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April 1, 2004
Vol. 61
No. 7

A Public Agenda/Wallace Foundation Survey / What School Leaders Want

A Public Agenda/Wallace Foundation Survey /  What School Leaders Want- thumbnail
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An eye-catching 98 percent of U.S. public school superintendents say that they have a high-stress job, and nearly three in four principals say that daily emergencies eat into time that they would rather spend on education issues. Yet despite these pressures, Public Agenda's recent survey (Farkas, Johnson, & Duffett, 2003) reveals a resilient and surprisingly optimistic group of school administrators. Solid majorities of principals and superintendents reject the notion that saving a troubled school is too difficult for a single individual to be able to make a difference.
But despite their optimism, school leaders want to see some major reforms in public education. Across the United States, public school superintendents and principals are frustrated by problems that they say get in the way of improving schools. Money, not surprisingly, is the most pressing issue, and most administrators report that budget problems have gotten worse in recent years. Even so, nearly 7 in 10 school leaders say they can make progress with the resources they already have. A fortunate few (4 percent of superintendents and 10 percent of principals) even say that money is not much of a problem.
But school leaders have a much more innovative and controversial agenda for changing public education—an agenda that goes far beyond getting additional funding. Public Agenda found five areas in which school leaders would like to see changes.

Fewer Mandates, Less Red Tape

Mandates present a money problem, at least in part. The overwhelming majority of superintendents (93 percent) and principals (88 percent) say their districts “have experienced an enormous increase in responsibilities and mandates” without getting the resources needed to meet them. But the problem is greater than scarce dollars. More than 8 in 10 school leaders say that keeping up with local, state, and federal mandates takes up too much time. In interviews, they easily reeled off the problems. One superintendent noted, We have an education code that has more than 3,500 pages, and that doesn't even include all the laws. . . . Add regulations from the federal government—which can often conflict with state codes or our local labor contracts—and we spend a lot of time trying to straighten out the confusion.
Adding to this frustration is the belief that too many legislators don't understand what their mandates mean for schools day-to-day. As another superintendent said, Some items are well intended, but most of the lawmakers don't have a clue what the unintended consequences of their laws will be.
School leaders find that the variety, scope, and number of mandates—which can require anything from reports on each student's body mass index to work breaks for bus drivers—eat up precious money, energy, and time. One survey participant said, Very little has anything to do with leading instructional change, supervising 25 school sites, or becoming a known and respected member of my school community.

Relief on Special Education

Public Agenda's recent study confirms the finding of its earlier survey of school leaders (Farkas, Johnson, Duffett, & Foleno, 2001)—namely, that school leaders have major concerns about implementing special education law. Although virtually no one we spoke with questioned the intent of the law, strong majorities of superintendents (83 percent) and principals (65 percent) in the earlier survey say they believe that schools are “obligated to spend a disproportionate amount of money and other resources on special education.”
Once again, money is not the only problem. More than 8 in 10 school leaders say that “the volume and complexity” of special education regulations have gotten worse. “Our district [of 4,000 students] decided we had to . . . hire our own special education director,” reported one school leader. “There was simply too much paperwork to attend to.”
Litigation poses another concern (Johnson & Duffett, 2003). Eighty-eight percent of superintendents and 80 percent of principals say current special education law makes parents “too quick to threaten legal action to get their way.” School leaders see this litigious state of affairs as not just costly but unfair.

Midcourse Corrections on No Child Left Behind

More than 80 percent of the school leaders we surveyed believe that the push for standards, testing, and accountability is here to stay, and most report that their districts are emphasizing curriculum, teaching, and improving the language skills of non-English-speaking students more than they did in the past. Raising student achievement is now the top criterion for evaluating principals, according to most superintendents and a majority of principals.
But as committed to raising standards as today's leaders are, most are ambivalent about No Child Left Behind (see fig. 1, p. 26). Nearly 9 in 10 protest that it is “an unfunded mandate,” but the concerns don't stop there. Majorities complain that the federal law relies too much on standardized testing, intrudes into local affairs, and establishes unfair sanctions for schools. Strong majorities say that No Child Left Behind will require many adjustments before it will work.
Figure 1. Major Concerns About No Child Left Behind

A Public Agenda/Wallace Foundation Survey / What School Leaders Want - table 1

Superintendents

Principals

It is an unfunded mandate.89%88%
It relies too much on testing.64%73%
It is an intrusion by the federal government into areas traditionally left to local government.60%53%
The consequences and sanctions for schools are unfair.58%57%
Source: Farkas, Johnson, & Duffett, 2004.
Many survey participants report that they were working effectively to raise standards in their own districts well before No Child Left Behind hit the scene. Some aspects of the law may be helpful, but most school leaders also see it as a heavy-handed, overly prescriptive law that is setting schools up to fail. Few leaders are ready to push for its outright repeal, but nearly all would welcome significant adjustments and financial relief.

