Bursting the administrative bubble

Several blog readers have responded grumpily to my posts suggesting that states might be better off investing incremental education dollars in raising teacher salaries rather than hiring more teachers. Fair enough. But one point many of us have agreed on is that too much of the education budget has gone to hiring more and more administrators. I’ve linked to at least one study that supports this point. Now I’ve got much better ammunition!

According to today’s edition of the Education Gadfly Weekly (published by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute), a new study has found that:

Between 1950 and 2009, the number of K-12 public school students increased by 96 percent. During that same period, the number of full-time equivalent (FTE) school employees grew by 386 percent. Of those personnel, the number of teachers increased by 252 percent, while the ranks of administrators and other staff grew by 702 percent—more than 7 times the increase in students.


To put that in perspective, the same article notes that:

if student growth had matched that of non-teaching personnel from 1992 to 2009 and if the teaching force had only grown 1.5 times faster than the pupil enrollment, American public schools would have an additional $37.2 billion to spend per year—the equivalent of an $11,700 a year increase in salary for every American public school teacher.

By the way, the study  includes a state by state breakdown. From Fiscal Year 1992 to Fiscal Year 2009, the number of Utah public school students grew 23 percent. The number of Utah teachers grew 29 percent. The number of administrators and other staff grew 69 percent. So while Utah has not experienced the explosive education employment growth that many other states have witnessed (that won’t surprise any of you), the administrator increases still might offer some budget wiggle room.

The presidential candidates are currently dueling over how many new teachers school districts should hire (and, probably more importantly, which level of government should be making these hiring decisions.) Any chance we could spark a debate about how we could raise teacher salaries by thinning administrative ranks?

Here’s a direct link to the study.






  1. Samuel Jones

    It doesn’t help matters that each new charter school needs its own administrative staff. The Jordan/Canyons split also likely affected those results.

      • Mary McConnell

        Good question. I quick search unearthed the following study: http://www.ncspe.org/publications_files/OP201.pdf

        The Michigan State researchers have found that charter schools have lower per-pupil spending and somewhat higher administrative costs, although they add that this may be attributed in part to the higher administrative costs associated with start-ups. Economies of scale make a difference, too, which is probably one reason why larger-scale charter providers such as KIPP seem to be gaining ground in the charter movement.

        My guess is that charters also face a lot of reporting requirements from states eager to ensure that these schools spend taxpayer money wisely . . . or to harrass schools unpopular with supporters of the status quo . . . or, most likely, both. I’d be curious to hear comments from those of you in the charter school world.

  2. Malcolm Kirkpatrick

    The study: http://www.edchoice.org/Research/Reports/The-School-Staffing-Surge–Decades-of-Employment-Growth-in-Americas-Public-Schools.aspx

    Society gains nothing from a State (government, generally) role in the education industry greater than its role in the shoe industry of the dog grooming industry, an original assignment of title and a stable system of contract law. In abstract, the education industry is a very unlikely candidate for government operation since performance depends critically on intensely local knowledge (of individual students’ interests and abilities). While systematic (subject matter) expertise matters, non-experts can easily buy this in the form of boooks and tutors. Beyond a very low level, there are no economies of scale at the delivery end of the education industry. Per-pupil costs rise as school districts increase in size.
    The policy which compels attendance at school and which restricts parents’ options for the use of the taxpayers’ $500 billion+ per year pre-college education subsidy to schools operated by government employees originated 170 years ago in anti-Catholic bigotry. The State-monopoly school system has become an employment program for dues-paying members of the NEA/AFT/AFSCME cartel, a source of padded construction and consulting contracts for politically-connected insiders, and a venue for State-worshipful indoctrination.

  3. Keith

    The number of administrators has increased in direct proportion to the amount of federal involvement in education. Why? Because federal programs deliver federal money which is tracked with federal requirements. That of course means reports, which must be written by someone. There are also many things that school systems of today do that weren’t attempted decades ago. Every student, no matter how incapable of learning, is lavished with attention. Children who were once institutionalized are given personal tutors and caretakers and of course administrators to ensure everything is taken care of. That’s apart from the huge number of regular students who receive individualized educational plans because of behavioral problems or mild difficulties that would have been ignored or accommodated in the past. As long as we labor under the illusion that no child will be left behind we will have an ever larger education bureaucracy trying to do what cannot be done.

