Nothing matters more to an organizations success than the quality of its leadership, and nowhere is that clearer than in public education. Twenty years of research have shown that effective schools nearly always have strong principals and that successful school systems nearly always employ effective superintendents. Yet there are not nearly enough qualified people to lead some 91,000 public schools and nearly 15,000 school systems.
What challenges do they--and we--face in trying to get more strong leaders for U.S. schools? The policy research organization Public Agenda recently set about to answer that question. It surveyed 1800 principals and superintendents. The results are fascinating, sobering, and fraught with policy implications. Key findings include the following:
"Superintendents and principals ... voice confidence that they can improve public education, but say their effectiveness is hampered by politics and bureaucracy." Four-fifths of superintendents and half the principals cite that as the main reason talented people vacate those roles. Among their foremost gripes: excessive litigation, "teacher union fanatics," and school board meddling.
"What superintendents and principals need most, they say, is more freedom to do their jobs as they see fit--especially the freedom to reward and fire teachers." Fewer than one-third say they have the autonomy and authority either to "reward outstanding teachers and staff" or to "remove ineffective teachers from the classroom." (By contrast, four-fifths say they have the freedom to deal with student discipline.)
"School leaders are far less worried about standards and accountability than about politics and bureaucracy." Although principals and superintendents have multifarious complaints about standardized testing as used in their districts--and superintendents are far more bullish about test-based accountability arrangements than are principals--they're much more bothered by the shackles on their wrists.