America's Principals and Superintendents -- Railing Against a Torrent of Local, State and Federal Mandates

More cash-strapped than ever, American school leaders say they are fighting an uphill battle against stifling bureaucracy and a torrent of local, state and federal government mandates.


New York, N.Y. -- In Rolling Up Their Sleeves: Superintendents and Principals Talk About What's Needed to Fix Public Schools, school leaders told the nonpartisan opinion research group Public Agenda they want to be just that - leaders. Give us more freedom, remove some of the hurdles, and we can do the job, the report states. The study was funded by The Wallace Foundation, which has launched a major national initiative to improve education leadership.

In this national survey, school leaders say their biggest headaches are funding and the time it takes to comply with a blizzard of local, state and federal mandates. 93% of superintendents and 88% of principals say their district has experienced an enormous increase in responsibilities and mandates without getting the resources necessary to fulfill them. Reports one frustrated superintendent, Some items are well intended, [but] most lawmakers dont have a clue. I really dont think they read most of them.

While unhappy with some of the specifics of federal No Child Left Behind legislation, 87% of superintendents and 85% of principals believe that the era of testing and accountability is here to stay. But 89% of superintendents and 88% of principals call the law an unfunded mandate, and most (61% and 65%) say the law will require many adjustments before it can work. Interestingly, large-district superintendents are much more likely to support the law's key components than their small-district counterparts.

While well-intended, most leaders say special education requirements severely constrain their budgets. 83% of superintendents and 65% of principals say they are obligated to spend far too much on special education programs and most feel inundated with paperwork and a growing sense of entitlement among special ed parents.

Teacher tenure is also a sore spot. Most superintendents and principals (80% and 67%) call it difficult but doable to get rid of a terrible teacher, and 16% and 30% call it virtually impossible.

According to Public Agenda President Ruth A. Wooden, It is remarkable how deeply standards and accountability are now embedded in the attitudes of school leaders. But it is hard to overestimate the intense frustration these leaders feel about obstacles thrown in front of them from every direction. American principals and superintendents are a 'can do' group. Removing even a few of the most intrusive and annoying obstacles would go a long way.

The significance of this report is clear, stated Wallace Foundation President M. Christine DeVita. Our nation needs both capable school leaders and the right conditions redefined jobs to reflect new responsibilities, the authority to match those responsibilities, and incentives to attract them to the most challenging schools and districts to help them deliver on the promise of excellence and opportunity for all children.

Standards -- Here to Stay

The study strongly suggests that school leaders were working hard to raise academic standards and strengthen accountability even before No Child Left Behind. Fully 63% of superintendents say student achievement is the biggest part of how they evaluate their principals. Nearly 8 in 10 superintendents say they evaluate their principals on their ability to judge and improve teacher quality. Nearly 9 in 10 superintendents who have moved an effective principal to a low-performing school say their efforts were successful.

83% of superintendents and 75% of principals report they are more focused on curriculum, teaching, mentoring and professional development than ever before. Large majorities of superintendents and principals (83% and 76%) report their districts have been making real efforts to close the achievement gap between minority and white students.

Willing to be held accountable themselves, 72% of superintendents believe it is a good idea to hold superintendents accountable for standardized test scores at the district level. Principals view things somewhat differently; only 41% of principals feel it is a good idea to hold principals accountable for students' test scores at the building level.

No Child Left Behind

Despite strong support for standards and accountability, school leaders have, according to the report, complicated, ambivalent feelings about the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), the most significant federal education legislation in decades.

Administrators are sharply divided over NCLB's purpose. Fewer than half of superintendents (40%) and principals (46%) think it is an effort to improve public schools. Another 22% and 29% say it is motivated solely by politics, while 31% and 18% call it a disguised effort to attack and destroy public education. Still, only 20% of superintendents and 33% of principals say implementing NCLB is the most pressing issue in their district.

