How much ACTUAL influence do principals think they have on school decisions?

Principal’s autonomy refers to the power or authority that principals use to make major decisions around many aspects of their schools. More autonomy enables principals to exercise their leadership and contribute to the success of school performance. During the last decades, the role of public school principals has changed, and so has their influence inside their buildings. According to recent research, principals in Philadelphia who were granted greater autonomy were more likely to use this influence to make changes to teacher professional development, curriculum, and instructional strategies (Steinberg & Cox, 2017).

We examined data from the Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS, 2011-12 school year) to see how much autonomy principals reporting having and in what areas. SASS asked principals of public schools “How much actual influence do you think you have as a principal on decisions concerning activities—

  1. setting performance standards for students,
  2. establishing curriculum,
  3. determining the content of in-service professional development programs for teachers,
  4. evaluating teachers,
  5. hiring new full-time teachers,
  6. setting discipline policy, and
  7. deciding how to spend school budget?”

We analyzed the responses and examined how principals perceived their job autonomy.

What does SASS say about principals’ autonomy?

Figure 1 shows that most principals reported having moderate to major influence on evaluating (98%) and hiring teachers (94%), as well as on determining the content of in-service professional development programs for teachers in their schools (94%). With regards to decisions directly related to students, most principals also had influence on setting performance standards (93%) and establishing discipline policies (97%) for their schools. Although a high percentage of principals felt that they had autonomy in regards curriculum and budget, 21 percent said that they had no influence on establishing curriculum at their schools, and 10 percent felt they had no say in deciding how to spend their school budget.

Figure 1

Figure 1. Principals’ responses to the survey question “How much ACTUAL influence do you think you have as a principal on decisions concerning the activities?”

When principals feel no say in establishing curriculum …

Principals are not necessarily experts in curriculum development, but they should have enough knowledge about it to determine what students are being taught, or whether students are able to reach all achievement goals based on the curriculum (Bottoms, 2001). The results of our correlation analysis show that when principals perceived that they had no influence on decisions concerning curriculum, they also were likely to feel lack of autonomy in setting performance standards for students in their schools (r = 0.35). Likewise, when principals felt that they had no say in setting curriculum, they also were likely to feel that they had no influence on determining the content of in-service professional development programs for teachers in their schools (r = 0.27).

When principals can determine teachers’ professional development (PD) …

“The most important part of our job is to develop people in the [school] building,” one principal said in an interview with principals from the Chicago public school district. In the SASS data, 94 percent of public school principals felt that they had actual influence on determining the content of in-service professional development programs for teachers in their schools. Principals who had more influence on PD were also more likely to have more influence on curriculum (r = 0.27), teacher evaluation (r = 0.22), and school budget (r = 0.20) (Figure 2).

Figure 2

Figure 2. Binary correlation between the perception of principals on determining teachers’ professional development and other school activities

What do we learn from the above correlations?

For principals to feel that they actually are instructional leaders, they need to have a certain degree of autonomy over school-based decisions. Previous studies show that principals in urban school districts seem to have more autonomies in budget, curriculum and scheduling. We found that autonomies regarding budget, curriculum and teachers’ professional development had relatively strong association with each other. This finding is consistent with some case studies. For instance, one principal from the Chicago public school district complained,

“My after-school PD money was impacted. I have teacher teams who needed that time. The furloughs, having to say no to my teachers, and the way everything was communicated to us, was the last straw for me.”

The SASS data show that there are positive correlations between each category of autonomies perceived by principals, but these correlations cannot explain why. In the next blog, we will broach the subject and examine how principals support the professional development of teachers.