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Volume 16, Number 5
September/October 2000

Portrait of the 'Super Principal'


According to a 1998 report published by the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP), the typical elementary school principal a decade ago was a 45-year-old white male who worked 40 hours a week with most of the summer off, had authority for 17 percent of his budget, and belonged to a principal's association or union. He spent little time in the classroom, functioning more as a manager, and aspired to ascend the career ladder.

Today's principal works longer hours, is less appreciated, has greater accountability, and has little time to learn or think about how to manage competing demands and constituencies, according to the NAESP report. While still white and male, the typical principal is now 50 years old, with an annual salary of $61,000. He works ten hours a day at school and another eight hours on weekends or evenings. He controls 26 percent of the school's budget. Most of his time is spent in three areas: staff supervision, interaction with students, and discipline/student management. This principal can retire at age 57 and—eager to be relieved of work that was once rewarding—probably will.

The widespread demand to improve student performance is at a fever pitch. Forty-nine states now have mandated curriculum standards. Charter schools, home schooling, vouchers, and other alternatives to traditional public schools have provoked new pressures no principal could have anticipated 15 years ago.

In this era of accountability and high-stakes testing, raising achievement scores is just one of the challenges confronting today's "super principals." Facing multiple instructional priorities with layered administrative tasks, principals spend time on teaching and learning, ensuring that teachers have the support necessary to do their work, while at the same time making sure the cafeteria and grounds are safe and orderly. Creating a learning community requires planned pursuit, yet principals can be easily consumed by everyday "urgent but unimportant" matters. Their quandary is whether to learn to carve out time to supervise and coach teachers and work with them on professional development plans that support real school improvement, or to risk leading a disaffected, low-performing school community.

No longer are schools self-contained institutions where outsiders come in only when they are invited. Many contemporary schools are truly community facilities, offering before- and after-school care, along with a host of other social services. Many such schools offer community education programs four nights a week, ending only at 11 o'clock. Though these programs have appointed coordinators, most principals in these settings feel compelled to be at the school during most, if not all, of its hours of operation. As one New York principal says, "I'm here until almost midnight. I am responsible for this school, so I am the last one to leave each night."

As Michael Fullan of the University of Toronto has noted, the metaphorical walls of the school have come tumbling down. "Out there" is now "in here," as government policy, parent and community demands, corporate interests, and ubiquitous technology have all stormed the walls of the school. The relentless pressures of today's complex environments have intensified the workload for principals.

In a study conducted by the Montana School Board Association, principals ranked "long working hours" as their primary source of stress. No wonder. The typical elementary school principal works between 50 and 70 hours a week, including evenings and weekends. When I mentioned this fact to a group of suburban high school principals, they said, "Yeah, those are our hours on a slow week." No wonder that school districts seeking principals advertise nationally and come up empty-handed.

Performance-based funding has added to increasing pressure on principals. On a recent visit to a large urban district, I noted how disingenuous local leaders managed to quietly shift district funds from low- to high-performing schools. Some low-performing schools do not have enough books for children to take home to complete homework assignments. Others have no access to technology, and some struggle to implement central office-mandated curricula. Such heavy-handed administrative practices fail to include the very people who are ultimately held responsible for school improvement: principals.

Musical Chairs

The preferred school improvement strategy of too many central offices involves a game of "principal musical chairs." Often principals are removed before the school has a chance to show improvement in test scores. Recently I met an urban principal, the seventh in four years at her school, who remarked about the difficulties of trying to get teachers to take their teaching seriously. Teachers who stubbornly refuse to change feel they can and will wait her out, she says. In the 1980s, teachers and principals engaged in collective bargaining. Today, principals are often stuck with a one-year contract while teachers remain tenured.

The contemporary principal must also have a skill set that encompasses technology and its many uses. Discussions about the number of computers in a class is silenced by more substantive issues such as how to plan for technology that will improve classroom instruction and relieve administration functions. Keeping up with advancements is a beastly burden. Couple this with securing the resources to outfit a school with hardware and software and a principal can be overwhelmed. While the tasks of a technology coordinator could and probably should belong to someone else, data suggest principals are assuming this responsibility, too, according to the 1998 NAESP report. Technology is, after all, part of the school curriculum plan required of the principal.

In a study of principals and their perceptions of their changing roles, "increased responsibilities" were reported in 11 job-related areas. Seventy percent noted increased marketing responsibilities. Seventy-six percent of urban principals noted increased responsibility for site-based professional development. The irony is that principals with responsibility for site-based professional development are often bound by collective bargaining rules. In many districts, professional development time varies from one hour a week to one hour a month.

