Public School Principals Report Little Control Over Key Decisions

Washington, D.C. - Though most public school principals believe that effective leadership of their schools requires authority over personnel decisions (e.g. staff selection, deployment, dismissal), they report having little such authority in practice. That's a key finding of a new study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and the American Institutes for Research (AIR).

The Autonomy Gap: Barriers to Effective School Leadership was authored by Hartford Superintendent Steven J. Adamowski with Susan Bowles Therriault and Anthony P. Cavanna of AIR. Based on a series of interviews with a small sample of district and charter-school principals, the report shows that most district principals encounter a sizable gap between the extent and kinds of authority that leaders need to be effective and the authority that they actually have. Regrettably if understandably, many principals have also come to accept this gap as a fact of life. They learn to work the system, not change the system.

"Steve Jobs recently asked, 'What kind of person could you get to run a small business if you told them that when they came in, they couldn't get rid of people that they thought weren't any good?'" noted Fordham Institute President Chester E. Finn, Jr. "Sadly, the answer to his question is 'most public-school principals.' Many do a fine job of 'making do' with the system-as-it-is, but that system also fosters a corps of school leaders who, no matter what change-agent aspirations they arrived with, end up seeing themselves as middle managers in a vast bureaucratic enterprise. Yet those same leaders are held accountable for results as if they were CEO's. The first rule of good organizations is to ensure that executives have authority commensurate with their responsibility. But that's not how U.S. school systems work."

Personnel decisions aren't the only hindrances reported by principals of district-operated schools. They also have little autonomy over decisions involving school calendars, instructional time and much else. Charter school principals, on the other hand, report greater authority in virtually every category.

The researchers interviewed thirty-three principals in five cities located in three states-one western, one mid western, and one southeastern state. Participants were asked to rate the importance of twenty-one job functions, then report on their perceived level of autonomy over those functions. The complete list, as well as a sample information packet from the interview, is found at:

Supporters of this study included the William E. Simon Foundation and the American Institutes for Research.

School principals clearly want more authority to make important decisions, and it's our job as superintendents to give it to them," said Dr. Steven Adamowski, Superintendent of the Hartford, Connecticut School District and lead author of the report. "The best way to attract and retain top-notch leaders is to give them the running room to get the job done."

To download the full report, visit

About the Thomas B. Fordham Institute Nationally and in our home state of Ohio, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute strives to close America's vexing achievement gaps by raising standards, strengthening accountability, and expanding high-quality education options for parents and families. For more information about the Institute's work, visit

About AIR

AIR, established in 1946 with headquarters in Washington, D.C., is a nonpartisan, not-for-profit organization that conducts behavioral and social science research on important social issues and delivers technical assistance both domestically and internationally in the areas of health, education, and workforce productivity.


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