Maine Schools in Focus: More Work but Fewer Leaders — Efficiency vs. Reform?

Editor: Gordon Donaldson

We’ve heard proposals to “cut administration” for decades. Governors, legislators, and business people have argued that administrative costs are disproportionately high and that we must “create efficiencies.” At the same time, schools have been charged with implementing “transformational” changes in teaching and assessment, curriculum, personnel evaluation systems, and more — all requiring capable leaders in our schools and in our districts.

How have these two trends played out in the daily work of our schools?

According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, Maine’s central office administrative force dropped by 25.6 percent between 2004 and 2014.

MDOE data for 2005 – 2015 reveal that,

  • the numbers of administrators (school and district levels) declined by 8.5 percent (full-time equivalents or FTEs);
  • the heaviest cuts were among Special Education Directors (30 percent) and Curriculum Coordinators/Directors of Instruction (21 percent);
  • the number of Assistant Superintendents declined by 14.9 percent and of principals by 9.4 percent;
  • the number of individuals serving as Superintendent of Schools dropped by 29.2 percent.

Financially, over the decade, the percentage of all school expenditures for:

  • system administration (superintendent/business) shrank from 4.2 to 3.2 percent;
  • school administration (principals) shrank from 5.6 to 5.5 percent.

These figures demonstrate the success of efforts at all levels to reduce administrative costs. By 2012, Maine’s spending for all levels of administration and leadership (10.59 percent) stood almost exactly at the U.S. average (10.57 percent). The question left unanswered, however, is: How did these unprecedented reductions in leadership personnel shape the success of our schools? While they may seem reasonable when viewed against the declines in student enrollment, they make less sense when compared to the relentless stream of reform requirements cascading onto our schools.

Most troubling are the reductions in positions directly responsible for instructional effectiveness: curriculum coordinators, directors of instruction, directors of special services, and principals. The loss of instructionally-focused district leadership positions suggests that the hard work of recalibrating curriculum and assessment to Common Core standards, of revamping teacher and principal evaluation, and of ensuring the success of all children has fallen primarily to principals and teachers. Finding the resources and political will to support these school-level leaders has added significantly to the workloads of superintendents and assistant superintendents.

The Maine Legislature appointed a task force last spring to examine the “leadership crisis” in Maine schools. The task force found increasing turnover in superintendencies and principalships and serious shortages of willing candidates for those positions. Leaders report that the demands on them and their schools keep rising but that time, energy, and funds to fulfill them are in shorter and shorter supply. Indeed, the deep cuts in the ranks of Maine school leaders reported above reinforce these reports from the field.

Whose problem is this? The pressure to cut leadership positions has come from both state and local sources. The pressure to reform practices in schools comes from both within and without schools. If reduced leadership capacity continues to plague our efforts to improve the learning of our children, this problem clearly belongs to us all – at all levels of government and educational practice.

So, what is to do be done? Here are three possibilities.

  1. Key decision-makers, from local school boards to the Legislature and Blaine house, must recognize the crucial link between improving school performance and hiring and supporting talented leaders – and sufficient numbers of those leaders. Businesses hoping to transform their productivity wouldn’t even consider taking action without assuring themselves of strong, effective leaders.
  2. Make sure that our school leaders – both administrators and key teachers – have the time, professional development, and appreciation they deserve. If they are to truly lead the improvement of learning and teaching, their work days cannot be consumed by management, politics, and putting out fires.
  3. Clean out the overflowing “in-basket” of requirements we have laid on schools over the past 25 years. Sunset old and irrelevant mandates. Retract required reporting that MDOE or USDOE will not or cannot review and put to good purpose. Leave only those mandates that clearly support the accomplishment of greater and deeper learning for our children.

Sources: MDOE ( ; National Center for Educational Statistics (; National Conference of State Legislatures (based on


Maine Schools in Focus is intended to share information that stimulates thinking, planning, and action to fulfill the mission of Maine’s preK-12 schools. Submissions must present ideas and data relevant to schooling in Maine and pose questions and suggest avenues for policy and action. They must be limited to 650 words.

Contact: Gordon Donaldson at