Public and Private School Principals in the United States: A Statistical Profile, 1987-88 to 1993-94 / Chapter 1

Chapter 1. Introduction

American school principals have highly complex jobs that are variously described as building managers, personnel administrators, agents of change, boundary spanners, disciplinarians, cheerleaders, and instructional leaders (Smith & Andrews, 1989). Regardless of the roles these individuals play, however, few dispute that principals have emerged as primary players in the improvement of school instructional programs. Remarkably, this important role for administrators in school improvement has not always been apparent to educational researchers. Early educational research almost ignored the characteristics of these leaders or their influence on schools. As Behling and Champion (1984) noted in their review of principals as instructional leaders,

Considerable research over the past seventy-five years has focused on learners, teachers, and school classrooms, but the role of the principal has been addressed only indirectly. (p. v)

This omission has changed in recent years, however, as concerns with the nation's educational system have encouraged increased scrutiny of schools and school leaders by education, governmental, business, and community groups. Yet, despite the acknowledged primary role of principals in the educational process and the many reform initiatives proposed and implemented in the nation during the last decade, few large-scale, national studies have examined principals' characteristics, behaviors, and beliefs, or tracked the changes occurring in light of the new policies, programs, and expectations.

The 1987-88, 1990-91, and 1993-94 administrations of the Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS) provide the opportunity to use national data to examine policy-relevant issues about the principalship in the reform environment of the late 1980s and early 1990s. The (NCES) of the U.S. Department of Education regularly conducts this national survey of public and private schools, public school districts, principals, and teachers. First conducted during the 1987-88 school year, the SASS samples approximately 10 percent of the nation's schools. The school administrators or principals of these schools are surveyed, along with a subsample of each school's teachers. Additionally, for public schools, the district superintendent for each of the sampled schools receives a questionnaire focused on district-level information. The integrated structure of SASS allows links between principal responses and contextual data collected from teachers, schools, and districts./1

Schools and Staffing Survey data cannot directly demonstrate the effectiveness of educational programs and practices or their influence on the characteristics or performance of school leaders. The data can, however, provide strong descriptive information about the principalship during this important period, and the data can be linked to important policy issues. The data from the three SASS administrations can also indicate changes that have taken place between 1987 and 1994, a period when policy makers developed and implemented many reform initiatives. Thus the purposes of this report are to provide descriptive information about the principalship, place that information in a policy context, and identify significant trends that may have implications for future policy.

Context for Examining the Principalship

Publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983 (National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983) catalyzed widespread school improvement initiatives in the 1980s. State agencies and local communities answered the call for reform by enacting policies to tighten educational standards, strengthen professional certification requirements, and increase accountability. One report (U.S. Department of Education, 1984) estimated that 275 state and local task forces were formed to work on educational issues within 12 months of publication of A Nation at Risk. Notably, these early reform activities were based predominantly on the belief that school professionals had become lax and that increased supervision and regulation would improve the process and outcomes of schooling (Hallinger, Murphy, & Hausman, 1992). For example, Illinois' Education Reform Act of 1985 (1) mandated that principals spend the majority of their time as instructional leaders, (2) increased requirements for all types of state certification, and (3) required that local education agencies publish yearly report cards comparing student outcomes to state and local standards (Illinois State Board of Education, 1985).

While the release of A Nation at Risk initiated a wave of reform activities in many states (see e.g., U.S. Department of Education, 1984; Miller, 1987), concern with the effectiveness of American schooling continued, ultimately resulting in a second round of reform activities precipitated in 1989 by the Governors Education Summit in Charlottesville, Virginia. In the aftermath of that meeting, American school reform was transformed into school restructuring, a process that focused, at least initially, not on repairs to the existing system as targeted under the earlier reform activities, but rather on the reshaping of the entire educational enterprise (Hallinger et al., 1992, p. 330). Principals constitute a primary group in school restructuring, being both the agents of change by virtue of their roles as school managers and instructional leaders (see e.g., Bossert, Dwyer, Rowan, & Lee, 1982; Pajak & McAfee, 1992), and targets of change given their increased accountability for school outcomes and the restructuring efforts that require principals to share decision making with teachers (see e.g., Heck, Larsen, & Marcoulides, 1990).

Small, descriptive studies have examined specific aspects of the reform process including, for example, administrative support for reform (see e.g., Hallinger et al., 1992), the activities of principals in this transitional period (Stronge, 1988), and the elements of success for effective principals (Cooper, 1989; Queen, 1989). Other larger studies examined only segments of the school administrator population (e.g., the National Association of Elementary School Principals' decennial survey of elementary principals reported by Doud, 1989) or focused on single topics (e.g., fringe benefits and the opinions of school personnel reported by the research arm of the major principal and administrator professional associations, the Educational Research Service [ERS], 1986, 1991). Little broad policy-relevant research, however, is available to assess the impact of the two waves of school reform on the principalship or to inform future policy initiatives. The Schools and Staffing Survey partially fills this void by providing descriptive information about the changing nature of the individuals who serve as principals, including their perceptions of challenges they face.

