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Study Notes Lack of Policy Activity on Principalship

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In a seven-state study of education policy, researchers have found a virtually silent stance on the principalship, even though principals have been given oversight responsibility for a broad array of state mandates and serve, in the researchers' words, as "the fundamental accountability agents" for most school systems.

The report, prepared by the Policy Center Network, an informal coalition of university-based centers on education policy, notes that state policymakers have paid relatively little attention to school administration during the current education-reform movement.

But it predicts that there will be "considerable policy activity" during the next year on the nature and quality of school leadership.

In the seven states examined in the study--California, Florida, Illinois, Ohio, South Carolina, Texas, and Utah--principals were viewed generally as "middle managers," whose jobs consist of supervising the physical-plant and personnel operations.

"This view of the school principalship is slightly paradoxical," the report notes, "in light of recent calls for the principal to 'empower' teachers and to share decisionmaking."

The states included in the report account for between 30 and 40 percent of the national totals in student enrollment, number of principals, size of the teaching force, and money spent on education.

The study was conducted by evaluating state policy, regulatory codes, statutes, and legislative action relating to school principals.That information was supplemented with interviews with 15 principals in each state.

Research teams of government and university analysts in the seven states examined the areas of personnel management, curriculum and instruction, and policies on children and youths as they affect principals' work. They also explored state policies on principal preparation, career development, employment, and per8formance assessment.

In Ohio, for example, the state code mentions only five specific employment duties for principals: conducting drills, keeping records, following due process for student discipline, displaying the American flag, and supervising student savings plans.

States' most direct and influential policy approach to school leadership is in the area of entrance standards and procedures, the report says. All of the states studied mandated roughly the same entry process: teaching experience, a master's degree, completion of administrative certification courses, and a licensure test.

"Entry is largely a matter of persistence and tenacity rather than a rigorous search for talented and committed prospective principals," the report asserts.

It suggests that state policymakers could have the most direct impact on the quality and work of principals by reexamining certification standards, as several states recently have done. (See Education Week, Feb. 14, 1990.)

Another theme emerging from the research was the need to clearly define the roles and responsibilities of principals in various settings and grade levels. For example, the study found that few states make distinctions between being a principal in a rural or an urban setting.

Similarly, none of the states' requirements for recertification or career development distinguish between principals of elementary schools, middle or junior high schools, and high schools.

Only one state has an explicit policy on professional development for building-level administrators during their first year on the job, according to the report. However, all of the states have some kind of state-supported administrator academy that provides training in management skills.

Even in Illinois, South Carolina, and Texas, which require principals to devote a majority of their time to "instructional leadership," that con4cept is "assumed to be self-evident," the report says, and is not explicitly defined.

None of the states' written policies addressed the role of the principal in the development of curriculum revisions and the assessment of the instructional program.

"At best, principals receive mixed signals on what state policymakers want from them," the report says.

Educational reform, which has focused extensively on teaching, has yet to direct a similar concentration on developing a new view of the role of these school leaders, the report concludes.

"Policymakers seem to be unaware and/or unconcerned about the new and varied demands education reform places on the school principalship,'' it says.

The study's purpose was not to recommend "top-down" mandates, its authors write, but they suggest that it may be time for states to assess the impact of policies on the principal's work.

The report, "State Policy and the School Principal," was funded in part by the Danforth Foundation and is being distributed by the Education Commission of the States. Copies are available for $5 each from the e.c.s. Distribution Center, 707 17th St., Suite 2700, Denver, Colo. 80202. The document number is SI-90-1.

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