School Administrator Career

School administrators are leaders who plan and set goals related to the educational, administrative, and counseling programs of schools. They coordinate and evaluate the activities of teachers and other school personnel to ensure that they adhere to deadlines and budget requirements and meet established objectives. There are approximately 442,000 school administrators employed in the United States.

History of School Administrator Career

School Administrator CareerThe history of school administrators is almost as old as the history of education itself. The first American colonists of the 17th century set up schools in their homes. In the 18th century, groups of prosperous parents established separate schools and employed schoolmasters. In these small early schools, the teachers were also the administrators, charged with the operation of the school as well as with the instruction of the pupils.

In the early 1800s, the importance of education gained recognition among people from all classes of society and the government became involved in providing schooling without cost to all children. Schools grew larger, a more complex system of education evolved, and there developed a demand for educators specializing in the area of administration.

In the United States, each state has its own school system, headed by a state superintendent or commissioner of education who works in conjunction with the state board of education. The states are divided into local school districts, which may vary in size from a large urban area to a sparsely populated area containing a single classroom. The board of education in each district elects a professionally trained superintendent or supervising principal to administer the local schools. In most school districts the superintendent has one or more assistants, and in a very large district a superintendent may also be assisted by business managers, directors of curriculum, or research and testing personnel. Individual schools within a district are usually headed by a school principal, with one or more assistant principals. The administrative staff of a very large secondary school may also include deans, registrars, department heads, counselors, and others.

The problems of school administrators today are much more complex than in the past and require political as well as administrative skills. School leaders are confronted by such volatile issues as desegregation, school closings and reduced enrollments, contract negotiations with teachers, student and staff safety, and greatly increased costs coupled with public resistance to higher taxes.

The Job of School Administrators

The occupation of school administrator includes school district superintendents, assistant superintendents, school principals, and assistant principals. Private schools also have administrators, often known as school directors or headmasters. Administrators in either public or private schools are responsible for the smooth, efficient operation of an individual school or an entire school system, depending on the size and type of the school or the size of the district. They make plans, set goals, and supervise and coordinate the activities of teachers and other school personnel in carrying out those plans within the established time framework and budget allowance. The general job descriptions that follow refer to administrators in the public school system.

School principals far outnumber the other school administrators and are the most familiar to the students, who often think of them as disciplinarians. Principals spend a great deal of time resolving conflicts that students and teachers may have with one another, with parents, or with school board policies, but their authority extends to many other matters. They are responsible for the performance of an individual school, directing and coordinating educational, administrative, and counseling activities according to standards set by the superintendent and the board of education. They hire and assign teachers and other staff, help them improve their skills, and evaluate their performance. They plan and evaluate the instructional programs jointly with teachers. Periodically, they visit classrooms to observe the effectiveness of the teachers and teaching methods, review educational objectives, and examine learning materials, always seeking ways to improve the quality of instruction.

Principals are responsible for pupils’ registration, schedules, and attendance. In cases of severe educational or behavioral problems, they may confer with teachers, students, parents, and counselors and recommend corrective measures. They cooperate with community organizations, colleges, and other schools to coordinate educational services. They oversee the day-to-day operations of the school building and requisition and allocate equipment, supplies, and instructional materials.

A school principal’s duties necessitate a great deal of paperwork: filling out forms, preparing administrative reports, and keeping records. They also spend much of each day meeting with people: teachers and other school personnel, colleagues, students, parents, and other members of the community.

In larger schools, usually secondary schools, principals may have one or more assistants. Assistant principals, who may be known as deans of students, provide counseling for individuals or student groups related to personal problems, educational or vocational objectives, and social and recreational activities. They often handle discipline, interviewing students, and taking whatever action is necessary in matters such as truancy and delinquency. Assistant principals generally plan and supervise social and recreational programs and coordinate other school activities.

Superintendents manage the affairs of an entire school district, which may range in size from a small town with a handful of schools to a city with a population of millions. Superintendents must be elected by the board of education to oversee and coordinate the activities of all the schools in the district in accordance with board of education standards. They select and employ staff and negotiate contracts. They develop and administer budgets, the acquisition and maintenance of school buildings, and the purchase and distribution of school supplies and equipment. They coordinate related activities with other school districts and agencies. They speak before community and civic groups and try to enlist their support. In addition, they collect statistics, prepare reports, enforce compulsory attendance, and oversee the operation of the school transportation system and provision of health services.

School district superintendents usually have one or more assistants or deputies, whose duties vary depending on the size and nature of the school system. Assistant superintendents may have charge of a particular geographic area or may specialize in activities pertaining, for example, to budget, personnel, or curriculum development.

Boards of education vary in their level of authority and their method of appointment or election to the post of board member. Normally, board members are elected from leaders in the community in business and education. It is not uncommon for the board either to be selected by the mayor or other city administrator, or to be elected directly.

School Administrator Career Requirements

High School

School administration calls for a high level of education and experience. For this reason, you should begin preparing for the job by taking a wide range of college preparatory courses, including English, mathematics, science, music, art, and history. Computer science and business classes will also be beneficial. A broad secondary school education will help you as you pursue your college degrees and gain admittance into strong colleges of education.

Postsecondary Training

Principals and assistant principals are generally required to have a master’s degree in educational administration in addition to several years’ experience as a classroom teacher.

