Private School Principals Have More Control Than Public School Principals, Working Paper Shows

Vol. 14 No. 10

heads eletter Vol.14 No.10 principal

The American saying "Too many cooks spoil the broth" may be more than folk wisdom, if a new study is to be believed. In an attempt to understand why private schools are commonly considered to be superior to their public school peers, researchers evaluated how autonomous school principals were in several key governance areas. Private school principals and Heads apparently wield greater power when compared to that of their public school counterparts, who seemingly cope with an oligarchy of administrators interfering with decisions.

Preliminary Findings

Two doctoral students at the University of Arkansas—M. Danish Shakeel and Corey A. DeAngelis—undertook to discover just how much influence a school’s principal can exert over the day-to-day function of his or her school, based on the results from the 2011-2012 School and Staff Survey, developed by the National Center for Education Statistics. As it turns out, their findings in Who Is More Free? A Comparison of the Decision-Making of Private and Public School Principals reaffirm that private school administrators on the whole have greater autonomy than their public school peers in six of seven measured “school-level activities.”

In particular, private school principals were found to have major influence over setting student performance standards, developing school curricula, and setting teachers’ professional development standards. These same principals were also more likely than their public peers to have authority over hiring teachers, disciplinary policies, and budget setting and spending (though differences in responses for these areas were not considered statistically significant).

The only area where public school principals were more likely to have greater authority than private school principals was in teacher evaluation. In fact, private school principals were 6.4% less likely to report having a major influence on the evaluation of the teachers in their schools. The paper’s authors hypothesized that since private schools were freed from the regulatory burden that requires yearly evaluation, fewer private school principals considered this a priority.

(On a side note, female principals overall were set at an advantage over their male peers in expressing major influence over examined school-level activities, showing statistically significant positive difference in most categories.)

In the end, Shakeel and DeAngelis concluded that private schools may experience greater success than public schools, due to the higher levels of autonomic decision-making permitted in the private sector.

Points to Consider

This study has yet to be formally finalized, peer reviewed, and published in relevant journals. We would also hope for further connection and correlation to be found between those who self-reported higher influence at their schools and “better” student outcomes, as the authors imply they observed while combing through the data. No differentiation was made between different types of private schools, nor for charters within the broader public school sector, in order to present a cross-market value for each population.

That said, the studied school-level activities over which influence was reported offer insight into how the schools’ overall philosophies and format impact student performance and School Head autonomy.

School Heads—as employees of their Boards—are entrusted with enforcing the Portraits of the Graduate developed as part of the schools’ Stragetic plans. It makes sense, then, that Heads at private schools wield more influence in shaping student performance standards than their peers at public institutions, which in recent years have been plagued with mandatory testing.

The same logic applies for curricula. Public schools receive government funding—which can then set the lessons required to be taught to students. On the other hand, private schools receive private funds, allowing greater freedom in what is taught, when lessons are given, and how the information is disseminated.

Hiring and training teachers at private institutions is another activity in which the Head has more influence than public principals, who often must adhere to standards and seniority set by teacher unions. Teachers are also the private school’s “first line of defense” when it comes to teaching students about the importance and utility of the school’s primary mission, which means that it makes sense for Heads—whose job revolves around that mission—to have greater authority.

Interestingly, the private school principals’ lack of influence in teacher evaluations may not, as the authors hypothesize, be a result of decreased regulatory burden. Rather, it could be a direct result of School Heads having greater authority over hiring school employees at the faculty and administrative levels.

Hiring the right person for the job the first time means evaluation becomes more professional coaching, as taught in our book Comprehensive Faculty Development, as well as entrusting “middle management” with those evaluations. In short, trusted and mission-driven Division Heads can serve as direct mentors and evaluators at private schools, rather than the School Head directly.

In the end, Who Is More Free? essentially justifies common wisdom that too many cooks, indeed, spoil the broth. When schools don’t trust their administrators to make the correct choices on behalf of their students—instead fencing them in with excessive oversight and regulation—the ability of the school to be flexible and best support its students erodes. On the other hand, when schools are allowed autonomy and competent School Heads given authority to guide the school, learning communities (and their students) seem to flourish.

Additional ISM resources:
The Source for Trustees Vol. 13 No. 9 The School Head's File: Keeping Tabs on Your Employee

Additional ISM resources for Gold Consortium members:
I&P Vol. 29 No. 16 15 Administrative Actions and Approaches Compatible With the Findings of ISM’s Head Leadership Study
I&P Vol. 29 No. 1 Reculturing For Change: A Head's Primer

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