Better Ways to Remove Failing Teachers

“It takes a year and one-half to get rid of a tenured teacher unless they do something that's just absolutely off the wall,” according to one school leader we interviewed. His observation sums up the frustration of many. Only 4 percent of superintendents and 3 percent of principals say it is “relatively easy” to remove a teacher who is “terrible in the classroom.” Although most consider it difficult but doable, a full 30 percent of principals say it is virtually impossible, with superintendents only somewhat more optimistic.
Approximately 7 in 10 school leaders say that making it easier for principals to remove bad teachers would be a “very effective” way to improve school leadership. Most say they would target just a handful of teachers if they had the power. An overwhelming majority of administrators believe that unions too often fight to protect teachers who really should not be in the classroom.
Not surprisingly, public school teachers have a very different perspective (see fig. 2). According to a recent Public Agenda study of teachers (Farkas et al., 2003), almost 6 in 10 teachers believe that they need tenure to protect them from politics, favoritism, and cost cutting. Most teachers say that without union protection, they would be vulnerable to “administrators who abuse their power.” In contrast, most superintendents and principals say that good teachers don't have to worry.
Figure 2. Perspectives on Teacher Tenure
Which comes closer to your own view about tenure?

A Public Agenda/Wallace Foundation Survey / What School Leaders Want - table 2

Superintendents

Principals

Teachers

Good teachers don't have to worry about tenure, and it's hard to justify it when virtually no one else has their job guaranteed these days.80%65%23%
or
Tenure protects teachers from district politics, favoritism, and the threat of losing their jobs to newcomers who could work for less.14%22%58%
Not sure.6%12%20%
Sources: Farkas, Johnson, & Duffett, 2003; Farkas, Johnson, & Duffett, 2004.
This hot-button issue gives plenty for school leaders, teachers, and unions to discuss. One superintendent captures a common perspective, at least among the school leaders with whom we spoke. “I do think teachers need some level of protection,” he said. “But what they have now is just insane.”

More Good Teachers

Despite their concerns about No Child Left Behind, most school leaders believe that the law's requirement that all teachers of core academic subjects be “highly qualified” is realistic, and most give new teachers high marks for their “love of kids” and “in-depth knowledge of their subjects.”
Unfortunately, the ratings are not so rosy for new teachers' ability to maintain order in the classroom, motivate students to do their best, or establish strong working relationships with parents. In fact, 95 percent of superintendents and 87 percent of principals say that state teaching certification guarantees at best only a minimum of skills (see fig. 3).
Figure 3. How School Leaders View Certification
In your state, does being fully certified guarantee that the typical teacher has what it takes to be a good teacher, does it only guarantee a minimum of skills, or does it guarantee very little?

A Public Agenda/Wallace Foundation Survey / What School Leaders Want - table 3

Superintendents

Principals

Guarantees teacher has what it takes.5%11%
Guarantees a minimum of skills.61%56%
Guarantees very little.34%31%
Not sure.1%2%
Source: Farkas, Johnson, & Duffett, 2004.
Ironically, the emphasis that No Child Left Behind and other reforms place on certification and subject knowledge neglects the very qualities that school leaders say are lacking among new teachers. School leaders believe that good teaching involves much more than knowing the topic and the history and philosophy of education. Teachers need to run a classroom on a day-to-day basis, make a subject come alive, and find ways to inspire unmotivated and struggling students. When teachers have these abilities, “I just call it the gift,” one principal told us. “They go in, and they do miraculous things.”

Rough Sailing Ahead

How likely are school leaders to get the changes they want? Most are not optimistic about teacher tenure reform. Many are skeptical about the true intent of No Child Left Behind. In fact, 31 percent of superintendents and 18 percent of principals say that the law is “a disguised effort to attack and destroy public education,” although recent announcements from the U.S. Department of Education suggesting future adjustments to the law may mollify some. Special education and other mandates have strong constituencies that are likely to fight hard against significant change. In fact, most of these suggested reforms are likely to be controversial and could encounter rough sailing politically.
Nonetheless, the school leadership agenda is concrete and specific. School leaders aren't calling for massive social revolution when they suggest changes in mandates, teacher tenure, and teacher training. What's more, they have the strength of wide agreement among themselves. Very large majorities of school leaders across the United States identify the same problems and are aiming for the same potential solutions. Perhaps the strongest asset school leaders have is their own confidence, practicality, and willingness to be held accountable.
The challenge school leaders face now is to move this discussion out of district offices and professional meetings and into the light of day.
References

Farkas, S., Johnson, J., & Duffett, A. (2003). Stand by me: What teachers really think about unions, merit pay, and other professional matters. New York: Public Agenda.

Farkas, S., Johnson, J., & Duffett, A. (2004). Rolling up their sleeves: Superintendents and principals talk about what's needed to fix public schools. New York: Public Agenda.

Farkas, S., Johnson, J., Duffett, A., & Foleno, T. (2001.) Trying to stay ahead of the game: Superintendents and principals talk about school leadership. New York: Public Agenda.

Johnson, J., & Duffett, A. (2003). I'm calling my lawyer: How litigation, due process, and other regulatory requirements are affecting public education. New York: Public Agenda.

End Notes

1 In 2003, Public Agenda conducted seven focus groups across the United States and a mail survey of 1,006 public school superintendents and 925 K-12 public school principals to learn more about the conditions that school leaders believe they need to make progress. The report was prepared for the Wallace Foundation. Visit www.publicagenda.org for more information.

Jean Johnson has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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