School & District Management

Survey Finds Rising Job Frustration Among Principals

By Liana Loewus — February 21, 2013 5 min read
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A new national survey finds that three out of four K-12 public school principals, regardless of the types of schools they work in, believe the job has become “too complex,” and about a third say they are likely to go into a different occupation within next five years.

The 29th annual MetLife Survey of the American Teacher, based on telephone interviews with 1,000 K-12 public school teachers and 500 principals, tells a story of enduring budget problems in schools and declining morale among both teachers and school leaders. (The MetLife Foundation provides funding to Education Week Teacher to support its capacity to engage teachers interactively in professional community.)

According to the survey, conducted for MetLife Inc. by Harris Interactive, the majority of principals say school leadership responsibilities have changed significantly over the last five years. Nearly half of principals surveyed indicated that they “feel under great stress several days a week.” And job satisfaction among principals has decreased notably, from 68 percent indicating they were “very satisfied” in 2008 to 59 percent saying so in this year’s survey.

While weighted to key demographic variables to reflect a national sample, the survey does not have an estimated sampling error.

Teachers vs. Principals

Job satisfaction and school budgetary changes

BRIC ARCHIVE

SOURCE: The MetLife Survey of the American Teacher

When asked about the main obstacles they face, 83 percent of school leaders rate “addressing individual student needs” as “challenging” or “very challenging.” Seventy-eight percent rate managing the budget and resources as challenging or very challenging—an unsurprising figure given that more than half of principals also report their school’s budget decreased in the last year, and 35 percent say it remained flat.

“I’ve always said the worst time to be a principal is during a tight budget time, and this survey holds that up,” Mel Riddile, associate director of high school services for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, said during a MetLife-hosted webinar for reporters on Feb. 20.

Principals were also likely to point to parent engagement and implementing the Common Core State Standards as significant challenges. Evaluating teacher effectiveness ranked lower on the list, with 53 percent of principals indicating it is a challenge.

Lack of Control

The survey finds that many principals view key challenges facing their schools as being outside of their control. For example, only 22 percent of principals say they have “a great deal of control in making decisions about finances.”

Steven Tozer, coordinator of the urban education leadership program at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said in an interview that, given that “as much as 80 percent of a [district] budget is dedicated to personnel, there are precious little dollars known as discretionary. I’m actually surprised that figure is as high as it is.”

According the MetLife Survey, only 43 percent of principals say they have control when it comes to removing teachers, while 42 percent say they have control over curriculum and instruction. More than three-fourths of principals, however, do acknowledge having control over teacher hiring and schedules.

Even as they report a lack of control over key factors, principals report feeling a great sense of responsibility for day-to-day goings on in their buildings: Nine in 10 principals indicate that “the principal should be held accountable for everything that happens to the children in his or her school.”

“That’s an old feeling. If it happens in your building, you’re responsible—you’re the captain of that ship,” said Bruce Hunter, the associate executive director for advocacy, policy, and communications for the Alexandria, Va.-based American Association for School Administrators.

Mr. Tozer characterized the sense of accountability among school leaders as “a good thing,” noting that his university’s principal-preparation program looks for candidates with “an exaggerated sense of personal responsibility.”

During the press webinar, however, Mr. Riddile argued the “autonomy gap” is part of what makes it difficult to be a school leader. “Principals see themselves as accountable, the public sees them as accountable, but they have a lack of control in many areas,” he said.

When asked about the most important experiences and skills for a principal, 85 percent of the principals surveyed rated using “data about student performance to improve instruction” as very important, putting it at the top of the list. Below that, they ranked developing strong teachers and evaluating teacher effectiveness as important. Teachers, on the other hand, rated experience as a classroom teacher as the most critical attribute for principals.

Despite the many challenges they say they face, three out of four principals indicate their training prepared them well for the job. Mr. Tozer questioned the relevance of that finding. Since it’s difficult for school leaders to say they are not well-prepared without it reflecting poorly on their performance, he said, “a better indicator would be how well they believe they are executing the most essential demands of the job and how difficult they find those demands.”

Teacher Satisfaction Drops

According to the survey, the majority of teachers—85 percent—think their principals are doing a “good” or “excellent” job. And 98 percent of principals think the same of their teachers.

In a possible sign of evolving school organizational structures, more than half of teachers indicate that they hold leadership positions in their schools, such as “department chair, instructional resource, teacher mentor, or leadership team member.” And 51 percent of teachers are at least somewhat interested in taking on hybrid roles that combine classroom teaching and other responsibilities in their school or district.

At the same time, teacher job satisfaction is on a downward slide: Only 39 percent of teachers indicated they are very satisfied with their jobs, down 5 percentage points from last year, making it the lowest the survey has recorded in 25 years. Half of teachers say they are under great stress at least several days a week. Teachers with lower job satisfaction, the data show, are more likely to teach in schools in which the budget, professional development, and time to collaborate with other teachers have decreased in the last year.

In a statement on the findings, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said, “How many more surveys and polls do we need before we give teachers the tools, resources, and support to help their kids, especially with today’s greater challenges and accountability?”

The report also explores principals’ and teachers’ perceptions on common-standards implementation, finding that more than 90 percent of principals and teachers say they are knowledgeable about the standards. Nine out of 10 also say that the “teachers in their schools already have the academic skills and abilities to implement the common core in their classrooms.”

All the same, only about 20 percent of teachers and principals say they are very confident the new standards will improve student achievement or better prepare students for college and careers.

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