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Public and Private School Principals in the United States: A Statistical Profile, 1987-88 to 1993-94 / Chapter 4

Chapter 4. Principals' Perceptions of Problems in Their Schools

The number of problems facing school principals is almost infinite and varies by school type, community, and area. Several studies have enumerated some of the problems (see e.g., Goldhammer et al., 1971; ERS, 1991); the Gallup organization's annual public opinion survey of American education is perhaps the best known. The 1992 edition of this Annual Poll of the Public's Attitudes Toward the Public Schools (Elam, Rose, & Gallup, 1992) identified the biggest problems facing local schools as (1) use of drugs, (2) lack of discipline, (3) lack of proper financial support for education, and (4) overcrowding and too large schools. Poor curriculum and standards, the focus of much of the early reform activities, ranked a distant fifth place.

The Educational Research Service Educator Opinion Poll poses similar questions to principals on a regular basis. The respondents in the 1991 study identified limited financial support for education as the primary factor hindering the schools (identified by 30 percent of the responding principals). External threats to education were the next most important elements, including inadequate interest and involvement on the part of parents in their children's education (22 percent) and poverty (19 percent). In contrast to current conventional wisdom about American schools, school safety and security issues (e.g., crime, vandalism, gangs) were not considered the most important problems by most principals or the general public.

The next decade will present new and difficult challenges in addition to the current array threatening today's schools. The Schools and Staffing Survey provides the opportunity to examine principals' perceptions of the most serious problems facing their schools and to compare these perceptions over time. This analysis provides an indication of whether problems vary by school and district characteristics and whether the problems facing American schools are becoming more serious.

Serious Problems Identified

For each of the survey years, SASS asked principals to rate a list of potential problems as either serious, moderate, minor, or not a problem in their school. The list of problems contained in the principal questionnaires varied over the three years, with each subsequent questionnaire adding or deleting items to reflect more accurately current issues in education. The 1987-88 instrument listed 13 items, and the 1990-91 instrument had 22 items. For 1993-94, the questionnaire added four new items (students come to school unprepared to learn, poor nutrition, poor student health, and student problems with the English language) and excluded two items (physical abuse of teachers and cultural conflict) to create a 24-item list.

Table 5 presents, by school level for each of the three years, the problems principals identified most frequently as serious problems in their school and the percentage of principals who selected each of those problems. The table lists all the problems that were in the top five for any of the three years. Public elementary school principals most often identified poverty as a serious problem for the two years it appeared in the survey (15 percent in 1990-91 and 17 percent in 1993-94). Twelve percent of public elementary principals identified students come to school unprepared to learn as a serious problem, making it the second most common problem for 1993-94, the only year in which it appeared in the survey. Lack of parent involvement was also identified as a serious problem by more than 10 percent of public elementary principals for 1990-91 and 1993-94, the two years it appeared.

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Table 5.Percentage of public and private school principals selecting
         problems as serious in their schools: 1987-88, 1990-91, 1993-94
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    Most frequently identified problems   1987-88       1990-90    1993-94
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PUBLIC
  Elementary
   Poverty                                    (a)         15.4       17.0
   Lack of parent involvement                 (a)         11.9       10.2
   Parent alcohol/drug abuse                  (a)          6.4        7.0
   Student apathy                             (a)          4.7        5.6
   Student absenteeism                        3.6          3.6        2.4
   Teacher absenteeism                        1.6          1.1        0.8
   Student tardiness                          2.7          3.0        2.3
   Physical conflicts among students          2.6          2.3        3.4
   Vandalism of school property               0.8          1.0        1.4
   Students come unprepared to learn          (a)          (a)       11.6
  Secondary
    Poverty                                   (a)         11.5       13.3
    Lack of parent involvement                (a)         19.8       19.7
    Student apathy                            (a)         13.7       14.7
    Student absenteeism                      15.3         14.3       11.6
    Student tardiness                        10.5         10.2        9.2
    Student use of alcohol                   11.7         14.0       13.3
    Students come unprepared to learn         (a)          (a)       12.5
    Student pregnancy                         6.3          7.4        8.4
    Student drug abuse                        5.6          3.8        4.6
PRIVATE
  Elementary
    Poverty                                   (a)          3.0        3.0
    Lack of parent involvement                (a)          1.1        1.9
    Student apathy                            (a)          0.6        0.9
    Teacher absenteeism                       0.8          0.5        0.1
    Students come unprepared to learn         (a)          (a)        1.3
    Student tardiness                         0.9          1.3        1.2
    Student disrespect for teachers           (a)          0.7        0.5
  Secondary
    Poverty                                   (a)          2.4        6.3
    Lack of parent involvement                (a)          3.5        5.2
    Parent alcohol/drug abuse                 (a)          2.9        8.6
    Student absenteeism                       5.0          1.7        2.3
    Student tardiness                         5.8          2.0        4.3
    Student use of alcohol                    5.3          4.1       11.6
    Student drug abuse                        3.7          1.8        7.1
    Student disrespect for teachers           (a)          2.1        3.2
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(a) Item not included on SASS questionnaire that year.
NOTE: Principals were instructed to rate each problem as serious, moderate,
minor, or not a problem in their schools. The table lists the top five
problems principals rated as serious for any of the three years.
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education
Statistics, Schools and Staffing Survey: 1987-88 (Administrator
Questionnaire), 1990-91 (Administrator Questionnaires), 1993-94 (Principal
Questionnaires).
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For public secondary principals for 1990-91 and 1993-94, lack of parent involvement ranked first on the list of problems facing schools, with nearly one-fifth of principals selecting it as a serious problem. Student apathy (14 percent in 1990-91, 15 percent in 1993-94) and poverty (12 percent in 1990-91, 13 percent in 1993-94) were also identified frequently for those two years by public secondary principals. Among the items that were on the questionnaires all three years, public secondary principals selected student use of alcohol (12 percent in 1987-88, 14 percent in 1990-91, 13 percent in 1993-94), student absenteeism (15 percent, 14 percent, 12 percent), and student tardiness (10 percent, 10 percent, 9 percent) among the top problems each of those years. Students come to school unprepared to learn was also selected relatively frequently by public secondary principals for 1993-94 (12 percent).

