Commentary

The High-School Principal: Caught in the Middle

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Americans have traditionally valued schooling, viewing it pragmatically as providing mobility and opportunity for their children. Though confidence has diminished, demands of the constituents remain strong. Among these is the expectation, bordering on the unreasonable, that education can somehow solve ills that the larger society cannot. The high school, the capstone of our public system, is the place where all these hopes and frustrations converge. The principal is called on to satisfy growing demands with diminished authority. He is caught in the middle in two ways--internally, between teachers and the school board, and externally, between the school and the community it serves. His freedom of action, for better or worse, has been curtailed by a series of constraints over which he has little control. Failure to understand this dilemma precludes any practical understanding of the problems, possibilities, and future direction of the American high school....

The principals I interviewed [for this article] mentioned most often the constraints surrounding teacher selection and assignment. This is due primarily to the advent of collective bargaining....Written agreements between employees and school boards to some degree regulate personnel relations in most metropolitan school systems outside the South. These agreements are usually based on the seniority principle, whereby assignment is determined by teacher preference in order of years of service. The more extensive the application of seniority, the less discretion the principal has in staff selection.

Some principals complain that it is unfair to hold them responsible for a good program when they have so little to say about the selection of their faculty. This is so. It also happens, however, that some principals use the growth of "teacher power" as the reason they cannot properly supervise their staff. Having worked in both union and nonunion systems, I find little difference in the way administrators evaluate teachers.

Collective bargaining goes beyond staff assignment. Its aim in education is the same as it is everywhere--to protect the status and improve the salaries and working conditions of those who belong to the bargaining unit. That is the bottom line, and it does not necessarily follow that improving the lot of teachers redounds to the benefit of students. Teacher unions are like other organized groups, including those representing school administrators, in their emphasis on self-interest. Satisfying that interest almost always carries a price tag. Therefore, one of the inevitable consequences of collective bargaining, particularly in a field as labor-intensive as education, has been to increase expenditures and raise taxes. Critics of public education contend that quality has not kept pace with cost. Principals feel the pressure of having to provide extensive and expensive programs in a period of inflation and diminished public support. Money is not only tighter, but administrative discretion in spending has been curtailed as a result both of negotiated agreements and mandates over which the principal has little or no control.

The agreements come from the bargaining table. The mandates result from legislative and judicial decisions. The federal role in education has expanded enormously since the mid-1960's. Although most would agree that laws to further the education of the handicapped (Public Law 94-142), minorities (Title VI), women (Title IX), and bilingual children (Title VII) are desirable, or at least well-intentioned, they impose requirements that the principal must enforce. The same is true with respect to judicial intervention in such areas as student due process, desegregation, and the rights of non-English-speaking children. Entitlements have been expanded significantly.

The broadening of educational opportunity by legislatures and the courts is, at the same time, a constraint on principals. In the words of one observer, their "discretionary decision zone has been squeezed progressively into a smaller and smaller area." In addition to the mandates of higher authorities, the pressure from local sources has increased significantly. In mandating programs, federal laws have also, over the past several years, created advisory groups in which over one-million citizens participate. Many of these groups are pro forma, but it would be a mistake to view them as just so many more PTA's.

Although it sometimes happens that community involvement takes on an adversarial tone, effective principals see it as a way of gaining support. If, for instance, financial constraints are to be eased, the public must be willing to raise taxes. Citizen participation requires the attention of principals, but the time is usually well spent. The occasional negative effects are nothing compared to the difficulties encountered when community apathy is prevalent, an apathy usually accompanied by a widespread lack of motivation among students. The two reinforce each other and produce a malaise common in high schools, particularly in central cities....

American high schools in the post-World War II period have increased in size and expanded their programs to assume enlarged responsibilities, most of which have been thrust upon them. At the same time, principals are caught between greater demands and diminished authority. Simply put, our high schools are being asked to do too much for too many with too little....

Henry Steel Commager has written that communities get the kind of schools they deserve. That does not minimize the obligation of educators; it does, however, acknowledge the reality that schools reflect their constituents. The shrinking and weakening of that support group explains, more than any other fact, the demoralization of American secondary education.

