What Administrators Do

by Erin Hasinger
What Administrators Do

Behind every school is a team of hardworking administrators who oversee everything from curriculum development to budgets to discipline. The most visible in the school district is the superintendent, while each individual school is run by a principal. At the college level, the president leads the entire campus, while deans lead each college or department. There are dozens of other administrative positions at both the K-12 and post-secondary level, all working in tandem to ensure a positive, progressive educational environment. Nearly half a million administrators worked in the United States last year, and this article will examine the various roles in education administration and the steps it takes to reach such a pivotal position within a school system.

Who Are the Administrators?


  • Superintendents are the district’s top-level administrator and hold ultimate responsibility for everything that occurs within the school system.
  • Principals are responsible for all personnel in a particular school, including their hiring, training, evaluation, and motivation. They also work with teachers to develop and maintain high curriculum standards; plan budgets; formulate school policy and goals; and ensure academic standards are met (especially those dictated by federal, state, and local governments).
  • Assistant or vice principals have more responsibility for the day-to-day operation of the school, including scheduling classes; ordering textbooks; coordinating transportation, custodial, cafeteria, and other services; student discipline; social/recreational programs; health and safety issues; working with the principal to develop curriculum; evaluation of teachers; and management of school-community relations.
  • Subject-area administrators are responsible for everything that falls under a particular subject, such as mathematics. They evaluate curriculum and teaching techniques and handle testing and class placement.
  • Other administrators might include directors of college counseling, athletic directors, or directors of student affairs, who oversee particular programs within a school system.


  • Presidents are often the most visible face of the college or university. They serve as chief executive officer and generally are responsible for planning programs and developing innovative ideas; leadership of the entire college system, and external relations. They hold ultimate responsibility for the performance of the university.
  • Provosts assist presidents; appoint faculty; make decisions about tenure; develop budgets, academic policies, and programs; and direct deans and chairpersons of departments.
  • Deans of admissions recruit, evaluate, and admit students based on the college’s established acceptance criteria.
  • Directors of development oversee a college’s fundraising efforts.
  • Academic deans direct the individual colleges or departments that comprise a college or university. They also handle academic issues that affect their department or college.
  • Deans of students oversee student programs and ensure the well-being of students.
  • Department heads/chairs’ responsibilities including teaching classes, coordinating schedules, making teaching assignments, developing budgets, and hiring and evaluating faculty.
  • Registrars register students, maintain records and transcripts, record grades, plan commencement, develop schedules and catalogs, and maintain enrollment and other statistics.
  • Student services coordinators (such as vice presidents of student affairs or student life) are responsible for student programs, such as resident life, health, counseling, and career services.

Rewards & Challenges

Sherryl Duff-Conrad has been principal of Linton Middle School in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, for seven years and says the most rewarding part of her job is “resolving the challenges of students and staff in regard to achievement and success.”

“Truly, the people make the place,” adds Duff-Conrad.

In fact, most administrators say that working with students and other staff and watching them flourish in an educational environment is the greatest reward of the job.

Ruben Mirabal worked for many years in administration, both as personnel specialist for Albuquerque Public Schools and chief operations officer for Santa Fe Public Schools in New Mexico. As a personnel specialist, Mirabal says his greatest reward was hiring new teachers. “I always felt a sense of renewal to see the enthusiasm and idealism that new teachers brought to the profession.”

Joan Goodrich, vice president for planning and special programs at Bennington College in Bennington, Vermont, says, “It’s nice to have some input in the major decisions that affect campus, and also to know I’m making a difference.”

Administrators also list having a positive effect on the lives of students and teachers as one of the greatest rewards of the job. Motivating teachers, meeting achievement goals, and leading others to success are other commonly noted rewarding aspects of administrative positions.

Conversely, Duff-Conrad says her greatest reward is also her greatest challenge.

Mirabal cites “balancing the demands placed on me by the school board, community, my directors, principals, and other employees” while working as chief operating officer as his greatest challenge.

“In a large district, it seems that there is always a crisis of one sort or another almost every day,” he adds. “Dealing with those crises and maintaining the normal operation of the district was a daily challenge.”

Job responsibilities have changed greatly for administrators over the years. Mirabal notes the number of rules and regulations that have come into play over the last 35 years, as well as the increase in special programs, such bilingual and special education offerings, which require administrative support that did not exist 35 years ago. Duff-Conrad says that in her seven years, she has seen an increase in the number of disruptive students.

Increasing cultural diversity and requirements of major legislation, such as the No Child Left Behind Act, have also significantly impacted the profession, as more time and training must be dedicated to both.

Educational Requirements

To become a K-12 administrator, candidates generally have earned a master’s degree (often in education administration or educational leadership) or doctoral degree (typically a doctorate in education, or Ed. D). Before embarking upon the administrative path, educators usually spend several years teaching and then move into supporting administrative positions before advancing to roles as principal or superintendent. Some states require administrators be licensed for their positions.

Requirements are similar at the post-secondary level. Top positions usually require one to have significant experience as a professor as well as a terminal degree, such as a Ph. D. or Ed. D.

Salary Range

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in May 2004, median salaries for administrators were $74,190 for K-12 administrators and $68,340 for post-secondary administrators.

Principals’ average salaries ranged from $74,062 to $82,225, depending on whether employment was at the elementary, middle, or senior high school level. Assistant principal salaries ranged from $63,398 to $68,945.

According to a survey by Education Research Service, the average superintendent salary during the 2004-2004 school year was $125,609. Some superintendents of larger school districts have salaries well surpassing the average, and with bonuses and other benefits, salary packages have been known to exceed $400,000. College presidents receive similar compensation, with the highest paid earning upwards of $500,000.

Other median salaries for post-secondary administration, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, include $127,066 for the chief academic officer; $114,400 for the chief development officer; $63,130 for the director of financial aid; and $61,953 for the registrar.

Advice to Aspiring Administrators

Many new school administrators are shocked when the reality of the job hits them. New administrators are often unprepared for the long hours, daily crises, and overall stress that comes from the new leadership position. Three veteran administrators offer their best advice to those aspiring to administrative roles:

Duff-Conrad says new and future administrators should decide carefully when choosing a position to pursue and find the best fit. She also suggests getting the best education possible without shortcuts, and finally, to be prepared to work longer hours than thought possible.

Goodrich suggests aspiring administrators talk to experienced administrators. “The more information you get through talking and listening, the better,” she says. Being a good listener, she adds, also helps prepare one for an administrative position.

“There is nothing that prepares one better for school administration than teaching,” says Mirabal. “The skills and talents developed and refined as a veteran teacher are not lost when one becomes a school administrator. One becomes a better administrator as a result.”


School administration offers positions that require excellent education and years of experience to handle the fast-paced nature of the work and high stress levels. But stress and long hours are met with good salaries and the reward of making an impact on the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, of students on a daily basis.


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