  4. theBuckWheat

    Just as bad, costs have ballooned as well. In some urban public schools, it costs in excess of $1 million to graduate a single student who is competent at their grade level in both math and science. When will we have the ability and honesty to admit the public school model is broken and that we simply do not have the wealth in this country to afford it?

    Our primary problem is one of structure and incentives. The “customer” of public tax money for education today is the professional education industry. And this customer is in collusion with public officials with whom they negotiate salary, credentials and even school accreditation. This cabal is riding high at the expense of the real customer, the parents and children while cynically exploiting the earnest desires of young teachers to be educators who make a difference in the lives of their students.

    The only way to fix this system is to make the parent the real customer again. This implies that the parents must be free to choose what school they send their children to, and that education be privatized. For many reasons, government is the last institution who should be educating our children.

  5. JD

    Did the study look at the increase in state and federal reporting mandates? My guess is a good percentage of administrative increase is due to creating state and federal reports. The paperwork is overwhelming!

    • Mary McConnell

      See my reply to the previous comment. But I’m sure that the explosion of mandates – at the state AND federal level – has contributed to this trend.

  6. Harvey

    Does the research say why districts hire more administrators? If you take a look at all the mandates legislators place on public schools, it’s easy to see why the need for administrators has grown. In Utah, for example, there are typically more than 100 bills proposed each year that impact public education. Each one passed requires additional administration time. Multiply this over years and you can see the problem. Our public school system is being crushed by demands and mandates. Districts, budgets, administrators, schools, and especially teachers, simply cannot keep up.

    • Mary McConnell

      Good question. Here’s a little more information from the report, suggesting that No Child Left Behind is not one, but by no means the only, culprit:
      Importantly, such growth cannot be attributed to the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law. During the pre-NCLB period, FY 1992 to FY 2001, public schools’ student population grew 13 percent while public education personnel rose 29 percent—a 23 percent increase for teachers and a 37 percent increase for administrators and other staff. Post-NCLB (FY 2002 to FY 2009), employment growth (7 percent) still outpaced student numbers (3 percent). Teachers and administrators increased at about the same rate of 7 percent.

      The chief difference between the NCLB era and the prior time period is the trend toward increasing non-teaching staff at a rate greater than teachers was halted—with NCLB, teachers and non-teaching staff both increased at the same rate (more than twice as fast as student enrollment). In both the pre- and post-NCLB periods analyzed, overall staffing in public education grew about 2.3 times faster than the increase in students.

      Compared to other nations’ schools, U.S. public schools devote significantly higher fractions of their operating budgets to non-teaching personnel—and lower portions to teachers. Meanwhile, the U.S. is one of the highest spending nations in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) when it comes to K-12 education.

    • Mary McConnell

      Many of my readers live in Utah, which ranks very low in per capita student spending, and has (thanks in no small part to its strong business climate) a relatively healthy economy. I’ve been arguing that if Utah DOES end up with additional revenues for education, the state should see this as an opportunity to invest that money strategically. I agree with you that many states are going to need to find ways to reduce education spending as well as spending more wisely.

  7. Royal Everdeen

    An overlooked reason for the growth of administrative services is two-fold:

    1. The statistic is skewed and as they say, the devils are in the details. For this statistical set, any teacher holding an administrative certificate is now counted as an administer in the school as well as being counted as a teacher. More and more teachers are getting their administrative certificates as teacher respect diminishes and teacher pay and job stability become volatile.

    2. Administrative costs are increasing as the state and federal government continue to make more and more demands on schools and accountability measures. Somebody needs to collect the reams and reams of data that must be submitted annually to the state and federal bureaucracies.

    I have said this before and I will say it again, the more the state and federal government asserts their control over education, the more it costs.

    Even with the rise in administrative costs, education is poorly funded as compared to the past. In 1961, the average annual education expenditure per student was $2,800. In 2008 (the high point) it was $11,000 dollars. That may seem like a steep jump and in terms of actual dollars it is, but when adjusted for inflation (buying power) $2,800 1961 dollars would need $23,000 2012 dollars to have the same effect. In other words, education has received less and less funding as compared to the early 1960’s. It is no wonder schools are struggling. It is amazing that Utah’s schools can even function when they have finally caught up to the national average for education spending in the mid-1970’s.

    • Brooke Econ

      The data used in this study are from the NCES on teaching and non-teaching staff (administrators and other staff). Those counted as non-teaching staff are not teaching, so they are not double counted as both teachers and administrators.

