Superintendent’s Incentives in NJ

Perhaps one of the most pernicious education laws in New Jersey is the superintendents’ pay cap passed in 2010.  It limits superintendents pay to between $125,000 to $175,000, depending on the size of the district.  This has caused the most experienced and talented superintendents, many who were making well over $200,000, to leave the state or the profession.  Many schools had principals earning more than this.

But even more damaging was what was hidden in the details.  School Boards are able to go over the cap by offering one-year incentives based on student performance goals.  The problem with this was amply demonstrated in the crash of 2008 in the business community.  Short term financial incentives led to actions which did not take into account the costs of such an approach.  CEO’s designed systems which increased their pay at the expense of the long-term health of their businesses, the benefits of their shareholders and the unintended consequences of their actions.

The same is happening in our schools.  Superintendents are promising Boards to increase the number of students in honors classes, raising college admissions rates, increasing test scores, or raising graduation rates.  And as most Board members are not educators, they are happy to comply.  But like the Collateralized Debt Obligations, often the means of reaching these goals are illusiory and the consequences substantial.

Increasing the number of students in honors classes results in decreasing the rigor of these classes and leaving non-honors classes composed of students who are more likely to have learning or behavior difficulties, ESL students, students of color and students of poverty.  If a school does not decrease the rigor of the honors classes, the result is more failures, more disruption of learning through students dropping to a lower level causing larger class sizes in the non-honors classes than the honors classes.

Similar smoke and mirrors can be used in the other goals, with equally pernicious effects.  Raising college admissions rates can result in having students better suited for vocational training attend college only to drop out with little more achieved than accruing unsustainable debt.  Increasing test scores can be achieved by abandoning the arts and literature and civics and social studies for test preparation.  Raising graduation rates can lead to pressuring teachers to pass students or suffer consequences.

This is just one of many “innovations” where we are treating schools as businesses.  The hard work of education is to have administrators visit classrooms daily and work closely with teachers to improve their instruction.  The simplistic solutions of numerical quotas pretend that this hard work can be replaced by just setting the bar higher.

Author: Scott White

I am a nationally recognized expert on college admissions, having worked in schools and colleges for 35 years. I have been regularly quoted in major publications including the NY Times, the LA Times, The Boston Globe, the Washington Post, Atlantic Monthly, Time Magazine and others. I am widely published on various aspects of the college admissions process and present at state and national conferences on a variety of college admissions related topics. I have worked in college admissions as well as independent day and boarding schools. The last 25 years I have worked in public schools, 14 as a school counselor and then as a Director of Guidance at elite, suburban public schools including Montclair High School, Westfield High School and Morristown High School. I am now an independent college counselor for SW College Consulting in Montclair. I can be contacted as or 973-919-6798.

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