School & District Management

Principals Have More Authority Than They Think, New Study Says

By Denisa R. Superville — June 24, 2014 6 min read
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Though there are real policy barriers that get in the way of innovation, principals have more authority than they think. So concludes a new study that examined the real and imagined barriers to school improvement in four Northeastern cities.

The study, released Tuesday by the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington Bothell, found that two-thirds of the 128 barriers to change cited by the eight principals who were surveyed were “imagined” impediments, meaning that the barriers were not immutable and there were ways to get around them.

Imagined barriers were those that could be overcome through waivers or alternative interpretations, or could be ignored altogether without real consequences, according to the researchers; while “real” barriers were those that were rooted in statutes, policies, or managerial directives.

The researchers also found that of the three states in the study— Maryland, Connecticut, and New Hampshire— the one with the highest support for principal autonomy, New Hampshire, had the fewest number of real roadblocks. Connecticut, the state with the least support for principal autonomy, had the highest number of real barriers. The differences between the two, however, were not great.

Larry J. Miller, a senior research fellow at CRPE, co-authored the report, “Policy Barriers to School Improvement: What’s Real and What’s Imagined?” with Jane S. Lee, a doctoral student at the University of Washington. He said the results were both encouraging and troubling.

The researchers said the results were encouraging because only 31 percent of the barriers to progress cited by principals were determined to be real. The other 69 percent could be circumvented using creativity or ignored without serious consequences. Some policies that are viewed as encumbrances result from misinterpretation of labor contracts and by accepting long-established district practices as policies.

They can include labor agreements that may appear to bar teachers from working on evenings and weekends, impose strict class sizes, or policies that restrict the movement of funds in the budget.

“Our advice to principals, after we did this study, is whenever you’re told no, ask for the justification in writing, and then review that justification very carefully to make sure there are no workarounds within that written policy, because often workarounds are often written right next to the policy itself,” Miller said.

“For instance,” he continued, giving an example. “Class sizes are capped at 30 students in the district, but [the contract] will say that for every additional student added to the classroom, the teacher is entitled to an additional $2,000 stipend. Well, there is your workaround. But no one read the second sentence of the barrier. So be careful. Take the time to look at the statute or the policy. Look for workarounds within that policy, and also look carefully at the consequences of violating the policy. Sometimes there are policies that don’t have any consequences attached to them and the principals have to weigh that when making those decisions.”

But where real barriers existed, such as forced placement of teachers and staff, those tended to have significant impacts on school culture and students. The hurdles were generally rooted in federal, state, or district policies and statutes and were a lot more difficult to get around. The researchers called for a loosening of those policies that restrict innovation.

They found three general sets of barriers: those that affected the pursuit of instructional innovation; changing resource allocation; and improving teacher quality.

The principals in the study cited “instructional innovation"— such as personalizing learning by offering a combination of in-class and online courses for credit and starting school earlier or later in the day— as the category where they faced the most challenges. But the researchers found the fewest number of real barriers in this category, with only two of the 22 cited as real.

There is real fallout from thinking that an insurmountable impediment exists when, in fact, it doesn’t, they said. One Baltimore principal, for example, canceled plans to apply for a school improvement grant because the money were not expected to arrive until October/November and he had planned to use the money for summer professional development class for his staff. But, according to the central office, the principal could have used money from another line item to pay for the professional-development classes before the grant arrived.

Nearly half of the barriers to teacher quality —such as forced placement of teacher and staff members, inability to fire low-performing teachers, or restrictions on hiring from outside the district—turned out to be real, and teachers’ union contracts were thought to be the major contributing factor.

But even in this scenario, reading the contract is important. In Pittsfield, N.H. , for example, principals thought the teacher’s contract restricted the district from asking teachers to work on weekends and evenings. The district wanted to do this to staff a learning lab. It turns out, the contract didn’t forbid it, the teachers just needed to be asked to work evenings and weekends and they had to agree to do so.

Principals have found ways to work around the barriers—whether real or imagined. In Baltimore, a principal was able to purchase and operate a bus to take students from school to internships after he found out that the district’s policies barred school-owned buses from providing transportation from school to home, but not from school to internships.

The researchers place the onus on principals for doing their homework and communicating with others in their district and beyond to find out how they have dealt with specific challenges. But they also cited a list of state and district policies that should be removed because they restrict autonomy and hamper improvement. Real change cannot occur without explicit or aggressive changes in state, federal, and local policies that stand in the way of innovation, they said.

Among their recommendations for changes:

On the state level:

  • Allocate funding based on students instead of programs, staff positions, or school days
  • Increase charter school autonomy by freeing charter schools from forced placements in order to comply with state-certification requirements
  • Develop “innovative districts,” like in Colorado and Indiana, which allow schools to operate without the restrictions of some state rules and regulations

On the district level:

  • Eliminate forced teacher placements
  • Make it easier to remove poor-performing teachers
  • Allocate a bigger portion of the school’s budget to the school and do so on a per-student basis
  • Review policies to remove barriers and make it less cumbersome for principals to do their jobs

They also recommend assistance for principals in the following areas:

  • Encouraging networking among principals
  • Helping principals understand teacher contracts
  • Training principals in the budgeting process
  • Using budget simulations to get better results from school and district resources

The authors of the report will be available to answer questions during a webinar on Thursday, June 26, from 12 noon to 1 p.m. EST.

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