Almost all principals (92 percent) have sole responsibility for supervising and evaluating staff. The remainder share this responsibility with others within the school's departments or with central office directors/supervisors. In schools with more than 600 students, principals typically delegate some of this responsibility to assistant principals. According to the NAESP report, principals are also now responsible for teacher involvement in instructional improvement, and for structuring opportunities for creative scheduling, teaming, and project-based learning, so that teachers can work together during the school day to improve instruction.
Who Hires?

Yet many principals do not have a say in which teachers get hired. In too many cases the central office is solely responsible for hiring. In urban school districts where teacher selection could play a significant role in student achievement, principals have far less authority than their suburban and rural counterparts. Since a majority of principals surveyed have responsibility for supervision and evaluation, it is reasonable to expect that they have a choice in who will deliver the services they must evaluate. Principals welcome the opportunity to select faculty for their school. Indeed, in schools where principals do get to choose faculty members, they have a higher level of satisfaction and sense of balance between responsibility and authority in the role.

What can be done to improve the lot of today's "super principals" and to attract new talent to the profession? First, it's worth noting that, in spite of the rapid changes in the profession, many principals love their work. A focus group conducted by the Maine Leadership Academy on problems associated with changing leadership exposed long hours, stress, lack of suitable compensation, and relationship problems as key reasons why principals are dissatisfied. Despite these concerns, the panel participants acknowledged their own feelings of deep satisfaction with the leadership role inherent in the principalship.

They also feel that their colleagues should understand that schools are changing institutions in our society, and that paramount to establishing reasonable leadership responsibilities is the need to clarify the principal's role and improve preparation for that changing role accordingly. Creating a job description that clarifies the expectations and responsibilities of principals, including districts' expectations, would help principals establish and fulfill realistic priorities.

Two-Leader Approach

There are other potential solutions to this conundrum. For example, perhaps two leaders are needed in every school: a principal teacher and a principal administrator. The principal teacher would have a well-established teaching history rooted in strong instructional practice. This person would spend the year supervising teaching teams, coaching, giving feedback, and teaching teachers to engage in deep, reflective practice based on unambiguous learning outcomes. The principal teacher would be accountable for student achievement, curriculum, and technology, and have authority to hire and fire.

Meanwhile, the principal administrator's responsibilities would focus on plant management, including capital improvements, transportation, food, secretaries and custodians, scheduling, data collection, and parent involvement. This person would be accountable to the principal teacher. Since student achievement would eclipse all else in the school, the principal administrator's role would be to support that effort.

Embedded in the call for improvement of the principal's lot is also a call for more diverse leadership. At a time when we have more people of color and women with advanced degrees, too few are being appointed to leadership positions. While women have made notable gains, educators of color who ascend to school leadership posts almost exclusively serve in minority and/or poor school communities. Many mistakenly believe that people of color are role models only for the children who look like them. But, if diversity is to be taught and modeled, children of all colors must see teachers and leaders of all colors.

While many principals feel the sand shifting under their feet during this time of reform, the men and women who take on the role of principal do so because they believe they can make a difference for children—and most believe they are doing just that. Still, many principals express concerns for the future of the principalship. Longer hours, increased stresses, and inadequate compensation will not make the position attractive to the best of the best. There are 93,000 principals in the United States. As retirement looms for at least half of those currently practicing, the key to recruiting and retaining the best of the best lies in how we define the position and support new recruits. Well-articulated goals, accountability with authority, support from superintendents, protection from political interference, and a critical look at teacher tenure might make the difference for those who want to pick up the mantle but are reluctant to lose a limb in the process.

Milli Pierce is director of the Principals' Center at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Also by this Author

    For Further Information

    For Further Information

    J.L. Doud and E.P. Keller. A Ten-Year Study: The K-8 Principal in 1998. Alexandria, VA: National Association of Elementary School Principals, 1998.

    Educational Research Service
    (ERS), 1001 North Fairfax Street, Suite 500 • Alexandria, VA 22314-1587.

    M. Fullan. "Leadership for the 21st Century: Breaking the Bonds of Dependency." Educational Leadership 55, no. 7 (April 1998): 6-10.

    A. Hargreaves and M. Fullan. What's Worth Fighting for Out There? New York: Teachers College Press, 1998.

    National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP), 1615 Duke St., Alexandria, VA 22314-3483; tel: 800-38-NAESP [800-386-2377].

    National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP), 1904 Association Dr., Reston, VA 20191-1537.

    The Principal Keystone of a High-Achieving School: Attracting and Keeping the Leaders We Need. Arlington, VA: ERS, 2000.