Research Explores the Reasons Why Principals Get the Ax

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Principals don't get fired for the reasons you may think.

Failure to raise student achievement, unwillingness to lead reform efforts, or even ineffective management are less likely to result in the involuntary loss of a principal's job than bad interpersonal relationships, a study suggests.

To find out the reasons some principals get fired from or counseled out of their jobs, Stephen Davis, an assistant professor at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif., analyzed 99 questionnaires from a sample of 200 California superintendents in districts with more than 1,000 students. The questionnaire, which Mr. Davis wrote after conducting phone interviews with about a dozen superintendents, asked the schools chiefs to rank the top five reasons for principals' losing their jobs.

The reason most often given was "failure to build positive personal relationships," chosen by 51 percent of the superintendents. When all the most frequent responses were totaled, 68 percent fell in the "personal-human relations" category.

"Factors relating to administrative skill may have considerably less influence on a principal's involuntary departure than factors relating to interpersonal relationships," Mr. Davis writes. His research was published last month in Educational Administration Quarterly.

Mr. Davis, a former superintendent and principal, said he wasn't surprised that interpersonal relations turned out to be important. He was surprised, however, by the degree to which that was true. "Bottom line: If you upset people, you're out the door," he said.

'Miles Apart'

Mr. Davis said he hoped his research would shed light on what he called "the dark side of administration. Few people write about that." Most previous work focused on effective leadership rather than leadership that went wrong, he added.

Philip Hallinger, a professor of education and the Director of the International Institute for Principals at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., noted that while very few principals leave their jobs involuntarily, looking at those who do is useful.

Such analysis points to a system that rewards principals for avoiding interpersonal or political problems but not for raising achievement, Mr. Hallinger lamented. "Nobody's going to lose a job because kids don't succeed," he said.

Mr. Davis, meanwhile, has some practical advice for administrators. "Principals often don't realize how they are being perceived," he said, and could benefit from finding ways to learn what others think of them.

He said he was working on a follow-up study based on a survey of principals to find out why they think their colleagues are fired.

"There's an interesting difference," he said. "Principals see [job loss] as a function of the political arena that is just overwhelming and of conflict between principals and the central office."

That is, Mr. Davis explained, principals see firings as largely beyond their control, while superintendents believe that principals who lack certain skills get into trouble. "They're miles apart," he said, "in how they perceive this."

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