School & District Management

What’s Behind the Drop in Trust for Principals?

By Denisa R. Superville — March 07, 2022 6 min read
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Public confidence in K-12 principals has fallen during the pandemic, with a sharper decline among Republican and Republican-leaning Independents, part of an overall drop in trust in public institutions and experts.

Just 52 percent of Republican and Republican-leaning Independents expressed “a great deal or fair amount” of faith, according to recent survey data released by the Pew Research Center. And 47 percent said reported having “not too much or no confidence” in public school leaders.

Among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, trust in K-12 school leaders was higher but still lower than prepandemic levels among this group. Seventy-six percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning Independents said they had “a great deal or fair amount” of faith in public school leaders in the new poll, based on a survey done in late November and early December.

The erosion of confidence in K-12 principals mirrors a decline in trust in experts such as scientists and medical scientists in particular, the military, police officers, religious leaders, business leaders, and elected officials since the pandemic started, according to the Pew survey data.

“The decline in confidence that you are seeing among Republicans in K-12 principals isn’t limited to that one group of people,” said John Gramlich, a senior writer/editor at Pew, who’s written about the findings.

“It’s happening across the board, in other groups, too, including higher education, scientists. All sorts of societal institutions are seeing a decline in trust among Republicans in particular.”

Despite the drop in confidence for K-12 principals, the public trusts principals more than religious leaders, journalists, business leaders, and elected officials. But principals ranked lower than medical scientists, scientists, the military, and police officers.

College-educated voters tended to have more confidence in K-12 principals, and a majority across all racial and ethnic groups had faith in principals. But the sharp difference was along partisan lines that seem to have hardened during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Drop coincides with partisan pressures on K-12 leaders

Principals have traditionally enjoyed high confidence from the American public. In a survey published 2019, based on 2018 data, Pew found that principals were the most trusted among a specific group of public officials—more than military and religious leaders and politicians. The survey asked about which officials were most likely to care about the public, give fair and accurate information, and be good stewards of resources.

Even in April 2020, in the early days of the pandemic, 87 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning Independents, long with 79 percent of Republican and Republican-leaning Independents, said they had “a great deal or fair amount” of trust in principals, Pew found.

That large drop from then to the most recent survey was surprising, Gramlich said.

“We have seen partisan polarization around higher ed. in recent years,” he said. “I think we were surprised to see the extent to which this partisanship seems to be hitting K-12 schools now, too.”

Gramlich emphasized that the decline is not limited to one party.

“Is this just about [critical race theory] or mask mandates?” he asked. “It’s a little hard to figure out exactly what’s going on here because we are seeing this decline in confidence in both parties since the pandemic began.”

The pandemic has become increasingly politicized, with support for and disagreement with COVID-19-mitigation measures falling largely along party lines.

Pew’s recent polling found differences in Republican and Democratic responses to educating students amid the pandemic and factors that districts should weigh when deciding whether to hold class in person or remotely, according to Gramlich. Republicans were more likely than Democrats to support in-person schooling.

School districts have also become the battleground for larger political fights about social justice and how race and racism are taught in K-12.

Principals are caught in the middle

School leaders have very little to no control over many of the issues that are at the center of these debates, including whether students wear masks in school, learn remotely, or even how racism and race are taught. Still, that hasn’t shielded them from the fallout.

Lindsay Whorton, the president of the Texas-based Holdsworth Center, which provides professional-development programs for school and district leaders, cautioned that the data should be examined in the larger context of an overall decline in confidence in public institutions.

“It reflects a broader pattern in our society, which is why I think [it’s] important for principals to not take this personally,” Whorton said.

She also noted that the survey might not have captured important nuances. Public polling over the years has revealed differences in how voters view and respond to issues nationally and locally, where, for example, they may make a distinction between how they see the quality of public schooling overall and the quality of their own schools.

While we always strive for consensus, our popularity or perceived popularity isn’t the main factor we are considering as we work to uphold our professional promises and rise to ever-changing demands.

“I would wonder if there is a parallel here,” Whorton said. “So, when we talk generically about principals across the country, if there is this skepticism, this decline of trust, I’d really want to know what are families’ [and] communities’ confidence in their local schools and their local schools’ principals.”

Principals should not dwell on these new data, she said, but instead should concentrate on their relationships with families and communities.

“No matter how challenging it gets—and at times how adversarial these relationships might feel—it’s really critical that principals ... work to build trust and confidence with those community leaders,” she said.

Whorton said that she thinks most principals won’t be surprised by the results of the Pew survey given their experiences during the pandemic.

Still, she said, principals should ask to what degree the data might be reflective of their communities.

“Which means they need to be asking what conversations am I having with parents, family members, community leaders, other stakeholders in my community that either confirm that we need to rebuild trust with our community or confirm that actually we do have trust between our principals, our district leaders, and our community,” Whorton said.

In a statement, Ronn Nozoe, the CEO of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, brushed aside the survey results.

“Frankly, our first and solemn duty is to ensure the learning and development of our students, which requires creating safe and supportive environments,” he said. “While we always strive for consensus, our popularity or perceived popularity isn’t the main factor we are considering as we work to uphold our professional promises and rise to ever-changing demands. As adults, we must model this by forging meaningful relationships and engaging in respectful dialogue.”

L. Earl Franks, the executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, whose organization just wrapped up a series of briefs on what it’s like to be a school leader during the pandemic, was not at all surprised by the survey’s findings.

“We know that principals don’t go into the profession because they want to win a popularity contest,” Franks said. “They go in to do what’s best for students. ... Even in this politicized environment, principals are going to make the best decisions for their students and their schools and their school communities, based on all of the information they have and the direct knowledge of their communities.”

Still, he pointed to a December 2021 poll commissioned by the American Federation of Teachers showing principals enjoyed a high level of confidence from parents—behind teachers but ahead of parent organizations, state legislatures, school boards, and President Joe Biden.

Sixty-nine percent of respondents said they had a fair or high degree of confidence in principals, according to the AFT poll.

While polling and surveys do not impact the work principals do, “I think certainly it’s frustrating and it’s difficult to build some kind of consensus when you have ... issues that are politicized. It makes the role of the principal more challenging,” Franks said.

The latest Pew survey was conducted between Nov. 30 and Dec. 12, 2021, and included 14,497 adults.

A version of this article appeared in the March 16, 2022 edition of Education Week as What’s Behind the Drop in Trust for Principals?

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