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
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 K–12 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, 1997–2001, conducted
by the UMaine College of Education and Human Development, replacing
retiring K–12 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
"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 K–12
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
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, K–12 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
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
for more stories from this issue of UMaine Today Magazine.