School Leaders Feel Overworked, Survey Finds

By Mark Stricherz — November 21, 2001 5 min read
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Large majorities of school leaders feel overworked, according to a survey released last week, and want more power to clear their desks of paperwork, cut red tape, and fire bad teachers.

“Trying to Stay Ahead of the Game: Superintendents and Principals Talk About School Leadership,” can be downloaded for free until November 30, from Public Agenda. (Requires free registration). A summary of the report is also available.

“Principals and Barriers in High School Leadership: A Survey of Principals” is available from the National Association of Secondary School Principals. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

The study of principals and superintendents was done by Public Agenda, a nonprofit opinion-research group based in New York City. More than other recent studies, it paints a picture of school leaders who want to improve their schools, but feel blocked at several turns.

“They’re saying there’s too much on their plate,” said Deborah Wadsworth, the president of Public Agenda. “The politics and the bureaucracy, and the stress and the threats of litigation, and the need for endless negotiation to get anything done. They feel very frustrated that they can’t get focused on student learning.”

For the report, “Trying to Stay Ahead of the Game: Superintendents and Principals Talk About School Leadership,” Public Agenda surveyed 853 superintendents and 909 principals this past summer. The study was commissioned by the Wallace-Reader’s Digest Funds. The margin of error was plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Two large drags on school leaders’ time, according to the survey, are government mandates and special education requirements.

Eighty-eight percent of the superintendents and 83 percent of the principals said there are too many mandates and too little money to carry them out. Meanwhile, 84 percent of superintendents and 65 percent of principals said special education exacts too much time and costs too much money.

The survey also found that school leaders feel stymied by district bureaucracy. Fifty-four percent of superintendents and 48 percent of principals said they have to work around the system to get things done. By contrast, only a third of superintendents and 30 percent of principals said the system works to help them advance their goals.

Deborah Wadsworth

Concern over bureaucracy and the politics of the job have led colleagues to leave the profession, 81 percent of the superintendents and 47 percent of the principals said.

To improve schools, the respondents said, school leaders should have more power to fire teachers. Asked to pick from among 11 ways to improve school leadership, 73 percent of the superintendents and 69 percent of principals agreed that it should be “much easier” to replace teachers.

That desire topped improving the pay and prestige of administrators, which ranked second.

Similar Findings

A similar study by the National Association of Secondary School Principals, also released last week, found that high school principals also are frustrated over having too little time and too much paperwork to do.

“Priorities and Barriers in High School Leadership: A Survey of Principals” surveyed 3,350 public high school principals, all NASSP members, during late 2000 and early this year. It was paid for by the Milken Family Foundation, based in Santa Monica, Calif., and had a margin of error of less than 1 percent.

Seventy percent of the respondents said a lack of time was the biggest hurdle in their work, while 69 percent mentioned too much paperwork. Other hurdles included financial resources (51 percent), quality of teachers (34 percent), and burnout (28.5 percent).

Gerald N. Tirozzi, the executive director of the association, argued that findings from both studies expose a glaring problem of the movement for higher aca-demic standards.

“They’re given more accountability,” he said of principals, “but then they don’t have any authority or autonomy at the school level. They have to go to the football game, the basketball game, and the soccer game, while the whole idea of instruction goes by the wayside.”

The time crunch reflected in both surveys comes as private foundations and a growing number of districts are seeking to turn principals and, to a lesser extent, superintendents, from business managers into instructional leaders.

“All the policymakers seem to be interested in the addition of tasks,” Mr. Tirozzi said, “and not subtraction.”

‘Overcrowded Agenda’

The Public Agenda report reached similar conclusions about the push for instructional leadership. “To take root, this attractive notion must contend with the overcrowded agenda that so many school leaders appear to already face,” it warns.

Ms. Wadsworth said her organization’s study found that school leaders were divided on some parts of the standards and accountability movement. She noted that overwhelming majorities support higher standards for students and the view that all children can learn.

But the study found disagreements between superintendents and principals over tests. Perhaps the most notable was their response on whether principals should be held accountable for student test scores. Sixty-seven percent of superintendents agreed with that statement, while only 44 percent of principals did.

When asked about the statement that “standardized tests are important and my district is using them well,” 53 percent of superintendents agreed, compared with 41 percent of principals. Fifty-five percent of principals said such tests are either flawed gauges of achievement or are implemented poorly.

“They’re closer to the test process,” Vincent L. Ferrandino, the executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, said of principals. “They understand what’s involved with the test itself and how it’s related to the programs in their classes.”

Ms. Wadsworth noted that superintendents supported the idea that they should also be held accountable for student test scores.

Both the Public Agenda and NASSP studies differ in some ways from one released earlier this year by Thomas E. Glass, a professor of education at the University of Memphis. (“A Profile of Superintendents,” March 21, 2001.)

In Mr. Glass’ survey of 2,262 superintendents, 57 percent expressed “considerable” fulfillment with the job. In the Public Agenda study, only 48 percent of superintendents said they felt respected and appreciated.

However, Mr. Glass’ survey also paints a picture of an overworked profession. In a special poll of 175 “superintendent leaders"—those judged by their peers as top-notch—53 percent said long work hours were the main drawback of the post.

The Public Agenda survey found that, despite a widely reported shortage of principals, a sizable majority of respondents said their districts weren’t experiencing trouble.

Fifty-nine percent of the superintendents and 70 percent of the principals said their districts had no such shortages. Forty percent of superintendents and 28 percent of principals said their systems had “somewhat serious” or “severe” shortages of principals.

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A version of this article appeared in the November 21, 2001 edition of Education Week as School Leaders Feel Overworked, Survey Finds


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