Are Principals Perfect? If You Ask Most of Them, the Answer Is Yes

By Denisa R. Superville — March 19, 2019 6 min read
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Are principals really nearly perfect?

According to a recent RAND survey, the majority of principals think they are. The survey, which asked principals to rate themselves against an “ideal,” shows that the majority of respondents see themselves as performing highly when it comes to three key areas: outlining a clear vision for their schools, setting high standards for teaching, and making clear their expectations for meeting instructional goals to staff.

But Ellen Goldring, a professor of education policy and leadership at Vanderbilt University who has studied principal and teacher perceptions, is skeptical of the results, which were released by RAND Education and Labor late last week.

“What stands out to me is the ‘Lake Wobegon effect,’ ” Goldring said, referring to human’s natural predisposition to overestimate their performance, which is derived from the fictional town created by former public radio entertainer Garrison Keillor. “How is it possible that every principal thinks they are doing such a great job?”

“How is it possible that all of these leaders and all of these principals think things are so wonderful, and yet we know that teacher turnover is high—sometimes because of the lack of clear leadership—and that’s been shown in the literature?” Goldring said. “We know that districts are challenged to hire principals that are able to step into the role. We know that not all principals who are in the role are highly prepared and are able to lead effectively.”

In the survey of The American Educator Panels, close to 100 percent of responding principals agreed that they were hitting the mark in the three areas highlighted: vision, high standards, and communicating goals.

The teachers surveyed—who were not in the same schools as the principals who responded—had a less rosy, though still positive, view of their principals’ leadership in the same three areas.

Nearly 80 percent of the teachers said his or her principal communicated a clear vision for their school; 84 percent said their principals set high standards for teaching and 77 percent said their principals make expectations clear to staff about meeting instructional goals.

The three questions were among seven that were asked of teachers and principals about principal leadership in spring 2017.

Christopher Doss, a researcher at RAND, said the data show a clear disconnect between how principals rate themselves and how teachers rate their school leaders.

“Whether that disconnect occurs in a particular school, we cannot say,” he continued. “You might imagine a situation where there are some schools in which the teachers and the principals are closely aligned on their views, and there might be another set of schools in which those are not aligned, but we wouldn’t be able to say which two schools those are or how they are distributed. But we can say, on average, that we can see these disconnects occur across schools.”

Are Principals Over-Rating Their Leadership Capabilities?

In a 2014 paper on principals’ and teachers’ view of effective school leadership, Goldring found that some principals tended to overrate their leadership capabilities, while others underestimated because they did not want it to appear to their teachers that they are better than they actually were. (Goldring’s research was on principals and teachers in the same schools.)

The RAND survey seems to have a whole lot of overrating and an overly positive perception by principals of their leadership that do no line up with objective data and research—like school assessment data and teacher retention and turnover data, Goldring said.

While there is a perception gap between how principals and teachers view school leadership, both Goldring and Jason Grissom, an associate professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt, caution reading too much into it.

Not all leadership activities are equally visible to teachers in the building. As a result, a perception gap is to be expected between teachers and principals, Grissom said.

A principal, for example, may think he or she is great at vision-setting because he or she crafted the school’s vision or mission statement and it’s posted on signs throughout the school. But a teacher may not be looking at those visual cues, but rather at how that stated vision is implemented in the school, Grissom said. In another example, a principal might give himself or herself high marks as an instructional leader because he or she is working intensely with novice teachers. But veteran teachers may not have the same perception if asked the question because they are not the target of those intensive efforts.

“They are operating with two different sets of information, in a sense,” Grissom said. “Because teachers don’t see the activity—they don’t see everything that the principal does—they are more likely to think about the outcomes of that activity. That’s what they experience. So, a teacher’s assessment might reflect what they are seeing happening in the school, rather than the specific activity that the principal thinks he or she is enacting that [the principal] might be rating themselves on.”

The framing of the questions in the RAND survey also lends itself to positive answers, Grissom said.

Doss, the RAND researcher, also thinks two things could be at play.

“It could also be that principals have a view that they are doing the best that they can, close to their own ideal,” Doss said. “And given that the principal is in different position than the teacher and has a different view of the school, it could be that some teachers don’t see that in the same way as the principal... Some of it might be social desirability bias, and some of it just might be the fact that they feel they are trying the best that they can compared to the ideal.”

Still, despite the gap in perception, the two researchers say that teachers had mostly positive views of their principals’ leadership.

Helping Principals Develop a ‘Realistic’ View of Their Leadership

“If I am an A-plus student and you tell me I need tutoring, I am going to look at you and say, ‘Why do I need tutoring? I’m great,’ ” Goldring said.

The same can be true for principals, she said.

Districts can work to create a culture that’s “open to learning,” where principals feel comfortable answering questions about their leadership capabilities honestly, knowing that the district’s response would not be punitive but one that encourages growth and development.

Providing ongoing feedback to principals on their job performance from multiple sources—including objective school performance data, supervisor observation data, teacher feedback, and school climate data—can also help principals develop a more “realistic” view of their leadership skills, weaknesses, and opportunities for growth. And coaching may also help principals meet those improvement goals, she said.

“The culture aspect is important here because if you don’t have a culture of growth and support, it would be hard to be willing to give honest self-understanding of your leadership,” Goldring said.

RAND recommends additional research on the gap between principal and teacher perceptions, the causes, and the implications of such gaps in schools. It also recommends that principals take into account “360-degree” reviews of leadership.

Image: Perceptions of School Leadership: Implications for Principal Effectiveness

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.