The Schools and Staffing Survey

The multiple administrations of SASS (1987-88, 1990-91, and 1993-94) provide a unique opportunity to examine the policies, practices, and perceptions of the nation's public and private schools, school districts, principals, and teachers. Schools and Staffing Survey has been described as:

The most thorough and comprehensive survey of American education concerning the school work force and teacher supply and demand that has ever been conducted in this country (Choy et al., 1993, p. iii).

Major categories of data collected by SASS include school and school administrator characteristics, teacher characteristics, programs and policies, teacher supply and demand, and the opinions and attitudes of teachers and school administrators regarding policies and working conditions. The ability to link survey data for individual principals, schools, teachers, and districts enhances the analytical potential of the data, as does the use of comparable questions in each round of administration.

This report is based mainly on responses to survey questions that examined the demographic characteristics, educational backgrounds, training and experiences, and attitudes and perceptions of the nation's public and private school principals during the 1987-88, 1990-91, and 1993-94 school years. These data were from responses to the following questionnaires:

Analyses of school-level administrators could not be done, however, without also considering the environment in which they operate. Consequently, the following additional SASS instruments were used, where necessary, to obtain descriptive information about the schools in which administrators are located and the teachers whom they lead, including factors such as student characteristics and school descriptors:

One of the objectives for this descriptive report of public and private school principals was the comparison of findings between school years (i.e., the results of 1987-88 vs. 1990-91 vs. 1993-94 findings). While the overall focus of the School Principal Questionnaire remained essentially unchanged between 1987-88 and 1993-94, the questionnaire was expanded each year. Comparisons between school years were complicated slightly by modifications in sampling design and questionnaire and item development between the three administrations. Appendix C discusses those differences and their relationship to the methodology employed.

This report uses SASS data to provide a comprehensive portrait of the American public and private school principalship during the 1993-94 school year and to assess changes over the six previous years. To highlight trends, many of the tables and figures in this report present results from each of the three survey years. Other tables and figures present only 1993-94 data where current information is more relevant or when temporal changes are insignificant.

Overview of the Report

Many issues guided the preparation of this report. These issues were identified through a careful review of the current literature on school administration, especially in the context of school reform; a detailed examination of the 1987-88, 1990-91, and 1993-94 SASS instruments; and the reports developed from the 1987-88 and 1990-91 SASS (Hammer & Gerald, 1990; Hammer & Rohr, 1993; Choy, Henke, Alt, Medrich, & Bobbitt, 1993). The issues fell under the following four broad topics, which correspond to the subsequent chapters of this report:

This report presents findings of interest to practicing educators, researchers, and policy makers at the national, state, and local levels. The body of the report is nontechnical and descriptive in nature, with considerable effort devoted to the presentation of analytic findings in ways that facilitate comprehension. Reading this report does not require any statistical expertise. Differences and similarities discussed in the text, however, have been evaluated for statistical significance using Student's t statistic adjusted for multiple comparisons with the Bonferroni procedure at the a=.05 level./2

This first chapter has provided background information that sets the stage for the discussions of specific issues that follow. The remaining chapters of the report are organized around the topics listed above. The chapters highlight and display data of particular interest on issues relevant to each topic.

All numbers appearing in the figures and tables in the following chapters, as well as numbers cited in the text, also appear in the tables of estimates in appendix A. The figures and tables in the chapters highlight important variables discussed in the text. Where numbers cited in the text do not appear in these figures or tables, a reference for an appendix table is provided (in parentheses with the prefix A).

Appendix B includes tables of standard errors for the estimates presented in appendix A. Appendix C contains technical notes for the report and includes a discussion of sampling, data collection, and analysis. Appendix D provides a list of additional reports and other publications on the Schools and Staffing Survey.

is interested in the readers' reactions to the information presented in this report and to the content of the surveys used to collect the information. Recommendations to improve the survey effort are welcomed. If you have suggestions or comments, want more information about this report, or would like copies of the questionnaires, please contact:

Education Surveys Program
Surveys and Cooperative Systems Group

U.S. Department of Education
1900 K Street NW, Suite 9000
Washington DC 20006


[1] See appendix C for a more extensive description of SASS.

[2] A description of the statistical procedures is included in appendix C.

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