Chicago Principals Finding Reform Demands Overwhelming

By Joanna Richardson — December 09, 1992 3 min read

Although Chicago elementary and high school principals give the city’s school reforms high marks, three-quarters say they are overwhelmed by the administrative demands of their job, according to a survey released last week.

The principals also say they lack the authority and resources to carry reforms further, the study found.

The survey of 457 principals, conducted by the Consortium on Chicago School Research, a group of universities, associations, and educational research and advocacy organizations, is the second in a series of studies on restructuring in the city funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Spencer Foundation.

The first, released last year, presented the teachers’ take on the Chicago reforms.

Under a decentralization plan approved in 1988, principals lost job tenure and became accountable to local school councils consisting of faculty members, parents, and members of the community.

Principals serve at the pleasure of the councils, which control their school’s budget and its improvement plan.

Many of the principals reported that the schools’ ties to the community were strengthened by the creation of the councils. On the other hand, almost 80 percent of the administrators hired before 1988 said they received less respect from the public than they did before the reform.

Forty percent said they planned to leave their posts within five years and 75 percent expected to quit in 10 years or less.

“This tells you something about the job,’' observed Bruce Berndt, the president of the Chicago Principals’ Association. “Many of the new [principals hired after 1988] are even saying they’ll leave in 10 years or less.’'

Principal Turnover

“There are a whole bunch of new tasks being given to them and yet they get no more help,’' Mr. Berndt continued. “They’ve been subject to early burnout.’'

In addition, he said, “morale is down because of an incredible increase in work with no corresponding equity in salary.

According to the association, principals have not received raises in two years. And, as managers, state law bars them from bargaining collectively.

“There are as many as 240 principals that are making less than some of the teachers in their schools,’' Mr. Berndt commented.

The adoption of the decentralization plan precipitated a record turnover of administrators in the Chicago school system.

About half of the city’s principals were hired after 1988, and almost all of them were new to the principalship, according to the survey.

More than half of the new administrators are African-American and about 60 percent are women.

The consortium found that these new principals were much more likely to be hired at racially isolated schools.

And, the survey found, the most dramatic restructuring tended to take place in the least advantaged schools--schools with low pre-reform achievement levels or with enrollments comprising primarily minority or low-income students.

Role of Councils, Teachers

The schools that ranked the highest consistently in principal satisfaction were those with small enrollments.

This suggests that “smaller schools foster effective governance and enhance trust among parents and professionals,’' the survey report concluded.

However, “15 percent of the principals also said their local school council was not working effectively,’' according to Mr. Berndt.

“That’s not a small number,’' he said. “It would be about 75 of our schools.’'

About 45 percent of the respondents said they would prefer to see the councils operate as an advisory group instead of a decisionmaking body.

The principals also indicated that they have mixed feelings about their teaching staff.

While the reforms gave principals more latitude in hiring faculty of their choice, those responding to the survey said that resources for staff development were inadequate and that new procedures for removing incompetent teachers were too restrictive.

Although almost 40 percent of the principals said the quality of teaching has improved since 1988, many expressed concern about the level of commitment among the staff.

A version of this article appeared in the December 09, 1992 edition of Education Week as Chicago Principals Finding Reform Demands Overwhelming