Two problems involving serious misconduct that were identified with low frequency by public secondary school principals are worth noting: verbal abuse of teachers and student possession of weapons. Verbal abuse of teachers is noteworthy because the percentage of secondary principals selecting it as a serious problem tripled between the 1987-88 and 1993-94 school years, increasing from 1 percent in 1987-88 to 3 percent in 1993-94. On the other hand, student possession of weapons remained relatively infrequently cited as a serious problem (1 percent in 1993-94). Given the seriousness of this problem, however, it is notable that for 1993-94 one of every one hundred secondary principals identified this item as a serious problem.

Private school principals were less likely than their public counterparts to identify problems in their schools as serious, but they did identify many of the same problems as their public counterparts (table 5). As with the public schools, private elementary principals selected poverty (3 percent in 1993-94) and lack of parent involvement (2 percent in 1993-94) with the greatest frequency. They identified these problems, however, at much lower rates than their public school colleagues.

A notable exception to the lower frequency of identification of serious problems for private schools can be found in the ratings of three alcohol and drug-related problems by secondary principals for 1993-94 (table A17). For that year, 12 percent of private principals identified student use of alcohol as a serious problem in their school, 9 percent identified parent alcohol/drug abuse, and 7 percent identified student drug abuse. Private secondary principals selected those problems at percentages comparable to public secondary principals (13 percent, 8 percent, and 5 percent). Private secondary principals, like public principals, also frequently selected poverty (6 percent in 1993-94) and lack of parent involvement (5 percent in 1993-94) as serious problems, but they were less likely to select these problems than their public counterparts.

Not surprising, serious problems identified by principals varied by community type. For example, in public elementary schools for 1993-94 (table A18), central city principals were more likely to identify poverty (26 percent) as a serious problem than were principals in either rural/small town schools (16 percent) or urban fringe/large town schools (11 percent). Elementary principals in central cities were also more likely to select students come to school unprepared to learn (19 percent)and lack of parent involvement (16 percent) as serious problems than were their counterparts in urban fringe/large town schools (8 percent, 7 percent) or rural/small town schools (10 percent, 9 percent).

At the secondary level for 1993-94, a pattern of problem identification similar to elementary schools emerged (table A19). As with elementary principals, public secondary principals in central cities were more likely to identify poverty (22 percent) as a serious problem than were principals in either rural/small town schools (13 percent) or urban fringe/large town schools (8 percent). Central city secondary principals were also more likely to select students come to school unprepared to learn (17 percent) and lack of parent involvement (24 percent) as serious problems than were their counterparts in urban fringe/large town schools (9 percent, 16 percent). One frequently identified problem, student alcohol use, was more commonly identified as a serious problem by public secondary principals in rural/small towns (16 percent) than those in urban fringe/large towns (11 percent) or in central cities (6 percent).



Chapter 3. Training and Educational Experiences of PrincipalsPrev Contents NextChapter 5. Principals' Goals, Influence, and Career Plans

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