Punchback: Answering Critics

Countering Three Misconceptions About Administrators

by Kathleen McLane

Misinformation about every facet of our public schools is common in the mass media and in the blogosphere, and administrators are no exception when it comes to being the target of falsehoods and exaggeration.

Popular misconceptions about public school administrators stem from three erroneous assumptions: There are too many administrators, the number of administrators is growing rapidly and at the expense of classroom instruction, and school administrators are paid too much.

It is all too easy for critics of our school systems to sell these ideas to communities and policymakers eager to find reasons for the problems they perceive in public schooling today. But the numbers tell quite a different story.

Administrator Ranks
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, only 1.1 percent of all school district employees were central-office administrators during the 2005-06 school year (the most recent year available). Even when you add principals and assistant principals to the total, administrators still only represent 2.8 percent of the public school workforce.

We also can look at the data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. According to the bureau’s 2003 data, the ratio of employees per executive, administrator or manager is higher in elementary and secondary schools — 15.2 to 1 — than for most businesses examined. By contrast, the ratio in the information and publishing industry is 3.6 staffers to 1 executive or manager.

Administrative Costs
The second misconception about public schools suggests there are many more administrators than ever before and they have been hired in preference to adding more teachers.The best way of addressing this is to look at the distribution of employees in school districts and at the ratios of pupils to teachers and to central-office administrators across a span of time.

According to NCES data, while the total number of school district employees increased over a 10-year period, the proportion of staff in the different categories stayed substantially the same. For both the 1995-96 and 2005-06 school years, district administrators represented only 1 in every 100 district employees.

According to national data from the Educational Research Service’s annual survey, reported in Staffing Patterns in Public School Systems: Current Status and Trends, Update 2008, no significant shifts toward more administrative staff are in evidence. In the five years from 2002-03 to 2007-08, the study shows a 4.3 percent decline in pupil-teacher ratios and a 4 percent decline in the pupil-central office administrator ratio. In other words, the data do not indicate that the growth in administrative staff has negatively affected pupil-teacher ratios. In fact, both ratios have declined somewhat.

Administrator Salaries
The third common misconception is that administrators are paid too much, that their salaries are out of proportion to the salaries of teachers and administrators in other professions or industries. Once again, the data reveal a very different set of facts.

Recognize, however, that relative to other professions requiring similar training, teachers’ salaries are too low. But within that context, we still can find comparative data that are useful in assessing administrative salaries.

In comparing the salaries of administrators and teachers, we need to allow for differences in work years, credentials and, often, experience. Data collected by NCES and AASA indicate that superintendents average almost twice the number of years of experience as teachers, while principals average 22 years of experience compared to 14 years for teachers. In addition, about 90 percent of superintendents and nearly 44 percent of principals hold degrees beyond a master’s, while only 5.4 percent of teachers do.

It also may be enlightening to compare the salaries of education administrators with those of administrators in other industries. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics collects and publishes these data. In the data reported by the federal bureau in 2007, the median salary for education administrators was $82,120, while the average salary for internists was $167,270; for lawyers, $118,280; for corporate CEOs, $151,370; and for airline pilots, $148,810.

In Answering the Critics of School Administration: What Are the Facts? 2nd Edition, the Educational Research Service uses median salary data collected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics to calculate comparison ratios for administrative and non-administrative jobs in several professions. Here we find that the salary comparison ratio of teachers to school administrators is 1.61, but the ratio of registered nurses to internists is 2.68; the ratio of paralegals to lawyers is 2.48; the ratio of accountants and auditors to CEOs is 2.40; and the ratio of flight attendants to airline pilots, co-pilots and flight engineers is 2.37.

In other words, the difference between administrator and teacher salaries is a good deal smaller than for comparable positions in other industries. Anyone reviewing these data objectively may conclude that administrators are underpaid, not overpaid.

Kathleen McLane is chief knowledge officer of Educational Research Service in Alexandria, Va. E-mail: kmclane@ers.org. Nancy Protheroe, director of special research projects at ERS, contributed to this column.