School Principal: Managing in Public [NOOK Book]


When we think about school principals, most of us imagine a figure of vague, yet intimidating authority—for an elementary school student, being sent to the principal’s office is roughly on par with a trip to Orwell’s Room 101. But with School Principal, Dan C. Lortie aims to change that. Much as he did for teachers with his groundbreaking book Schoolteacher, Lortie offers here an intensive and detailed look at principals, painting a ...

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School Principal: Managing in Public

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When we think about school principals, most of us imagine a figure of vague, yet intimidating authority—for an elementary school student, being sent to the principal’s office is roughly on par with a trip to Orwell’s Room 101. But with School Principal, Dan C. Lortie aims to change that. Much as he did for teachers with his groundbreaking book Schoolteacher, Lortie offers here an intensive and detailed look at principals, painting a compelling portrait of what they do, how they do it, and why.

Lortie begins with a brief history of the job before turning to the daily work of a principal. These men and women, he finds, stand at the center of a constellation of competing interests around and within the school. School district officials, teachers, parents, and students all have needs and demands that frequently clash, and it is the principal’s job to manage these conflicting expectations to best serve the public. Unsurprisingly then, Lortie records his subjects’ professional dissatisfactions, but he also vividly depicts the pleasures of their work and the pride they take in their accomplishments. Finally, School Principal offers a glimpse of the future with an analysis of current issues and trends in education, including the increasing presence of women in the role and the effects of widespread testing mandated by the government.

Lortie’s scope is both broad and deep, offering an eminently useful range of perspectives on his subject. From the day-to-day toil to the long-term course of an entire career, from finding out just what goes on inside that office to mapping out the larger social and organizational context of the job, School Principal is a truly comprehensive account of a little-understood profession.

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Editorial Reviews


"Lortie believes that knowing 'what is' can help current and future leaders in education improve schools and move beyond the current static culture. This book should be of great interest to both current and future educators, especially leaders in the field of education."
Robert B. Kottkamp

“Incisive and compelling, School Principal is sibling to Dan Lortie’s classic Schoolteacher. As an outsider to the principalship and an exceedingly careful and thorough scholar, Lortie sees what insiders do not see and asks questions we would never think to ask. The results are timely and important, offering readers an invaluable, career-encompassing resource for deep understanding of the ‘way things are’ and why.”

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226493503
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 8/1/2009
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 1,203,671
  • File size: 3 MB

Meet the Author

Dan C. Lortie is professor emeritus of education at the University of Chicago and the author of Schoolteacher, now in its second edition from the University of Chicago Press.

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Read an Excerpt

School Principal

Managing in Public


Copyright © 2009 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-49349-7

Chapter One

The Setting

Principals do not hang up shingles announcing the opening of their new practices. The reason is obvious but important: principals always work in organizations and always have-they offer no services outside the schools that employ them. Their work is, therefore, connected to the particulars of the organized settings in which they are employed, and we will see how profoundly the nature of those settings affect them in the pages to come. How their positions were shaped over time is an important part of that story and a brief examination of that history is the major focus of this chapter. What their work looks like today reflects the development over many decades of public schools, a history, as we shall see, that has been comparatively gradual and evolutionary. Continuities that have persisted over three centuries and significant changes that have taken place over many decades shape what we encounter today. The first part of the chapter, then, centers on the historical setting.

The second part of the chapter presents background information about the suburban schools we studied-information on the specifics of the organizational setting. Some organizational variables that transcend the particular sector of public schoolsare included, considerations such as size, environmental turbulence, and social composition. Taking such factors into account helps us to compare the challenges facing school managers with those faced by managers elsewhere. There are also particulars of grade structure and levels of student performance. Awareness of both kinds of particulars will assist readers in assessing the findings and interpretations presented throughout the book.


We live in a society where technological changes produce new lines of work almost explosively. Think, for example, of the electronics industry and the proliferation of products, services, and occupations it has produced in recent years. In contrast, the position of public school principal in the United States, having originated during the first half of the nineteenth century, looks almost ancient. Yet two other adult positions in public schools are even older; teachers and citizen overseers preceded the principalship by as much as 150 years. There were teachers employed in publicly supported schools as early as the seventeenth century; the schools where they worked were built, maintained, and supervised by local citizens selected to represent their communities. We are not studying new institutions.

Although there was considerable variation in arrangements in colonial times, schooling was nowhere sufficiently complex to require officials to coordinate activities or allocate resources within the simple schools that prevailed. Members of the citizens' governing group handled such matters. They were, in essence, trustees responsible for supervising the use of public funds obtained, eventually, through local taxation (Bailyn 1960). They hired the teacher and arranged to have the roof repaired. The teacher taught and also provided what are called "support services" today, such as maintaining stoves in cold weather, sweeping up at day's end, and bandaging whatever hurts the children sustained while running around during recess (Elsbree 1939).