School superintendents usually must have had graduate training in educational administration, preferably at the doctoral level. Some larger districts require a law degree or a business degree in addition to a graduate degree in education. Candidates for the position of school superintendent generally must have accumulated previous experience as an administrator.

Around 250 universities offer graduate programs in educational administration accredited by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education. Programs are designed specifically for elementary school principals, secondary school principals, or school district superintendents, and include such courses as school management, school law, curriculum development and evaluation, and personnel administration. A semester of internship and field experience are extremely valuable.

Certification or Licensing

Licensure of school administrators is mandatory in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Requirements to become licensed may include U.S. citizenship or state residency, graduate training in educational administration, experience, and good health and character. In some states, candidates must pass a qualifying examination. You can obtain information on specific requirements from the department of education in your state.

The Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium (ISLLC) developed and established standards, assessments, professional development, and licensing procedures for school leaders. The ISLLC aimed to raise the bar for school leaders to enter and remain in the profession, and to reshape concepts of educational leadership. While the ISLLC is no longer in operation, its intentions remain strong—35 states have either adopted or adapted the ISLLC standards and are in different stages of implementing them.

The Educational Testing Service (ETS) offers the School Leaders Licensure Assessment (SLLA) test, which measures whether or not entry-level principals and other school leaders are fit for professional practice. ETS also offers the School Superintendent Assessment (SSA) test, which measures an administrator’s understanding of ISLLC standards.

Other Requirements

You should have leadership skills necessary for keeping the school operating smoothly. You also need good communication skills and the ability to get along with many different types and ages of people. Strong self-motivation and self-confidence are important for putting your plans into action, and for withstanding criticism.

Exploring School Administrator Career

If you’ve been attending a private or public school, you’re already very familiar with the nature of education and already know many great resources of information, such as your own teachers and school administrators. Talk to your teachers about their work, and offer to assist them with some projects before or after school. School counselors can offer vocational guidance, provide occupational materials, and help students plan appropriate programs of study.

You can gain experience in the education field by getting a summer job as a camp counselor or day care center aide, working with a scouting group, volunteering to coach a youth athletic team, or tutoring younger students.


There are approximately 442,000 education administrators employed throughout the United States. Principals work in either public or private schools at the elementary or secondary level. Superintendents work for a school district, which may include many elementary and secondary schools. School administrators are also needed for large preschools and job training programs.

Starting Out

Most school administrators enter the field as teachers. College and university placement offices may help place you in your first teaching job, or you may apply directly to a local school system. Teachers, of course, must meet the requirements for state licensure. Many school districts and state departments of education maintain job listings that notify potential teachers and administrators of openings. Qualified candidates may also come from other administrative jobs, such as curriculum specialist, financial adviser, or director of audiovisual aids, libraries, arts, or special education. The important thing is having experience in organizing and supervising school programs and activities.


A teacher may be promoted directly to principal, but more often teachers begin as assistant principals and in time are promoted. Experienced administrators may advance to assistant superintendent and then superintendent. In fact, many school superintendents are former principals who worked their way up the administrative ladder. Each increase in responsibility usually carries a corresponding salary increase.


The income of school administrators depends on the position, the level of responsibility, and the size and geographic location of the school or school district. The highest salaries are paid in the far western and mid- Atlantic states; the lowest are in the Southeast.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the median annual salary of elementary and secondary school education administrators was $74,190 in 2004. Salaries ranged from less than $33,000 to more than $100,000.

According to a survey conducted by the Educational Research Service for the 2004–05 school year, assistant principals earned median salaries of $63,398 a year in elementary schools, $66,319 a year in middle and junior high schools, and $68,945 in high schools. Elementary school principals made about $74,062 a year, junior high school principals made $78,160 a year, and high school principals made $82,225.

School administrators also receive a variety of other benefits including health insurance, retirement plans, and vacation and sick leave.

Work Environment

School administrators work a standard 40-hour week, although they often attend meetings or handle urgent matters in the evenings or on weekends. The job requires year-round attention, even during school vacations.

Administrators work in pleasant office environments, usually at a desk. At times, however, they attend meetings elsewhere with PTA members, the school board, and civic groups. Principals and their assistants periodically sit in on classes, attend school assemblies and sporting events, and conduct inspections of the school’s physical facilities.

School Administrator Career Outlook

The U.S. Department of Education predicts that enrollment of preschool and elementary school students will increase slowly over the next few years. In addition, many school administrators will be reaching retirement age. There is a shortage of qualified candidates to fill those positions. One issue is education: More than half (54 percent) of working superintendents don’t have doctoral degrees, but many school boards prefer candidates with doctorates. Other issues include the perception that school administration is too political, low pay, and constraints on moving between districts. These are just some of the factors that contribute to the faster than average job growth predicted for this field through 2014.

The number of school administrators employed is determined to a large extent by state and local expenditures for education. Budget cuts affect not only the number of available positions in administration, but also how an administrator can perform his or her job. Administrators in the coming years will have to remain creative in finding funds for their schools. School administrators are also faced with developing additional programs for children as more parents work outside the home. Schools may be expected to help care for children before and after regular school hours.

Administrators may also be overseeing smaller learning environments in the coming years. Research has proven that smaller classrooms and more individual attention not only improve education but also help educators identify students with personal and emotional problems. In order to keep students safe from violence, drug abuse, and street gangs, administrators may be called upon to develop more individualized education.

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