School leaders use and value standardized tests, but 64% of superintendents and 73% of principals say NCLB relies too much on testing. Nearly half (49%, 48%) call the requirement that test scores of special education students and English learners show adequate yearly progress unreasonable and undoable. Nearly 6 in 10 (58% and 57%) say the sanctions and consequences for not meeting NCLB goals are unfair.

However, most superintendents and principals (55% and 59%) think they can meet the requirement that all core academic subject teachers be highly qualified. More than half of superintendents and principals (55% and 53%) think it is useful to test students annually so they can see where improvement is needed before it is too late.

Looking for Teachers Who Can Handle a Classroom

Only 3% of superintendents and principals think poor teacher quality is their most pressing issue. Still, 86% of superintendents and 84% of principals say that sometimes teachers unions fight to protect teachers who really should be out of the classroom.

Few superintendents and principals (15% and 22%) say their state is even close to touching tenure reform. But 53% of superintendents report that they have made tenure more difficult to get in their district. Fully 80% of superintendents and 65% of principals say that good teachers don't have to worry about tenure, and it's hard to justify when virtually no one else has their job guaranteed these days. In contrast, a recent Public Agenda survey found that 58% of teachers felt tenure necessary to protect them from politics and favoritism.

While No Child Left Behind uses years of education and subject knowledge to define a highly-qualified teacher, administrators look for additional abilities. School leaders put special value on practical teaching skills, such as the ability to handle a classroom or to reach academically struggling students. As one principal said, It's something that is hard to explain, but you know it when you see it. You hire it. You put it in your classroom. They go in, and they do miraculous things.

Special Education -- Parents Feel Entitled

School leaders are struggling with special education requirements that obligate them to spend what they feel are disproportionate amounts of their budgets on legal fees, paper work and compliance.

Nearly 9 in 10 superintendents and 8 in 10 principals also say that special education laws give parents a sense of entitlement and make them too quick to threaten legal action to get their way.

Large vs. Small/Urban vs. Rural

Superintendents from large school districts are consistently more optimistic that, with many adjustments, NCLB can work than superintendents from small districts (72% vs.54%).

Large-district superintendents are more likely to believe that breaking out test scores by race and other groups is helpful (66% vs. 29%). By a margin of 49% to 32%, large-district leaders are more likely to think showing adequate yearly progress with special education students or English learners is reasonable and doable, provided major changes are made.

Urban superintendents are more likely to say that raising student achievement is the biggest part of how they evaluate their principals than their suburban or rural/small town counterparts (76% vs. 64% vs. 55%). Urban superintendents are far more likely to say they have moved successful principals to low-performing schools than superintendents from suburban, rural/ small town districts (73% vs. 50% vs. 31%).


Rolling Up Their Sleeves is based on a national survey of 1,006 K-12 public school superintendents and 925 K-12 public school principals. The margin of error is plus or minus three percentage points. The survey was preceded by seven focus groups conducted in sites across the country. The report was prepared by Public Agenda researchers Steve Farkas, Senior Vice President and Director of Research; Jean Johnson, Senior Vice President and Director of Programs; and Ann Duffett, Senior Vice President and Associate Director of Research.

Full copies of this and other Public Agenda research studies are available free of charge in PDF format at You can order a printed version for $10, plus $3 shipping and handling, by calling Public Agenda at (212) 686-6610. Quantity discounts are available.

Public Agenda is a nonprofit organization dedicated to nonpartisan public policy research. Founded in 1975 by former U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and Daniel Yankelovich, the social scientist and author, Public Agenda is well respected for its influential public opinion polls and balanced citizen education materials. Its mission is to inform leaders about the publics views and to educate citizens about government policy.

The Wallace Foundation is an independent, national private foundation established by DeWitt and Lila Acheson Wallace, the founders of The Reader's Digest Association. The Wallace Foundation's mission is to enable institutions to expand learning and enrichment opportunities for all people. It does this by supporting and sharing effective ideas and practices. To achieve this mission, The Wallace Foundation has three objectives: strengthen education leadership to improve student achievement; improve after-school learning opportunities; and expand participation in arts and culture. For additional information and research on education leadership, visit

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