That two key components (citizen boards and teachers) present at the birth of American schools persist today points to a degree of continuity in the structure of public schools; important changes made over the decades have resulted in the more complex organizations we see today. One such change is the curtailment of local board powers associated with increased controls from state and federal legislatures, the executive branches of state and federal governments, and state and federal courts; examples of such influences are racial desegregation, mandatory provisions for students with disabilities, and, more recently, increasing controls from state and federal governments based largely on how students perform on standardized tests (Campbell et al. 1990, Conley 2003).

The second major change is the development of an administrative corps, including headquarters personnel (the superintendent and central office staff) and principals for the individual schools. The existence of that corps makes it unnecessary for board members to engage in day-to-day managerial matters. Today's boards meet regularly and review recommendations submitted by the superintendent, passing or altering or rejecting them as they see fit. They continue to have the overall responsibility for the fiscal affairs of the school district and, officially, oversee school affairs in general.

The position of teachers has also undergone major changes. The teachers of an earlier era were the only adults regularly found in the one-room schoolhouse, an arrangement that persisted in some rural areas into the twentieth century. Today classroom teachers work under the direct supervision of full-time administrators; they teach different grades and different subjects and work alongside various types of specialists. Their efforts, moreover, are supplemented by clerks and skilled workers performing supportive functions. In many states, teachers belong to unions that have acted to protect and advance their interests. But there are also important elements of continuity. Today, as in the distant past, teaching tasks center on the face-to-face instruction of a group of children. Unlike industrial tasks that have been taken over by machines and robots; their tasks are more specialized today; the technological innovations that have persisted (there have been fads of various kinds) have been integrated into instructional programs still dominated by teachers. Most instruction, moreover, takes place in the bounded space of a separate classroom somewhat isolated from others in the building. In elementary schools, most teachers spend most of their working hours with one group of children day after day for the duration of an academic year.

Simple schools (a citizen board overseeing one teacher) prevailed over many decades; they were adapted to rural life where children were dispersed over miles of thinly populated land. But arrangements created in rural America no longer matched reality when urbanization expanded throughout the nineteenth century. Large increases in the number of students due to demographic changes (including immigration) and laws making school attendance compulsory changed that reality. As urban density increased, more and more children lived in smaller and smaller areas. It became not only possible but necessary to accommodate them in new ways; buildings with multiple rooms replaced the one-room schoolhouse. Those heading schools (ultimately titled "principal") sorted children by age levels and prior schooling, placing them in the newly created system of grades (Elsbree 1939). Teachers were assigned to classes that had become considerably more homogeneous because they no longer taught children of widely varying ages and accomplishment.

The creation of schools with multiple grades and classrooms was a major change in the organization of public education; multiple classrooms and teachers raised issues of internal authority over teachers as well as students and the question of who spoke for the school vis-à-vis the community. It was widely assumed that there should be a single person "in charge" of the building. The emergence of management at the school level contrasts with the pattern that prevailed in business at the time where new positions were created by owners as part of developing technologies; for example, the organizational and productive systems built by Henry Ford and Sears Roebuck were designed and executed from the top down. At the school level, however, local management grew up and over an established and continuing teaching function and, as a result, showed greater adaptation to what previously existed than was true for structures that were developed in business corporations. The break with the past in schools was comparatively bland.

Teaching young children had always involved responsibility for their care during long periods of time; the phrase "in loco parentis" underscores the expectation that a teacher will attend to the general well-being of the child as well as the learning of students. Young children require constant supervision, particularly when in groups and outside their homes; order must be maintained and care taken to protect them from harm. The shift to a system of age-graded classes did not remove the need for close supervision; the expectation continued that teachers would stay with their students during the school day, leaving them only for brief and/or stipulated periods when another adult was assigned to supervise the children. (Concerns about legal liability eventually reinforced close supervision of the students.) Teachers became unavailable to participate in tasks that grew out of the organizational needs of the school; their contributions, where desired and sought, would have to take place primarily outside regular classroom hours. Restrictions on the availability of teachers reduced the capacity of principals to delegate school-based tasks to them; in managerial terms, principals faced and continue to face a workforce characterized by what we might call "low assignability." Administrative assistants for elementary school principals, moreover, have tended to be sparse and, when present, have been vulnerable to budget cuts.

The last half of the nineteenth century was a period of transition between the largely decentralized distribution of schools and the (comparatively) tidy hierarchies that emerged in cities after the turn of the century (Cronin 1973). Arrangements varied greatly during the later years of the nineteenth century; one account (Reller 1935) is almost despairing in its efforts to generalize about the early district structures in 39 cities. But despite such variations, there appear to have been some common elements in the tasks of the head teachers (principals) during that era.

