Why School Principals Need More Authority

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.

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.

Second, we’ve layered so many responsibilities on our schools that the teaching and learning of basic skills and essential knowledge has all but vanished under efforts to rectify injustice, foster diversity, provide multiple services to kids with varying needs, prevent drug abuse, adolescent pregnancy and obesity, forge character, keep children off the streets, ensure physical fitness, and observe a near-infinity of special events, holidays, and interest-group enthusiasm.

Third, every time something goes wrong anywhere, a blizzard of new rules and procedures descends upon the school’s obligations, lest that mishap recur anywhere else. Whether it’s bullying or a playground accident, an unwanted intruder or a disgruntled parent, a kid who doesn’t get into a particular course or a library book that offends someone, the checklists, regulations, and prohibitions multiply.

What’s a principal to do? If his or her state (like Florida or California) has a universal class-size limit, he or she cannot even rearrange student and teacher assignments to make the best use of the school’s instructional team. If a state tenure law or district union contract insists that, in a layoff situation, the newest teachers must be let go first, he or she will have no say over who ends up teaching in his school. (Never mind that the reduction in instructional force doesn’t obviate the class size limit!) If a district policy (or court order) says no student can be suspended or expelled regardless of the offense, simply maintaining order within the school may prove impossible. (In the opposite case, a “zero tolerance” law may leave the principal with no discretion even for a first offender who didn’t mean any harm. Remember those six-year-olds who bring TOY weapons for “show and tell”?)

This gigantic mismatch between responsibility and authority has no discrete remedy. What’s needed is a radical simplification, replacing rules with responsibility on the part of the people running our schools. If we don’t give principals the authority to do their jobs, we are going to have few competent leaders for our schools, which means we’re not going to have many effective schools or well-educated children tomorrow.

-Chester E. Finn, Jr.

This essay was originally published by TheAtlantic.com as part of its “America the Fixable” series.

Last Updated


Notify Me When Education Next

Posts a Big Story

Business + Editorial Office

Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone (617) 496-5488
Fax (617) 496-4428
Email Education_Next@hks.harvard.edu

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488
Email subscriptions@educationnext.org

Copyright © 2024 President & Fellows of Harvard College