Politics and Bureaucracy, Not Lack of Funding, Are Chief Irritants for Superintendents and Principals

Most say ability to reward good teachers and fire ineffective ones would improve school leadership


NEW YORK -- School superintendents and principals nationwide believe that good leadership can turn around even the most troubled schools, but that politics and bureaucracy too often stand in the way, according to a new study released today by the nonpartisan, nonprofit research organization Public Agenda.

There is overwhelming agreement (superintendents 79%; principals 69%) that finding a talented principal is the first step in turning around a troubled school. But large majorities of superintendents and principals say they need more autonomy to reward good teachers and fire ineffective ones.

What's more, over half of superintendents (54%) say they have to work around the school system to get things done, and one in 10 say the system actually ties their hands. Over half of principals (57%) say that in their own district even good administrators are so overwhelmed by day-to-day management that their ability to provide vision and leadership is stymied.

An 'Overwhelming' Job

The job is almost overwhelming, wrote one public school principal responding to Public Agenda's most recent study on public education issues. My desk is never clear of obligations . . . Constant interruptions from parents, teachers . . . Principals do not have a lunch hour.

Among superintendents, the vast majority (81%) point to politics and bureaucracy as the main reasons superintendents leave the field low pay and problems implementing higher standards do not even come close.

The study based on surveys of 853 public school superintendents and 909 public school principals is being released as school leadership faces increased pressure to raise academic standards and as some education experts predict a shortage of top school administrators over the next few years. The Public Agenda study was financed by the Wallace-Reader's Digest Funds, which has spearheaded a movement to elevate quality education leadership as a core element of education reform.

As we go forward with our LEADERS Count initiative to strengthen the ability of school leaders to improve student achievement, it is absolutely essential that the voices of superintendents and principals themselves are heard and counted, stated Mary Lee Fitzgerald, director of education programs at the Wallace-Reader's Digest Funds. One of the most encouraging findings from the Public Agenda report is that superintendents and principals feel they can make an enormous difference in student learning if certain conditions can improve in their day-to-day working lives. This requires an honest, comprehensive review of the larger climate that affects their performance, from state policy to district practice, in order to do just that.

A Desire to Eliminate Tenure

Among the chief complaints of public school superintendents and principals:

  • Large majorities of superintendents and principals say they need more autonomy to reward outstanding teachers (superintendents: 46% need a lot more autonomy, 30% a little more; principals: 35% need a lot more, 32% a little more).
  • Large majorities also say they need more autonomy to remove ineffective teachers (superintendents: 46% need a lot more autonomy, 25% a little more; principals: 41% a lot more, 26% a little more).
  • Virtually all superintendents (96%) and principals (95%) say making it much easier to remove bad teachers even those who have tenure would be somewhat or very effective.

Politics and Bureaucracy

The administrators say they are often hampered by politics and bureaucracy:

  • Almost seven out of 10 superintendents (69%) say their school boards sometimes interfere with their ability to do the job.
  • Half (50%) of superintendents say litigation and legal issues require too much of their attention. About half (48%) say parents with complaints and special interests take too much attention, and 43% point to issues related to unions and collective bargaining.
  • About nine in 10 superintendents (92%) and principals (89%) say it would be somewhat or very effective to give administrators far more autonomy to run the schools while holding them accountable for getting results.

In many ways, superintendents and principals seem to be chafing at the bit, said Deborah Wadsworth, President, Public Agenda. They are convinced that strong leadership can transform schools and they are especially eager for more power to reward good teachers and remove poor ones but politics and bureaucracy just eat away at them.

So Many Mandates, So Little Money

The survey also covers leaders' views on a variety of problems facing the schools such as academic standards, accountability and professional development and it offers some new insights on the perennial problems of funding.

A major concern of school administrators deals with unfunded mandates in which the state and federal governments require certain programs but do not provide full funding for them.

Among the administrators' concerns:

  • Nearly nine out of 10 superintendents (88%) say mandates are increasing without getting the resources necessary to fulfill them.
  • More than eight out of 10 superintendents (84%) say they have to use a disproportionate amount of money and resources on special education.
  • But only 18% of superintendents and 13% of principals say that a lack of funding overall is such a critical problem that only minimal progress can be made. More than seven out of 10 superintendents (73%) and principals (72%) say lack of funding is a problem, but they still feel they can make progress given what they have.

