According to Copland (2001), although the following job description is a parody, it is not too far from the truth concerning the current set of responsibilities that confront the nation's elementary school principals:
Position Opening: Elementary School Principal, Anytown School District. Qualifications: Wisdom of a sage, vision of a CEO, intellect of a scholar, leadership of a point guard, compassion of a counselor, moral strength of a nun, courage of a firefighter, craft knowledge of a surgeon, political savvy of a senator, toughness of a soldier, listening skills of a blind man, humility of a saint, collaborative skills of an entrepreneur, certitude of a civil rights activist, charisma of a stage performer, and patience of Job. Salary lower than you might expect. Credential required. For application materials, contact... (Copland, 2001, p. 528).
While the above advertisement may be beyond the typical requirements, they are not too far off from reality. Copland points to the following actual excerpt from a job listing recently posted for an elementary principalship in a large, urban school system:
The elementary school principal provides direction and leadership within the assigned school. This involves overseeing the management of the educational program, decision-making and communication processes, business operations, staff and community relations programs, and the physical plant.
The principal directs the establishment and maintenance of a school climate conducive to student achievement and learning, including overseeing the enforcement of school rules and regulations, the implementation of disciplinary measures, when necessary, as well as serving as a catalyst to motivate and empower staff, students, and parents to become active participants in the efforts to increase student achievement by improving the educational experience and program.
The principal facilitates and coordinates the implementation of various cluster initiatives, including school participation in the cluster council; the development and implementation of an effective school council; the development of small learning communities; and the planning, implementation, and administration of decentralization plans.
The principal's responsibilities include the improvement of instruction; assessment of student and program success; classroom visitations; the rating of professionals and paraprofessionals; staff orientation and staff development; program planning, monitoring, and evaluation; identification of school needs in terms of personnel and programs; providing staff development for teachers, paraprofessionals, and parent/community volunteers; establishing close working relationships with the Home and School Association; serving as a member of the instructional support team; fostering parent involvement in school activities; establishing and maintaining communications with business, civic, and religious leaders; working with community groups; interpreting existing school programs to the community; developing new and revised school programs to meet community needs and concerns; identifying social and emotional needs of students; ensuring the provision of programs to meet the needs of students beyond the basic skills and basic curricular areas; and performing related duties as required.
The responsibilities described above are to be seen in the context of a shared governance model which supports consultation, collaboration, and consensus among the various constituent groups within the school (Copland, 2001, p. 528).
The author concludes that these prevailing expectations about the elementary school principal's responsibility are inordinately excessive, a trend which is a fundamental part of the problems facing educational administration in America today (Copland, 2001). The stress that is associated with the typical elementary school principal's workday can clearly be related, at least in part, to the large volume of problems they are required to resolve on a daily basis as shown in Table 1 below. According to Cross, elementary school principals generally handle an average of approximately 100 problems per day. "Under such conditions it can hardly be expected that principals reach decisions through the deliberative, self-conscious, classic steps in decision making" (1980, p. 158).
Table 1. Sources of Problems Requiring Decisions by Elementary School Principals Today.
Source: Cross, 1980, p. 154.
There are also some gender-related aspects to this issue which are discussed further in the segment on Stress and Gender of Principals that follows.
Stress and the Principalship.
An old saying advises that, "It's lonely at the top," and this has never been more true than when applied to ships' captains at sea and elementary school principals awash in an ocean of paperwork and bureaucracy (Pogue, Schahrer & Schlatter, 2003). The elementary school principal today is widely considered by many observers to be "the key figure in leading staff members, parents, and a student population to higher levels of educational attainment and a conviction that schools will have to be led into new configurations of organization, staffing, program and instruction, technology, parent and patron involvement, and accountability" (Sybouts & Wendel, 1994, p. 1). Unfortunately, these lofty expectations tend to fly directly in the face of the harsh realities facing the vast majority of elementary school principals across the country. According to Ferrandino, "Over the past decade, we have witnessed major changes in the role of the elementary school principal" (p. 440). The enormity of some of these changes was demonstrated in a recent study, "The K-8 Principal in 1998"; the findings of this study were the latest in a series conducted every decade by the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) and were derived from a survey of 1,323 randomly selected K-8 principals (Ferrandino, 2001). "Not surprisingly," the author notes, "the study confirmed the obvious -- that the principalship today is a much more demanding job than it used to be" (p. 440). For instance, compared to their counterparts from past decades, the average elementary school principal today works more hours (Ferrandino reports an principals working an average of nine hours a day and 54 hours a week more), they are responsible for more students (principals are responsible for an average of 425 students today), and the supervision of more subordinates (on average, 30 teachers and 14 support staff members).
One of the most dramatic shifts in the profession has been related to how many women are now elementary school principals compared to years past; for example, 42% of elementary school principals were women in 1998, representing more than a doubling of the 20% rate from only 10 years earlier (Ferrandino, 2001). Further, the gender shift has been even more significant among elementary school principals with five years of experience or less, with more than two- thirds (65%) being women; however, minorities continue to be underrepresented in elementary school principalships with blacks, Hispanics, and Asian-Americans accounting for approximately 15% of elementary school principals. This underrepresentation was expected to diminish in general, though, and in particular for those regions with rapidly growing minority populations with minority principalships expected to be approximately 55% nationwide by the end of 2004 (Farrandino, 2001).
The 1998 NAESP study also found a growing shortage of elementary school principals; the attrition rate for the 10-year period from 1988-1998 was a staggering 42% and this rate was expected to remain at least as high well into the next decade as well. "Indeed, it could reach as high as 60% as principals of the 'baby boom' generation reach retirement age," Farrandino adds, and "We are already seeing a pattern of principals opting to retire at the earliest possible date" (p. 440). This trend is only being further exacerbated by the fact that the United States is being faced with increasing school enrollments through the end of this year (2005) (Farrandino, 2001). Although stress continues to dominate the discussions about elementary school principals and the challenges they confront on a daily basis, the NAESP survey also identified two other primary factors that related to the high rate of attrition being experienced in this profession today:
Inadequate compensation. The mean salary for elementary principals in 1999-2000 ranged from $57,566 (in the Rocky Mountain region) to $79,736 (in the Middle Atlantic region); there was a national average of $69,407. Although this salary was approximately commensurate with that of a middle-level bureaucrat, elementary school principals are expected to assume many of the responsibilities of a CEO by being compelled to make routine decisions that may determine the success or failure of their schools. "Little wonder that few veteran teachers - even though their salaries are about a third less than those of principals - are willing to move from their classrooms to the principal's office" (Farrandino, 2001, p. 400). This point is echoed by Sybouts and Wendel who point out, "Perhaps one of the major changes in the principalship has been the range of expectations placed on the position; these expectations have moved from demands for management and control, with presumptions for forced compliance, to the demand for an educational leader who can foster staff development, program improvement, parent involvement, community support, and student growth" (p. 2).
Time fragmentation. As noted above and as a direct result of the changing nature of the position, elementary school principals are now required to supervise more teachers and support staff than in years past.…