Time to Rethink Upside-Down Patterns in Compensating Educators

Time to Rethink Upside-Down Patterns in Compensating Educators

It was a brouhaha that left many students and parents in Florida’s capital city without a beloved principal. But for folks well beyond Tallahassee (and even Florida) it ought to serve as a wake-up call for dramatically re-thinking our society’s upside-down patterns in compensating educators.

Here’s what happened:  on the Friday before Independence Day, the superintendent of Leon County Schools announced that Leon High School principal Rocky Hanna had been “promoted” to a district office administrative role. The news startled almost everyone (including Hanna) and evoked an immediate firestorm.

Angry parents and students organized a rally to protest the move. The local newspaper – and many prominent residents – urged the superintendent to rethink his decision. And recent graduates wrote articles and letters describing how Hanna belonged at Leon High, “not at some district office desk job.” 

To be sure, Hanna seemed perfectly suited for his position as principal of Florida’s oldest public high school. He is a graduate of Leon High, part of a family with deep roots at the school, and an inspirational leader who enthusiastically celebrated his students’ achievements in the classroom, on the athletic field, and in the performing arts.

In addition, Hanna distinguished himself at Leon by giving special attention to an often-overlooked population: “regular” students that are neither high achievers nor potential dropouts. Moreover, Hanna won plaudits throughout the community for pulling often-hilarious stunts to rally Leon students to participate in various community service projects.                   

So, why did Leon County school superintendent Jackie Pons pluck this popular principal from a position that seemed to fit Hanna like a glove? Pons said he needed Hanna in the district office to fill one of several openings caused by recent retirements. And while this explanation failed to satisfy some Leon High loyalists, all I know is that this job change never would have happened had Hanna’s move to the district office not been a “promotion” to a higher-paying position. 

Which begs a larger question:  why are compensation patterns in education so upside down? Why do we typically compensate “star” educators (great teachers and great principals) less than the district office supervisors whose administrative skills, while valuable, are often less central to education’s primary task?   

I mean, can anyone imagine the owner of the Miami Heat announcing that LeBron James has done such an outstanding job leading his team to the NBA championship that he is being “promoted” to a front office job in the Miami franchise? 

Can anyone imagine the president of the University of Alabama announcing that Nick Saban has done such a good job winning football national championships that he is being “promoted” to a senior administrative position in the Crimson Tide’s athletic department? 

The reason these scenarios are so unimaginable is because compensation patterns in the world of sports are guided largely by market forces. Stars get paid like stars. Role players get paid like role players. Top sports administrators earn a lot (usually for good reason) but they rarely make more than the stars they oversee. Because the stars are in the center of the action, where high performance is most prized – and where differences in quality typically affect outcomes the most.

Thankfully, the Florida Legislature has taken steps in recent years to introduce performance-based pay into the education sector. Yet, sadly, its efforts have been strongly resisted by the union officials that claim to represent Florida’s teachers.

This begs another question:  why do the union officials who negotiate on behalf of teachers make dramatically more than the teachers themselves? Most Hollywood agents make only a fraction of what the stars they represent earn.  Yet, according to recent Labor Department filings, the head of the National Education Association currently makes $362,644. The head of the American Federation of Teachers pulls down $407,323 a year. And here in Florida, more than half the Florida Education Association’s employees have six-figure compensation packages.

Meanwhile, the average Florida teacher earns less than $50,000 – even if she’s a star in the classroom.

Clearly, it’s time to rethink compensation in education. We need more performance-based pay to reward great teachers – and to prevent great principals from bring “promoted” to desk jobs that take them away from the students they inspire. That, at least, seems to be the lesson from the recent brouhaha in Tallahassee.