Lukewarm Assessment of Principals

Many superintendents have widespread reservations about the performance of current principals and the talent pool of incoming candidates.

  • Only about one in three superintendents say they are happy with their district's principals when it comes to recruiting talented teachers (36%), knowing how to make tough decisions (35%), delegating responsibility and authority (34%), involving teachers in decisions (33%), and using money effectively (32%). On only a single measure out of 13 does a majority of superintendents say they are happy with their principals: putting the interests of children above all else (65%).
  • Six in 10 superintendents agree that you sometimes have to settle and take what you can get when looking for a principal (11% strongly agree, 49% somewhat agree).

The study also found that virtually all superintendents and principals think it's more important to hire experienced educators, rather than leaders from outside the field (91% of each group).

In spite of all the demands, 73% of superintendents and 66% of principals say they would choose the same line of work if they were just starting out. Even though the demands are often overwhelming, I enjoy my job, said one superintendent. I know we make a difference.

Public Agenda's Web site ( includes a summary of the findings, data charts and other information related to the report. A full print copy of the report is available from Public Agenda for $10, plus $2 shipping and handling.

The Public Agenda report, Trying to Stay Ahead of the Game: Superintendents and Principals Talk about School Leadership, by Steve Farkas, Jean Johnson, Ann Duffett and Tony Foleno, with Patrick Foley, is based on surveys conducted in summer 2001. In-depth questionnaires were completed by 853 randomly selected public school superintendents and 909 randomly selected public school principals. The margin of error for each group is plus or minus 3 percentage points. The surveys were preceded by numerous in-depth interviews with superintendents, principals and education experts, as well as one focus group with superintendents.

Public Agenda, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research and polling organization, takes no position on school leadership issues discussed in the report and was given complete freedom to conduct the research according to its own discretion. Public Agenda takes full responsibility for the results of the study.

The Public Agenda survey was funded as part of LEADERS Count, a national initiative of the Wallace-Reader's Digest Funds to make stronger leadership a core element of school renewal and improved student achievement. Over the next five years, the goals of the Wallace Funds' initiative are to attract and place a broader pool of able candidates for education leadership, to strengthen the abilities of superintendents and principals to improve learning, and to create conditions that allow principals and superintendents to perform as effective leaders. For more information about LEADERS Count contact, Jessica Schwartz, Senior Communications Officer, Wallace-Reader's Digest Funds, 212-251-9711 (tel),

Public Agenda is a national nonpartisan, nonprofit public opinion research organization, located in New York City, and is well respected for its influential public opinion polls and its balanced citizen education materials. Founded in 1975 by Cyrus R. Vance, the former U.S. secretary of state, and Daniel Yankelovich, the social scientist and author, its mission is to inform leaders about the public's views and to inform citizens about government policy.

A sampling of administrators' comments during Public Agenda's study, Trying to Stay Ahead of the Game: Superintendents and Principals Talk about School Leadership

The principalship is a hard and demanding job, but it is the key to success of schools. A good principal can make the difference in the climate and success of a school, and we need more people willing to make that difference. (Principal)

I loved teaching and thought I could make a difference as a principal but have found the job is not what I expected. I spend all my time being a business manager hoping no one gets upset either teacher or parent as generally there is little support. (Principal)

For the last 13 years, additional tasks and responsibilities have been added on, and nothing has been taken off our plate. Adding on the challenges of community politics, diverse cultures and languages, multi-track year-round calendar and political mandates can make the job overwhelming. (Superintendent)

Accountability is great, but schools should not be judged by what students do on one test, on one day in March. Successful, well-rounded educational programs are about more than how students perform on a test in the spring of the year. (Principal)

If America is the land of equal opportunity, then public education is the vehicle to achieve that equity. Politicians and the media are looking for simple answers to complex problems. (Superintendent)

The teacher union's support of ineffective or low-performing teachers makes real progress in any district a challenge. Effective teachers need not fear tenure or termination. (Superintendent)

Our real problem is the time, money and attention devoted to special education at the expense of regular education. No one wants to lock people away and not educate them, but when 20 cents of every dollar is spent on special ed, it is too much. (Principal)

We just are not inundated with great applicants out there. The grass isn't greener. You're working for a premier school district, it's going to pay a premier salary, so you may get some good people there. But the typical school district out there isn't going to be able to pull in some wonderful savior for that district. (Superintendent)

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