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How to Become a School Administrator

Most teachers will tell you that the support of competent principals, superintendents, or program directors is invaluable. These leaders provide classroom teachers with clear guidance about instructional best practices, intervene if there are difficult issues within the classroom or school, and in general advocate for their teachers.

After teaching a few years you may be inspired to take on one of these challenging yet rewarding administrator roles. Read on to learn about available school administration jobs, educational requirements, and resources to help you along the way. 

What Does a School Administrator Do?

School administrators work to ensure that everything runs smoothly in their school, district, or program. Whether they function as a principal, superintendent, or program director, school administrators bring together knowledge and skills to effectively manage staff, develop programming, balance budgets, satisfy stakeholders, and adhere to local and federal regulations and laws.

Principal

School principals work in elementary, middle, and high schools in both public and private settings. Acting as a CEO of sorts, the school principal oversees all operations within a school. They liaise with other school employees to set schedules, develop curricular standards, provide student discipline, arrange continuing education programming, set and manage budgets, and make decisions around hiring and firing. They also work with teachers, school counselors, and parents to address any behavioral or academic issues arising with students.

Superintendent

While principals oversee a single school, superintendents focus their efforts on entire school districts. Operating as a go-between for principals and school boards, these professionals make high-level hiring decisions, set annual budgets for the district, develop strategic plans, and report to the school board about any ongoing problems in individual school settings.

While teachers and principals usually get some time off in the summer, superintendents work year-round and must engage in continual professional development to remain relevant in their roles.

Program Director

Unlike principals and superintendents who work exclusively in K–12 settings, program directors can also find jobs at colleges and universities. The specifics of their job depend on the program they are directing. Examples might include music, athletics, special education, or gifted/talented.

Regardless of the area of focus, program directors spend their days managing departmental staff, creating budgets, developing training around new programs, meeting with parents and students, and reporting back to senior-level leadership.

School Administrators Salary and Career Outlook

Being a school administrator can be a lucrative prospect. Salary varies by job type: the following table provides some specifics.

Career Median Salary Median Salary, Top 10%
Assistant Principal $72,000 $101,000
Principal, Elementary School $81,000 $117,000
Principal, High School $81,000 $132,000
Superintendent $117,000 $183,000
Director of Education Program (general) $61,000 $98,000
Director of Special Education $73,000 $107,000

Payscale.com, September 2019

Projections from O*NET OnLine show an anticipated growth of five to nine percent for elementary and secondary education administrators across the nation. However, some states have an even greater need for qualified professionals—as shown in the table below.

Top Ten States in Job Growth Percent Growth, 2018 to 2028
Utah +26%
Texas +21%
Colorado +20%
Washington +20%
District of Columbia +16%
Georgia +15%
Idaho +15%
Florida +14%
Nevada +14%
Massachusetts and Virginia +12%

Onetonline.com, May 2018

Steps for Becoming a School Administrator

A career in school administration requires extensive education and experience. Most school administrators have a master’s or doctoral degree in education administration or educational leadership as well as classroom teaching experience.

Each state sets unique requirements for becoming a school administrator. To learn about your state’s requirements, refer to the Education Commission of the States database.

In general, however, to become a school administrator you will need to follow these steps.

  1. Complete a bachelor’s degree. This qualification should be in teaching, education, or a related field. Aside from completing coursework requirements, prepare to participate in a student-teaching internship before graduating.
  2. Earn your state teaching license. After meeting requirements around education and supervised teaching experience, you can apply to your state’s board of education to receive licensure. This usually requires passing a background check, earning state teaching credentials, and passing a Praxis or state-specific examination.
  3. Gain substantial teaching experience. Because school administrators manage other teachers, they must possess real-world teaching experience. Plan to spend at least two or three years in the classroom before considering an administrative role.
  4. Complete a master’s degree in education administration. Most schools require school administrators to have a master’s degree. In any case, pursuing a school administration degree at the master’s level will advance your knowledge and skills and can make you more competitive in the job market.
  5. Pass your state’s tests to earn a public school administrator’s license. You will need a license that is specifically for school administrators. This entails fulfilling certain requirements and passing your state’s exam.
  6. Consider completing an Education Specialist Degree (Ed.S.) or a doctoral degree—Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) or Doctor of Philosophy in Education (Ph.D.). You will typically need an Ed.S. or doctorate if you want to teach educational administrators at the postsecondary level, participate in high-level research, or hold a top-tier position.

