New Support for Doubling Principals' Pay

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 6, 2005; 8:57 AM

Two years ago I had what I thought was a great idea for fixing our schools: double all principals' salaries. My column about this did not win universal approval. I could not even persuade the principals I knew, who said it wouldn't work unless teachers got a big raise too.

But I remained true to the concept. I thought paying $150,000 a year, or more, would ensure we got the best people in the most important single job in any school, and lure many more capable people into education.

Now, finally, someone has seconded my motion. And this person has more than enough money and power to make it happen, at least in the 157 public schools his company runs.

My unexpected (and likely unaware) supporter is Chris Whittle, founder and chief executive officer of the Edison Schools, a for-profit company that runs schools in mostly low-income neighborhoods in 19 states and the District of Columbia.

Whittle has just published a book, "Crash Course: Imagining a Better Future for Public Education," Riverhead, 288 pages, which you can get for $16.47 on It is a wild read -- part confessional memoir, part annual report, part speculative fiction -- and well worth the money, particularly his wise affirmation of my thinking in chapter six, "Next-Level Educators:"

"Anyone who has been around schooling very long knows this: An underperforming principal guarantees an underperforming school, and a good one gives you a chance at a good school," Whittle writes. "Principals are one of the key leverage points within a school."

Then he notes the annual salaries of other key service providers: physician in internal medicine, $175,000 to $250,000; 747 captain, $240,000 to $275,000; hospital head, $135,000 to $200,000; large-store manager, $120,000 to $200,000. He compares those salaries to what we are paying on average to our 90,000 public school principals -- $75,000 to $85,000.

If the pay structure holds, Whittle writes, "only those prepared to make a dramatic economic sacrifice will be our schools' leaders. Thousands of those heroic individuals are out there -- they make up the best of our principal corps today -- but are there 90,000 of them? History and our record of school performance tell us no. So either we dramatically increase the pay of our school leaders or we accept the inevitable result."

I noted in my column that since there were relatively few principals in any district, a big bump in their pay would not be a budget buster. Whittle, who unlike me has actual experience running schools, makes this argument with much more confidence and sophistication:

"Let's assume there are 90,000 principals with an average pay of $80,000 each. That means we spend about $7.2 billion per year in principal compensation, or just 1.75 percent of total annual expenditure on K-12 education. The math is pretty simple: we could increase principal pay in the United States to $200,000 per year by adding to or reallocating just over 2.6 percent of annual K-12 spending. We could finance this investment by directing a portion of our annual education spending increases to it. Or we could find the money through allocation of our existing educational dollars."

He notes that Edison gives bonuses of $25,000 to $35,000 to principals who show an annual gain in student achievement of more than 10 percent and meet their budget targets. Before this incentive program began, the average Edison school gained about 4 percent a year in student achievement, he says. Since the bonuses program took shape, that gain has nearly doubled to 8 percent. (I can hear Whittle's many critics -- he is a favorite villain of the nation's teachers unions -- chortling at this, and suggesting the numbers are cooked to make his company look good. But let's assume for the moment that what he says is true.)

He proposes a new base salary for all principals of about $120,000 a year, with a bonus potential of up to $80,000. He says this will increase the candidate pool of principals, making it easier to find good ones, and sharply reduce principal turnover, which would also help schools.

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