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Reflections on the Past

Mission Creep and School Administration
By Robert Van der Eyken
Reflections on the Past

Recently, a childhood friend posted photos of our eighth-grade graduation photo on her Facebook page. It got me thinking and looking at our Dr. John Seaton Junior High (grades six-eight) 1979 yearbook. Our graduating class had 95 students in a small rural community of Southern Ontario, Canada. A school of approximately 285 students in total, including three “special education classes” from the days before inclusion, whose students were incorporated into all non-academic classes.

Dr. Seaton was a great rural public school. Lots of intramural and intercollegiate sports, a full industrial arts program from woodworking to welding, home economics, dedicated art and music rooms, French classes, annual musical productions, extracurriculars from macrame to motorcycle mechanics, long before video games, and exciting outdoor education programs. A program worthy of any international school I have worked at over nearly 30 years, and excellent teachers. I remember the school’s only Science teacher teaching us, in detail, about carbon-fuel based climate change. He and his students were ahead of the curve. I can say the same for all of our teachers and the level of education they gave us. They inspired me to be an educator.

It could be argued that today teachers have to add a lot due to technology. True, we did not have computers or even calculators in junior high. Conversely, our teachers back in the day worked with film projectors, ditto machines, and filled out report cards by hand or on typewriters with carbon paper.

A robust program for 300 students and a yearbook staff page with exactly 22 adults, including the principal, his secretary, Frank the custodian, and Mr. Smith, both math teacher and vice-principal. A total of nineteen teachers and one full-time administrator in an excellent school by any standards.

Since 1979, the ratio of teachers and especially non-instructional staff to students has grown significantly. At the same time, relative pay for teachers compared to other professions has decreased. More people but not more salary for them. The labor market has also changed, especially for women. Today women with graduate level education earn 40% more than female teachers with the same level of education (For Teachers, the Money Keeps Getting, The Atlantic Sept. 6, 2019) By Sylvia Allegretto). Regardless of gender, it is increasingly difficult to recruit and retain the best and most talented people to teach.

I could fill this article with research on classroom size reduction. The final paragraph would be, it is very popular, extremely political and with little conclusive, well-designed studies showing significant, if any, impact on learning beyond the early years. It is, however, one of, if not the, most expensive educational reform. Reducing US average class size by just one student would cost an additional $12 billion dollars  (Class Size: What Research Says and What it Means for State Policy, Matthew M. Chingos and Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, Brookings, Wednesday, May 11, 2011). Could that have a more positive impact if spent differently?

Today, many international schools are facing additional costs and negative impact on enrollment income due to COVID-19. Acknowledging the political minefield of adjusting classroom size, schools may want to consider reducing the numbers in administration, particularly foreign administrators, most often the highest paid positions. If your school has been in existence for some time, as where I work, I can guarantee going back 20, 30, or more years you will see that there has been a “mission creep” towards more non-teaching academic and leadership roles. While teacher pay has stagnated over the past two decades, the percentage of school budgets going to administrators has skyrocketed. For example, half of the US states now have more non-instructional personnel than teachers. One county in South Carolina had 30 administrators earning over $100,000 in 2013. At the start of COVID-19, it had 133 administrators earning more than $100,000 (Growth in Administrative Staff, Assistant Principals Far Outpaces Teacher Hiring, Ira Stoll, Education Next, Summer 2021 Vol. 21, No. 3).

In consultation with AISH school leaders from around the world, it is clear that efficiency and effectiveness start at the top. Distributive leadership, delegating more leadership tasks to more non-administrators is key. This creates increased engagement and commitment, collective responsibility for the school’s success, encourages teamwork and sharing of ideas for generating new solutions to old problems, more effective decision-making, knowledge-sharing across the school, increased openness and trust, smoother succession planning through identifying and nurturing leadership potential in others earlier, and saves money that can go to the true agents of learning - teachers!

In conclusion, get out some old yearbooks. You may learn something and you will definitely gain respect for your predecessors.

Articles regarding increases in administrative and non-instructional roles in schools:

Growth in Administrative Staff, Assistant Principals Far Outpaces Teacher Hiring by Ira Stoll Education Next Summer 2021 Vol. 21, No. 3

The Hidden Half of School Employees Who Do Not Teach by Matthew Richmond, Fordham Institute

The School Staffing Surge Part 2 by Benjamin Scafidi, Friedman Foundation, Feb. 2013

Chart of the Day: Administrative Bloat in US Public Schools by Mark J. Perry, American Enterprise Institute, March 2013

Administrators Ate My Tuition, by Benjamin Ginsberg, Washington Monthly, October 2011

Robert Van der Eyken is the Director Academia Cotopaxi, Quito, Ecuador. He has been an international educator and leader for over 25 years in Latin America, Africa, Asia and Europe. 

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