Master’s Degree in Education Administration

As stated above, most schools require school administrators to have at least a master’s degree. Master’s programs typically take between 18 months and 3 years to complete, depending on whether you attend full-time or part-time.

You will find variation in the types of master’s programs in administration. Some programs might focus on becoming a principal at either K–6 or 7­–12 grade levels. Others might deal with instructional design, higher education administration, or special education administration.

However, in addition to the special focus, in most programs you will learn the fundamentals of educational leadership, with courses in ethics, school law, school finance, instructional supervision, and curriculum and assessment.

Aside from coursework you’ll typically need to produce a final project such as a portfolio, case study, or organizational plan that you can use as evidence of your academic growth and leadership abilities.

Education Specialist Degree (Ed.S.)

These specialist degrees are considered higher than a master’s qualification but lower than a Ph.D. or Ed.D. They are narrower in focus than master’s degrees and are often considered to be terminal degrees. They generally require completion of 36 to 52 credits, depending on your specializations and individual school requirements.

Common specializations include instructional leadership, leadership in higher education, learning analytics, organizational leadership, sports management, or content areas such as special education or eLearning.

Doctoral Degree (Ed.D. or Ph.D.)

There are two types of doctoral degrees you can earn: Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) or Doctor of Philosophy in Education (Ph.D.). Generally speaking, Ed.D. programs help prepare you for professional roles in educational leadership, while Ph.D. pathways give you the qualifications you need to work in postsecondary teaching and research roles.

Because an Ed.D. does not require a dissertation, students usually spend three or four years completing requirements. A Ph.D., conversely, can take between five and seven years due to additional research components.

Licensure

Because school administrators play such critical roles in the lives of millions of students, state boards of education set more stringent requirements for licensure as a school administrator than for teacher licensure. In Indiana, for example, applicants must pass an administrator content licensure exam, have CPR certification, and earn a suicide prevention training certificate. Refer to the database of state profiles provided by the Education Commission of the States.

To renew licensure, administrators must demonstrate a commitment to professional training through the completion of continuing education hours. Often such programs are offered online.

Online Education Administration Degree

Online administration degrees are ideal for educators who already have a bachelor’s degree and teaching experience. If you have a busy schedule, distance learning programs make it possible for you to move closer to your goal of becoming a school administrator without having to give up your salaried position.

Rather than driving to campus multiple times each week to attend classes at set times, online school administration degrees make it possible for you to watch pre-recorded lectures, discuss topics with teachers and students, complete readings, participate in group projects, and turn in assignments at times that make sense with your schedule. Most online curricula mirror those used in campus-based programs, but you can ask an admissions counselor if any differences exist at your prospective school. 

Useful Resources


  • The School Superintendents Association: AASA supports school administrators by providing certification programs, learning initiatives, policy and advocacy programs, the School Administrator magazine, and access to several awards and events.
  • National Association of Secondary School Principals: As a member of NASSP you can take advantage of online and on-site professional development initiatives, conferences, leadership training, awards, in-house publications, and numerous events throughout the year.
  • National Association of Elementary School Principals: NAESP champions elementary school principals through advocacy initiatives, leadership programs, school resources, annual conferences and expositions, and school improvement resources.
  • American Association of School Personnel Administrators: Since its founding in 1938, AASPA has provided members access to summits, webinars, conferences, and other tools designed to help them become capable and confident administrators. The group also offers a certification program, career center, scholarships, awards, and publications.
  • Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development: With a member body of nearly 115,000 school professionals, ASCD is well-placed to serve as a voice for these in-demand practitioners. The group offers several books and in-house quarterly publications, professional learning opportunities, conferences, leadership institutes, and committees.
  • Professional Development Resources for School Administrators: Created by educators for educators, this comprehensive website lists a myriad of useful resources to help school administrators follow best practices and incorporate technology into their administration.