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Principals respected but unsupported.

Two studies say they are trusted but don’t get deserved attention

Two new studies suggest that principals are highly thought of by people in their community but also that they too often don’t get the support they deserve.

A new report from the Pew Research Center suggests that among various types of leaders principals are the most respected for their fairness and care for students and community – and that they are among the most trusted leaders.

In the meantime, another study earlier this summer showed principals are leaving positions too often, and suggested ways to improve the chances they will stay and perform well.

The survey of more than 10,600 adults by Pew indicated that among various types of leaders, principals scored the highest for providing fair and accurate information and being willing to admit making mistakes. Members of Congress scored the lowest on most parts of the survey, which was titled “Why Americans Don’t Fully Trust Many Who Hold Positions of Power and Responsibility”.

“Generally, the public has the most confidence in the way K-12 public school principals, military leaders and police officers operate when it comes to caring about people, providing fair and accurate information to the public and handling resources responsibly,” the report says. For instance, it notes that about 84 percent of respondents think principals care about the students they serve “some of the time” or “all or most of the time”.

The survey looked at Americans’ views about eight types of leaders: members of Congress, local elected officials, K-12 public school principals, journalists, military leaders, police officers, leaders of technology companies and religious leaders. In all categories it studied, public school principals had the highest ratings.

The study looked at:

• Level of empathy
• Adequacy in performing a specific part of their job
• Stewardship of resources
• Ability to provide fair and accurate information to their constituents
• Willingness to admit mistakes and take responsibility for them
• Frequency with which they behave unethically
• Frequency with which they face serious consequences when they act unethically

JoAnn Bartoletti, executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, applauded the findings and said school administrators know they are “accountable to the public not just for results’, but for transparent practice and the appropriate and effective use of public funds”.

She suggests that principals should use that well-earned trust to be even stronger advocates for change in education.

“That trust is not just a well-earned reward. It is an asset,” she writes, noting that it creates a “platform of credibility” that principals should use to “advocate for what matters”, including more attention to school safety and changes that “empower students to be disruptors rather than rewarding them for compliance”. 

“It is gratifying that the American public recognizes that principals continue to honor that commitment,” she says in response to the findings of the survey.

Advocates for principals also say if states and communities believe in the value of principals, they must support them.

The Learning Policy Institute (LPI) found earlier this summer that a high rate of principal turnover (18 percent of principals were leaving their jobs; 21 percent in high poverty schools) was caused by several factors.

Past research has identified five main reasons principals leave their jobs, according to LPI: inadequate preparation and professional development, poor working conditions, insufficient salaries, lack of decision-making authority and ineffective accountability policies.

In addition, the American Institute for Research has reported that despite their high standing with the public, too often principals are undervalued and not given opportunities for professional development.

“Again and again, states and districts have focused on teachers rather than principals when making policy and allotting funds and resources for professional development and support,” researcher Cortney Rowland writes. “Principals’ groups and other educators have long lamented that school leaders are often absent from the policymaking process or included as afterthoughts.”

To retain and support principals, LPI has recommended:

  • High-quality professional learning opportunities: Principals need preparation programs that offer robust field experiences with strong mentors and/or internships.
  • Support from strong administrative teams with adequate school-level resources: A strong administrative team can help balance work and life responsibilities, and adequate funds help ensure that schools are positive learning environments for all students and educators.
  • Competitive salaries: Competitive salaries that are aligned with principals’ responsibilities and multiple roles could help attract and retain school leaders.
  • Appropriate decision-making authority within the school context: Principals with greater decision-making authority could better implement policies and deploy resources based on their understanding of their schools’ needs.
  • Evaluations characterized by timely, formative feedback: Evaluations could help principals set meaningful goals and improve their leadership with proper accountability.

Written by Jim Paterson, Education World Contributing Writer

Jim Paterson is a writer, contributing to a variety of national publications, most recently specializing in education. During a break from writing for a period, he was the head of a school counseling department. (

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