Are There Too Many Administrators?

Type: Article

December 01, 2009

Popular notions about the number of administrators working in school districts tend to center on two perceptions: First, there are too many, and second, the number of administrators is growing at the expense of instruction. Do the facts support these opinions?

Consider the actual staffing pattern in public schools. U.S. Department of Education data show that total central-office administrative and professional staff represent less than 1 percent of the total staff of public school districts. Principals and assistant principals add only another 2.4 percent to this figure, according to data published by the National Center for Education Statistics.

One could appropriately ask: How does the number of administrators in public schools compare with the executive and managerial staffs in business and industry? To do this, we turn to the most authoritative and respected source of such data--the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Data supplied to the Educational Research Service by the bureau in 2000 indicate:

  • The ratio of employees to executive, administrator and/or manager is higher in elementary and secondary schools (12.8 to 1) than in any other business or industry in the study.
  • Only hospitals report roughly similar staffing patterns, with 12.2 people supervised by each executive or administrator.
  • In public administration the ratio is only 3.3 to 1, about one-fourth the ratio of staff-to-administrator ratio in public schools.

These data suggest school administration is certainly not overstaffed.

Fair to Compare?

Perhaps a more basic question should be: Do public school administrators have a right to be compared with the managers of big business and service industries?

Judging by the size, scope and importance of their responsibilities, they certainly do. School administrators lead and manage basic public service enterprises with operating budgets projected at more than $350 billion for expenditures in 2002, according to NCES.

At the district level, the typical superintendent manages a substantial operation, directing an annual budget averaging more than $22 million, employing some 375 staff members and serving some 3,300 students. The typical superintendent manages an enterprise comparable to that managed by the CEO of a $22 million industrial corporation.

A few school districts have operating budgets comparable to some Fortune 500 companies, the lowest of which has annual sales revenues of $3 billion, according to Time’s“Fortune 1000 List.” That means the superintendents in these districts not only are responsible for educating thousands of students but also are fiscally accountable for more money than all but a few U.S. corporations.

Real Growth?

Consolidation of schools and school districts over the past 35 years has brought increases in complexity. As such, the responsibilities of superintendents and principals are vastly different.

When reviewing data about the number of central-office personnel, it also makes sense to look at the associated roles beyond the superintendent. Central administration in most districts now covers curriculum and staff development, student testing and assessment, school board-related functions, state and federal relations, legal services, supervision of maintenance and operations, transportation, food operations and other support services.

Have significant numbers of administrative staff been added to do these jobs? If all central-office administrative and professional staff is included when calculating these ratios, our data at ERS indicate no significant increase in the number of administrators. Comparing central-office staff with the number of teachers over the past decade, the data show there were 32.4 teachers per every central-office administrator in 1992-93 and 33:1 during the 2002-03 school year.

And what of the perception that administration has grown at the expense of instruction? A decrease in teacher-pupil ratio is generally applauded by citizens, parents and teachers as providing a better learning environment for children. Moreover, the public has been willing to pay for smaller classes and additional educational services. Several states have targeted dollars to reducing class sizes in the early grades in hopes these students receive the instructional support they need to master basic skills.

Over the past 15 years, ERS has found that the mean ratio of pupils to teachers, including teachers assigned to resource rooms and specialists, has declined, from 18.5 in 1992-93 to 16.2 in 2002-03. Because of some new state initiatives, these ratios may continue to decline. Coupled with the data on central-office administrative staff, these ratios demonstrate clearly that administrative staff has not been growing and has not detracted from the financial support for instruction.

John Forsyth is president and director of research of Educational Research Service, 2000 Clarendon Blvd., Arlington, VA 22201. E-mail:


John Forsyth

president and director of research

Educational Research Service