      Also, if you read the study he addresses the question of whether more federal control through the No Child Left Behind Act resulted in the need to hire more staff to keep up with additional paperwork. As he shows, this was not the case. The rate at which non-teaching staff were hired did not change post-NCLB; the only change in hiring that occurred after NCLB was the rate of teaching staff was increased to that of non-teaching staff.

      And, the inflation-adjusted spending per pupil has risen 375% since 1970 (http://edworkforce.house.gov/uploadedfiles/02.10.11_coulson.pdf). I’m not sure where you got your data, but even when adjusting for inflation the spending per pupil has risen by almost a factor of 4.

      • Mary McConnell

        Thanks for the clarification. I inquired because one reader suggested that teachers working as administrators as well were double-counted.

  8. Forrest

    I used to live on an island near seattle a couple of years ago. While out driving I’d occassionally pass a big construction site that covered a couple acres and was taking shape to be a multi storied complex and large parking lot. The tempoary sign said something about the school district so I figured that it was a new school. One day I drove by after it was finished and saw that this whole complex was not a school, but rather an massive office complex for the school district! As I stared at it I wondered how on Earth a single and relatively small suburban school district, on an island, could employ so much staff who did nothing in relation to working with the kids. Needless to say, I vote against every school levy I see anymore, as our K-12 in WA is obviously flush with cash Even though they constantly whine to this day about funding, I look back to that massive office building and think to myself, there’s where our moneys going, it’s bureaucratic bloat all the way!

  9. Carolyn Sharette

    Charter schools have not succeeded in creating schools with less paperwork and reporting. We are required to do everything the traditional districts do – as well as all the reporting at the school level. So we actually have a double burden – school-level AND district-level reporting.

    State and federal reporting are both onerous, but I would say state reporting has the most room for improvement with regard to efficiency, eliminating duplicated reports, and allowing us to only send data once and then using it for multiple reports, etc.

    This may not seem like a relevant point, but I believe if elementary education programs had “gates” at the university level that required rigorous content-focused prerequisites, and were competitive programs that produced top-tier teaching candidates, this would translate into less “administrators” needed. I believe instructional coaches are not considered “teaching” staff but are considered “administrative” staff. Coaching is the new wave of admin. employees and are needed in increasing numbers due to the ill preparation of elementary teachers coming out of ed schools. This is also true to some extent in secondary.

    • Mary McConnell

      This strikes me as a very plausible response to the charter school/administrator issue. One too often ignored benefit of basing evaluations on outputs rather than inputs is that this approach is administratively simpler.

  10. howard beale

    I would think coaches helping teachers in the classroom would be better than a bunch of paper pushers in the district office.

    • Mary McConnell

      It’s a good question, but I don’t have the data to answer it. (I share reports, but don’t myself have the raw data or, frankly, the number-crunching skills.)

      What I DO know is that Catholic schools get by with many fewer administrators. Of course, they don’t face the overlapping reporting requirement that many charters confront.

  11. Lori Barry

    If there were no charter schools in Utah, how much would that change the data on the number of administrators we have, or the percentage of increase for administrative positions?


    My question would be is why are we demanding to raise our teachers salaries simply because we surmise that there has been unexplainable increase in administrators?
    Why do we not first suggest returning those dollars spent back to the people?
    This constant cry to increase teachers pay is falling more and more onto deaf ears.
    We are tired of how much our schools cost when compared to the product they produce.

  13. Allen Cichanski

    I was a college professor for thirty seven years. Year after year more and more administrators where hired at high salaries and except for making more pointless paperwork for all of us I never knew why they were needed. They had no effect whatsoever on what we taught, how we taught or how well the students learned. Maybe the old sayings, “those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach. Those who can’t do or teach become administrators.”

  14. Yak_Herder

    The evidence is before us. We don’t have to guess or offer personal opinion.

    The Jordan School District was split into the Jordan and Canyons School Districts. Compare and contrast the costs before and after.

    It ain’t rocket surgery.

    “Economy of scale” is a false notion. Smaller districts are cheaper.

    Smaller districts also hold the promise of better meeting the needs of the students. Parents would be (by necessity) more involved and it would be much, much harder to hide in the district office. None contributors and pet projects would disappear very quickly.

    Districts consisting of only one high school and its “feeder” schools would be ideal. Any larger and things start to go South.

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