What Chester Finn’s Fordham Institute Gets Wrong about School Principals

Jacoba Urist in The Atlantic asks, “Should Principals Be Treated Like CEOs?”

Urist references a new report just released by Finn’s Fordham Institute. Chester Finn’s answer is “Yes, principals should be treated like CEOs.” As usual, he’s clueless. And offensive.

According to Finn’s Fordham Institute, inadequate salaries and limited power over key hiring decisions make the job an increasingly tougher sell. Consequently, good principals come and go. Their solution? “Stop viewing principals as ‘glorified teachers’ and more as “executives with expertise in instruction, operations, and finance.” “To that end,” Finn believes, “principals should earn considerably more than other school staff who have less responsibility.”  As in $100k more.

Hey Chester, the term “glorified teachers” is revealing. Now we know how you feel about the lifeblood of schools. Most teachers have at least as much expertise in instruction as their principals most of whom haven’t taught on a daily basis for decades.

And your suggested pay “bump” reveals how little you know about school culture, administrator-teacher relations, and faculty morale more generally. A typical teacher makes $50k, a principal, $120k*. Both work extremely hard and have lots of responsibility if you count shaping 30 children’s or 150 adolescents’s lives. The current pay gap often breeds animosity and contributes to adversarial relations. You’re proposing doubling the gap again, so that school CEO’s make four times more than teachers. The predictable result? Twice the current animosity.

In fairness, Finn deserves credit for acknowledging that an additional $100k by itself won’t solve the problem of attracting and retaining a new generation of excellent principals if they’re not given greater professional respect and autonomy. But Checker fails to connect the dots. Those are the exact same things teachers want and deserve.

Far more insightful than Finn is Todd Whitaker, professor of educational leadership at Indiana State University and author of the book What GreatPrincipals Do Differently. Whitaker says, “. . . most principals would rather have a full-time assistant than a hefty raise. It’s not necessarily even the hours. It’s the intensity. The truth is, if we gave principals an assistant or a lot more money, we probably end up giving them increased responsibilities and we’re right back where we started.”

Urist adds:

In other words,  one way to fix the leadership shortage may be not increased salary, but additional funding for assistant principals, school counselors, and other administrative support staff. Principals are like all people with high responsibility, according to Kate Rousmaniere, professor of educational leadership at Miami University, Oxford, Ohio and author of The Principal’s Office: A Social History of the American School Principal. They work better in teams, where they can share the workload.

Urist honors the complexity of the topic by concluding with questions:

The task, then, is to strike the right balance. How much should we pay principals to attract new talent, and how much additional support do they need to meet the demands of the modern job? How do we make the role more appealing to promising candidates without pouring more money into retaining ineffective people already in place?

Given the ratio of administrators to teachers, even paying principals a lot more would be considerably less expensive for districts. However, doing so will result in unintended consequences, most of which will be negative.

* I call bullshit on the “in many districts some aspiring teachers take a pay cut on the way to the principal’s office” assertion. There may be an isolated case or two of that, the technical term being “outlier”, but the average teacher doubles his/her pay when they become administrators.


6 thoughts on “What Chester Finn’s Fordham Institute Gets Wrong about School Principals

  1. School administration is more complex than teaching in classroom settings. Not that classroom teaching is easier but less complicated in addressing multiple concerns. This isn’t to diminish the teacher but simply to justify a higher salary for a more complex job as principle.

    However, principles as administrators along with their teachers are ultimately responsible for a quality education. If this is the goal and aspirations of those who devote their lives to teaching then this ultimately should be the top criteria for selecting candidates that fill the principle positions. Being motivated by money is a poor model to attract principles. The CEO models that focus on ROI should not use capital per se but graduation levels and those graduates accepted to the better colleges.

    But I suspect if you checked the reading list of people like Jacoba Urist you would find much about free markets rather than principles of teaching. The goal of corporate-minded advocates within the realm of education these days seems much more about pumping out useful tools to support their businesses than to stimulate thought that reaches outside what the status quo wants.

    • Thanks. I agree with you and would add meeting their responsibilities requires more time. Thus, I support paying principals more, just not four times more. Also, I think Urist told the story in a fair and balanced manner. Finn, on the other hand, is definitely corporate-minded.

  2. Just got back from Germany. My friend is a principal in a high performing school. She does not discipline students nor does she evaluate teachers. All German principals must teach one class per semester. Just some ideas..

  3. Pingback: This Week’s Links « Timothy Siburg

  4. Too bad you left Germany right before their World Cup semifinal game! No doubt an early start to Octoberfest. And I’m guessing your friend has administrative teammates that do those things?

  5. I was in Germany for the USA/Deutschland game. Teachers do not get any evaluation after being hired. They spend much more collaborative time on preparation. I asked about discipline: a minor problem they call the parents, a major one they call the police. They only have two standardized tests: one at the end of 8th grade and one at (and for) graduation. The real success story is their training for technical jobs.

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