Principals are trying to run schools in the face of powerful pressures that have diminished their authority. Union and community interests have enhanced their influence vis-a-vis school boards and administrators. Courts and legislatures have in recent years assumed a much more active role. But the demands exceed the resources. Fewer children and rising costs make dollars harder to come by. This is aggravated by widespread abandonment of publicel10lschools by e middle class and a growing presence in our largest cities of an isolated and powerless underclass. Ten percent of all public school children are in the nation's 20 largest cities, a majority of them from poor and minority families. These conditions make the need for good schools greater, and at the same time, more difficult to attain. The high-school principal is caught in this dilemma. Pressured from all sides, he is indeed the man in the middle.

The result of this enormous discrepancy between our goals and where we find ourselves has diminished confidence and brought about a degree of demoralization so great that it must be judged public education's major problem. Restoring that morale--among parents, teachers, and students--depends on several things:

  • Schools cannot be all things to all people; courts and legislatures need to be persuaded of this. Such an effort must anticipate opposition by vested interests within the educational system, interests that have in many cases been created by external decree. Driver training teachers, for example, would certainly oppose any suggestion that learning how to drive a car does not belong in the curriculum. In addition, teacher unions, already concerned about declining enrollment, cannot be expected to welcome program reductions that will further reduce their membership.
  • Programs must be adjusted to the reality of diminishing resources. This is difficult for a system geared to continuous expansion and a society accustomed to thinking that anything can be solved by education. There is also the political nature of school boards to be considered, as well as the strength of employee organizations and single-issue groups. Despite these influences, I believe a consensus can be developed that the priorities of public education ought to be the teaching of cognitive skills, an academically challenging program for abler students, and emphasis on those qualities of character that in a simpler day were called good citizenship.
  • For both ideological and political reasons, parents should be included in setting priorities. Their role in most communities is more passive than active. In many places it will be difficult to engage their interest. Occasionally, involvement is discouraged by school authorities, despite rhetoric to the contrary. There are, however, interested and active citizens in every community. Their efforts need to be given more status and authority. The school site advisory councils in California, Florida, and South Carolina, for example, recognize this and provide a promising approach to citizen participation.
  • Where they have not been irretrievably bargained away, the prerogatives of management need to be preserved. Defining these prerogatives makes possible a clear formulation of the principal's responsibilities. Developing a fair and effective evaluation system is particularly important. Due process is necessary, and unions have done much to protect the legitimate rights of their members. It has reached the point, however, where tenure laws and collective bargaining agreements have made it virtually impossible to dismiss incompetents. One result of this is to provide administrators an excuse for not doing a thorough job of evaluating staff members.

Superintendents and school boards, supported by political and community allies, must assume the major responsibility for accomplishing these goals. The person most responsible for implementing policy and the educational program on a day-to-day basis, however, is the building principal. Despite the importance of the job, the training for it is poor. Not enough attention has been given to recruiting capable candidates, particularly among women and minorities, and the formal preparation is largely unrelated to what the principal must know and is required to do.

Improvement in the quality of preparation should include encouraging school districts to develop their own training programs in collaboration with colleges of education. Improvement might also provide for some form of state accreditation to local school boards. If this is too big a step, there should at least be modification of certification requirements to allow greater participation by school systems in training their future leaders.

Finally, our conventional concept of the high-school principal as the instructional leader should be discarded. It is, in most cases, unrealistic. Principals are expected, largely on the basis of a few classroom visits, to assess the quality of instruction. They are responsible for doing this in all subjects. As a practical matter, the principal's judgments deal more with management than substance. As a result, evaluation is either inadequate or superficial. Informed judgments about content must include others, such as departmental chairpersons. This will improve high schools in two ways. Teachers will benefit from a better evaluation of their work, and the principal's job as an instructional leader will be more realistically defined. What I have termed the climate of a school is the measure of that leadership. The principal's role in creating the environment where learning takes place is a vital one. It is his most important task, and it cannot be assumed by anyone else. The morale of a school depends on how well it is done.

Accomplishing all of this will not be easy, nor will it guarantee the revitalization of the American high school. What is certain, however, is that without such an effort, our system of public education is in serious jeopardy.

Vol. 01, Issue 04, Pages 20, 24

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