Ignoring the facts seems to be the ever-present mindset of state legislators, the public and the press these days when addressing the cost of public school administration. My reading of news reports and conversations with colleagues nationwide affirms that our experience in New Jersey parallels that of other states as the economic downturn has placed even greater scrutiny on the cost of public education.
Legislators, bloggers and editorial writers rail against the number of public school administrators and their salaries.
In particular, six myths about school administration and related costs seem especially ripe for debunking. We can do this by examining the data available in our states and nationwide.
Myth 1: School administration is just another layer of government bureaucrats whose work brings nothing meaningful to student achievement.Reality: Timothy Waters and Robert Marzano completed a meta-analysis of research for Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning on the influence of school district leaders on student performance in which they found a statistically significant positive relationship between district leadership and student achievement. The researchers reported that effective superintendents focus on creating goal-oriented districts and that superintendent tenure is positively correlated with student achievement.
Myth 2: Superintendent salaries in our state are out of line with those in other states.
Reality: In 2008, the New Jersey Association of School Administrators hired the American Institutes for Research to complete a comparative study of the context and compensation of school administrators. The research found the average salary in New Jersey is approximately $4,000 lower than the superintendents' salaries in the Mideast region when considering the effect of regional cost-of-living adjustments.
Educational Research Service's annual report "Salaries and Wages Paid Professional and Support Personnel in Public Schools" provides useful data that disaggregate salaries of various positions by size of school district, region of the country, per-pupil expenditure level and community type.
Myth 3: Superintendent salaries exceed those in comparable jobs outside education.
Reality: The study we commissioned found that universities and college presidents in New Jersey with comparable student populations to that of superintendents earn more than double what superintendents make. Hospital CEOs in our state, who oversee comparable workforces to those in school systems, earn more than four times the salary of a superintendent. Corporate CEOs collect on average more than six times the average salary of a superintendent.
Myth 4: School administration costs are a huge chunk of school district budgets, and our state's costs exceed those of others.
Reality: Despite popular perceptions about the percentage of the school dollar going to administration, nationally 10.8 percent of school districts' current expenditures are devoted to school administration, according to reports published by the National Center for Education Statistics. New Jersey devoted 9.5 percent of its current expenditures to administration, according to the most recent report.
Myth 5: Too many school administrators have been added to the payroll over the years.
Reality: Between 1989-90 and 2005-06, student population in our state grew 30 percent, the number of teachers increased by 47 percent and support staff expanded by 50 percent. School administrators and supervisors increased by only 2.6 percent during the same period, according to New Jersey Department of Education statistics. National data illustrate a similar student enrollment trend with administrative and teaching staff hiring increases keeping pace with that of students.
Myth 6: School administration costs more in smaller school districts than in larger ones.
Reality: The data for New Jersey, which has nearly 600 school districts, demonstrate the average cost per pupil in K-6, K-8 and K-12 school systems is remarkably similar. Data collected by the National Center for Education Statistics show that states with larger school systems don't automatically have a lower percentage of the budget allocated to administrative costs. New Jersey ranks 8th lowest in the nation (tied with West Virginia) in the percentage of current K-12 education expenditures dedicated to administrative work.
"Don't confuse me with the facts; I know what I believe!"
Commonplace assumptions about school administration don't hold up to the scrutiny of facts. As our nation's leaders consider reform in health care, where administration accounts for a 31 percent share of expenditures, elected officials might do well to emulate public school administrators in managing complex organizations with a demanding clientele.
Perhaps then our legislators and public critics would recognize and appreciate the efficiency of the public school administrative system.
Richard Bozza is the executive director of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators in Trenton.