education Code EDC § 1208.” FindLaw. January 1, 2023. Accessed August 17, 2023.
  4. “Administrative Services Credential For Individuals Prepared in California.” California Commission on Teacher Credentialing. July 7, 2023.…-(cl-574c). Accessed August 17, 2023. 
  5. “Elementary, Middle, and High School Principals – What They Do.” US Bureau of Labor Statistics. October 4, 2023.…. Accessed August 17, 2023. 
  6. “Administrative Services Credential For Individuals Prepared in California.” California Commission on Teacher Credentialing. July 7, 2023.…-(cl-574c). Accessed August 17, 2023. 

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