Pierce's work (1935) points up the fact that principals had much to do in this formative period. One of their central responsibilities was to place children in the emerging system of grades, children whose educational backgrounds, we presume, varied enormously. Many came from foreign countries with no preparation in English, whereas others, migrants from the countryside to the cities, had widely uneven knowledge of reading, writing, and arithmetic. It fell to the principals to deal with the parents, who were also heterogeneous and frequently had no experience with public schools or how to support their children's learning. Perhaps it is not surprising that it became less and less common for those serving as principals to continue teaching while performing their administrative duties; it became a full-time position within a few decades of its initial creation.

By 1900 city school districts had, in the main, taken shape-a shape that became the prototype for other kinds of communities as well. Historical accounts and interpretations differ on the processes and motivations involved, but its formation clearly reflected changes in the society at large (Katz 1968, Tyack 1974). Centralization was fostered by technological and related developments, an observation Max Weber made in discussing the development of modern bureaucracy (Weber 1947). It became possible for those at the apex of a city system to inspect schools throughout the area (as trolleys and automobiles replaced horses) and to communicate (telephones) with officials in widely dispersed units. The expanding school population required new facilities and coordinated action in larger and larger district units; as years of schooling increased, so did the need to align the grades and curriculum from kindergarten through high school. In governance, progressive ideals challenged party patronage and encouraged appointment based on merit and professional preparation, the latter helping superintendents to wrest a degree of discretion from boards and political figures; conceptions of professionalism, buttressed by universities and state governments, aligned university programs with hierarchical ranks among school personnel. The dramatic successes of large organizations in business (from industry to retail chains) provided models of leadership, idealizing it and influencing school boards and others with power over the formation of school districts (Callahan 1962). The organizational connections within the public system of education tightened.

School superintendents played a part in shaping the emerging structure. They met and communicated across state and municipal lines to form national groups (e.g., National Education Association, etc.) working to support their claims to clear administrative powers. Callahan (1966) tells that during the 1890s they debated and worked toward a consensus that claimed administrative rights and responsibilities for superintendents, but unlike a few of their more aggressive members who pressed for legal independence, most superintendents rejected that much independence and accepted policy dominance by local school boards and their authority to hire and fire superintendents. Superintendents acknowledged their vulnerability and the need to take it into account in their behavior as school executives; at the same time, however, they supported preparation programs in universities to buttress their claims to "professional" knowledge and to bolster their prestige by acquiring advanced degrees. When journalists attacked schools and decried weaknesses among teachers, superintendents joined in and emphasized the need for "supervision" (tasks they claimed as theirs) to correct deficiencies among faculty members. Conceptions of scientific management that dominated managerial thinking during the early decades of the twentieth century built on such imagery, propounding the need to concentrate planning and specialized intellectual capacities in headquarters (central office) rather than in individual schools; that practice became routine in subsequent years and made it less likely that principals (especially in the elementary grades) would get more than a minimal number of persons to help them in managing their schools (Callahan 1962).

Tyack discusses the emergence of what educators-and the public at large-came to regard as the "one best system" (Tyack 1974). That system, initially developed in the cities, became the prototype for smaller communities including the suburbs around the cities and, in the form of regional schools, rural areas as well: it became the standard structure. Its diffusion was helped by, among other things, state regulations and certification procedures and university programs for training teachers, specialists and administrators and, as we have seen, the professional associations of school people that were dominated by school administrators (essentially male) during the formative years (Wesley 1957).

Seen strictly from a structural point of view, we can depict the standard system as built by collecting smaller units (classrooms and schools) into a common organization and ranking them within a vertical hierarchy called a school district. The first aggregation combined previously physically separate classrooms headed by a teacher (the one-room school) into graded schools with multiple rooms, several teachers, and an administrative head. (The first documented case was the Quincy School in Boston in 1847, a twelve-room school modeled on schools that some leading American educators had seen in Germany (Elsbree 1939). The second aggregation pulled together, into a citywide organization, schools that were locally operated in neighborhoods and run by neighborhood leaders. The nested units continued to be headed by persons in positions associated with their previously independent standing-teachers heading classrooms and principals heading schools. The resulting hierarchy placed superintendents directly "over" principals and principals directly "over" teachers. In managerial terms, superintendents became the senior managers, principals the junior. All teachers reported directly to a principal while students, of course, were subordinated to all certified adults.


Excerpted from School Principal by DAN C. LORTIE Copyright © 2009 by The University of Chicago . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents



1 The Setting

2 The Early Career

3 Looking Up

4 On Being in Charge

5 The Rewards

6 Complications and Complexities

7 Careers and Satisfaction

8 Reality and Response: A Managerial Subculture

9 An Uncertain Future

Appendix A: The Interview, the Fact Sheet, and the Sample

Appendix B: The Iowa Data and Community Differences




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