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January / February 2004

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The Principal's Office


The Principal's Office
With the threat of a vacuum looming in Maine's K-12 educational leadership in the next decade, a new survey finds it's time to rewrite the job description


Learning About Leadership
Recent UMaine research finds that Maine principals are struggling to balance day-to-day responsibilities with their own ongoing learning.

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When education experts look out over Maine's K12 leadership landscape, they see an aging population of principals, more than half of whom will retire in the next decade from their increasingly complex jobs.

When those same experts teach graduate students in educational leadership at the University of Maine, they find classes brimming with talented people who have what it takes to fill the impending principalship vacuum, but who balk at leaving teaching and going into "management" with its long hours, low pay and high stress.

The answer to the impending crisis lies with local school districts, communities and the state.

"The main threat is the age of the current population of practicing principals," says Professor of Education Gordon Donaldson. "In the next 10 years, we'll see a large turnover. The challenge to school districts is how to entice people to take those vacant positions. School boards and superintendents have to look at the hours, support and pay. They have to help principals move beyond managing buildings to having a real hand in the improvement of educational programs."

According to the recently released findings of The Maine Principal Study: Stability and Change Among Maine Principals, 19972001, conducted by the UMaine College of Education and Human Development, replacing retiring K12 principals with outstanding educators is paramount to school effectiveness and improvement. The research shows that better work conditions and incentives are necessary to boost the number of qualified candidates seeking and succeeding in the job.

In particular, state policymakers and school boards need to take steps toward supporting principals' efforts to lead the instructional program and school improvement. At a time when many districts are financially strapped, this could mean protecting funds for leaders' salaries and professional development.

"The strength of the leadership has a direct impact on the quality of the school," says UMaine Assistant Professor of Education Dianne Hoff. "If we can't attract leaders from the ranks of our most stellar teachers, we're not facing a bright future. Now, more than ever, education needs top-quality leaders who can tackle complex challenges with intelligence, enthusiasm and commitment."

The survey is the second in a longitudinal study of Maine K12 principals and the issues influencing their ability as school leaders. The first survey was done in 1997, the second in 2001; others will follow in 2005 and 2009. With a 53 percent response rate, the most recent findings focus on 363 principals who served as the only administrator or the supervising administrator of a Maine school in 2001.

Two-thirds of the principals responding to the most recent survey have been in their current positions for seven years or less, and one-third for less than two years. More than 50 percent of responding principals were older than age 50, up from 39 percent in 1997; 11 percent were under age 40.

In 2001, as in 1997, most principals expressed positive senti-ments toward their work, finding it energizing and fulfilling. On the other hand, the work can be draining and stressful. These costs, weighed against the benefits, left half of the respondents wondering if the long hours, stress and intrusion on personal life are worth it.

The data raise serious concerns about the continuity and effectiveness of leadership in Maine schools, just when it's needed most. Today, state and federal mandates like Maine Learning Results and No Child Left Behind ratchet up the pressure to improve schools for all students and close performance gaps. Nationwide and in Maine, K12 schools enroll a more culturally diverse student body than ever before. And just as our society has become more litigious, schools are facing lawsuits on everything from student disciplinary actions to accidents on the playground, notes Hoff.

Central to stress are the extraordinary supervisory respon-sibilities, the time and energy commitment, and policy and resource uncertainties. The 2001 data show the average Maine principal is supervising 37 percent more staff than in 1997, including an increase from 18 to 33 professional staff and 11 to 17 support staff. As in 1997, the supervisory responsibilities of the principal far surpass those typically expected of a private sector supervisor, where 15 to 20 staff are considered optimum, according to the report.

The comparative data between 1997 and 2001 also reflect that the average Maine principal is serving a slightly larger school; working more hours (half reported spending more than 60 hours per week on the job); and working in a school district described as rural (67 percent).

The study finds Maine principals believe that "responding to people" and leading the instructional program lie at the heart of what they should be doing. Yet the range of activities and demands erodes their capacity to give full attention to this leadership.

In 2001, principals reported that most of their time was devoted to personnel management, followed by public relations and student management. In 1997, the top three agenda activities were student management, personnel management and interactions with the education hierarchy.

Despite the pressures today, a majority of principals continue to find a lot of meaning in their work. That's good news, says Richard Ackerman, associate professor of educational leadership.

"It's a complicated picture, but not as negative as it looks," he says. "The tensions today are creating healthy debates that, hopefully, will bring about positive changes in leadership and schools."

The results of the Maine survey mirror the national picture, says Ackerman. "Traditional leadership structures in almost every school are being questioned. The current climate is sparking great questions and that's a victory.

"American schools and administrators are increasingly being asked to engage in various forms of accountability and part of the tension here is healthy," Ackerman says. "It is causing us to think about leadership differently, in a way that creates a different kind of accountability in schools, so that responsibility and authority for the guidance and direction of teaching and learning flow from many different sources.

"There are many qualified people under the schoolhouse roof who want and need to be involved in leadership work. Schools and districts must be actively involved in helping to grow their own leaders to do that work. Conditions are right for school leaders to talk to one another in real and authentic ways about these matters."

by Margaret Nagle
January-February, 2004

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