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Principals Want Less Bureaucracy, Ability to Reward or Fire Teachers

The research organization Public Agenda recently released the results of a survey of more than 1,700 school superintendents and principals. Education World shares some of the major findings published in the Public Agenda report "Trying to Stay Ahead of the Game: Superintendents and Principals Talk About School Leadership."

School superintendents and principals nationwide believe that good leadership can turn around even the most troubled schools, but politics and bureaucracy too often stand in the way of progress, according to a study released last month by Public Agenda, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research organization.

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The research organization Public Agenda recently released "Trying to Stay Ahead of the Game," a study of superintendents' and principals' attitudes about school leadership issues. The report is based on the organization's survey of 853 randomly selected superintendents and 909 randomly selected school principals. Read a summary of the survey findings and learn how to order the report on Public Agenda's Web site.

According to the report, most school and district administrators (79 percent of superintendents and 69 percent of principals) agree that finding a talented principal is the first step in turning around a troubled school. A large number of superintendents and principals, however, also say that they need more autonomy to reward good teachers and fire ineffective ones.

In addition, more than half (54 percent) the superintendents who responded to the survey said they have to "work around" the school system to get things done; one in 10 said the system actually ties their hands. More than half (57 percent) the principals surveyed said that, in their own districts, even good administrators are so overwhelmed by day-to-day management that their ability to provide vision and leadership is stymied.

The job is "almost overwhelming," wrote one public school principal responding to Public Agenda's study. "My desk is never clear of obligations. ... Constant interruptions from parents, teachers. ... Principals do not have a lunch hour."

Among superintendents, the vast majority (81 percent) pointed to politics and bureaucracy -- not salary or problems implementing higher standards -- as the main reasons superintendents leave the field.


The study, which is being released as school leaders face increased pressure to raise academic standards and as some education experts predict an imminent shortage of top school administrators, reveals the chief complaints of public school superintendents and principals:
  • Most superintendents and principals said they need more autonomy to reward outstanding teachers. Among superintendents, 46 percent say they need "a lot" more autonomy and 30 percent say they need "a little" more. Thirty-five percent of principals said they need "a lot" more autonomy, and 32 percent said they need "a little" more.
  • Most superintendents and principals also said they need more autonomy to remove ineffective teachers. Forty-six percent of superintendents said they need "a lot" more autonomy, and 25 percent said they need "a little" more. Among principals, 41 percent would like "a lot" more autonomy and 26 percent would like "a little" more.
  • Almost all the superintendents (96 percent) and principals (95 percent) said making it much easier to remove bad teachers -- even those who have tenure -- would be "somewhat" or "very" effective in achieving positive change.


School administrators said they are often hampered by politics and bureaucracy.
  • Sixty-nine percent of superintendents said their school boards sometimes interfere with their ability to do the job.
  • Half said litigation and legal issues require too much attention, almost half (48 percent) said parents with complaints and special interests take too much attention, and 43 percent cited issues related to unions and collective bargaining.
  • About 92 percent of superintendents and 89 percent of principals said it would be "somewhat" or "very" effective to give administrators "far more autonomy to run the schools while holding them accountable for getting results."


The Public Agenda survey also covers leaders' views on a variety of problems facing schools -- including academic standards, accountability, and professional development -- and offers new insights into perennial problems of funding.

A major concern of school administrators deals with unfunded mandates -- in which state and federal governments require certain programs, but do not provide full funding for those programs.

The administrators' concerns include the following:

  • About 88 percent said mandates are increasing but schools are not "getting the resources necessary to fulfill them."
  • Eighty-four percent said they have to use a disproportionate amount of money and resources on special education.
  • Only 18 percent of superintendents and 13 percent of principals, however, said that a lack of funding overall is such a critical problem that only minimal progress can be made. Seventy-three percent of administrators and 72 percent of principals said lack of funding is a problem, but progress can be made even with available funding.


Many superintendents expressed widespread reservations about the performance of current principals and the talent pool of incoming candidates. Only about a third of the superintendents said they are "happy" with their district's principals when it comes to recruiting talented teachers (36 percent), knowing how to make tough decisions (35 percent), delegating responsibility and authority (34 percent), involving teachers in decisions (33 percent), and using money effectively (32 percent). In fact, a majority of superintendents (65 percent) said they are "happy" with their principals in only one of the 13 categories rated: putting the interests of children above all else. Six out of ten superintendents agreed, however, that "you sometimes have to settle and take what you can get" when looking for a principal.

In spite of the demands, 73 percent of superintendents and 66 percent of principals said, if they were starting out today, they would choose the same line of work all over again. "Even though the demands are often overwhelming, I enjoy my job," said one superintendent. "I know we make a difference."

Article compiled from Public Agenda press materials
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