Why School Principals Need More Authority

Under the current system, educational leaders have all of the responsibility but none of the power. Allowing principals to act like CEOs may foster a more efficient system.

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A venerable maxim of successful organizational management declares that an executive's authority should be commensurate with his or her responsibility. In plain English, if you are held to account for producing certain results, you need to be in charge of the essential means of production.

In American public education today, however, that equation is sorely unbalanced. A school principal in 2012 is accountable for student achievement, for discipline, for curriculum and instruction, and for leading (and supervising) the staff team, not to mention attracting students, satisfying parents, and collaborating with innumerable other agencies and organizations.

Yet that same principal controls only a tiny part of his school's budget, has scant say over who teaches there, practically no authority when it comes to calendar or schedule, and minimal leverage over the curriculum itself. Instead of deploying all available school assets in ways that would do the most good for the most kids, the principal is required to follow dozens or hundreds of rules, program requirements, spending procedures, discipline codes, contract clauses, and regulations emanating from at least three levels of government--none of which strives to coordinate with any of the others.

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In short, we give our school heads the responsibility of CEO's but the authority of middle-level bureaucrats.

That cannot work well and most of the time does not, save for the occasional super-hero principal who must act like a maverick -- breaking or ignoring most of the rules -- in order to cope with an inherently absurd imbalance.

To top it off, today's school principals get paid barely more than the senior teachers in their schools, though they typically work year-round versus the classic 180-day, 9-month teacher contract.

No wonder principals are retiring in droves. No wonder many of our ablest young educators --such as those emerging from the Teach for America program -- shun the principal's office, at least in district-operated schools. (Many gravitate to the charter-school sector, where principals have far greater authority.) No wonder entrepreneurs, risk-takers, and change agents seldom last long as principals, or that many of those who do endure are people content in middle-manager roles.

This situation grows worse with every passing year, as federal, state, and district programs multiply and become more rule-bound -- by, for example, "special education" and "No Child Left Behind"; judges issue more rulings that bind the principal's hands; union contracts lengthen and become more restrictive; funding levels off; and teacher layoffs become unavoidable, resulting in even less discretionary money at the building level and, because of seniority and tenure rules, less say over who works there.

The underlying causes are threefold.

First, a dysfunctional and archaic governance structure for public education that pays homage to "local control" yet turns into bureaucratic management of dozens or hundreds of schools from burgeoning "central offices," rather than vesting any real control at the level closest to teachers, students, and parents. Setting policy for that system, typically, is an elected school board that itself has grown dysfunctional, particularly in urban America, as adult interest groups manipulate who serves on it. Atop all this sit state and federal agencies -- multiple agencies at each level -- as well as (in many states) county or regional administrative units.

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Chester E. Finn Jr., a former assistant secretary of education under Ronald Reagan, is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. More

Chester E. Finn Jr. has been involved in national education for 35 years. Currently, Finn serves as president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and is senior editor of Education Next. He is also a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and chairman of Hoover’s Koret Task Force on K-12 education. Previously, he served as a professor of education and public policy at Vanderbilt University, counsel to the U.S. ambassador to India, legislative director for Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and assistant U.S. secretary of education for research and improvement. He holds a doctorate from Harvard in education policy.

The author of 19 books and more than 400 articles, Finn’s work has appeared in The Weekly Standard, Christian Science Monitor, Commentary, The Public Interest, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The New York Times, Education Week, Harvard Business Review, and The Boston Globe. Finn is the recipient of awards from the Educational Press Association of America, Choice magazine, the Education Writers Association, and the Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge. He holds an honorary doctorate from Colgate University. He and his wife, Renu Virmani, a physician, have two grown children and three granddaughters. They live in Chevy Chase MD.

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