Robert McCartney: School Principals Feel Squeezed on Both Sides

By Robert McCartney
Thursday, August 27, 2009

It was June, and Gregg Robertson, principal of Washington-Lee High School in Arlington County, was busy preparing for graduation. Despite his tight schedule, he agreed to meet a local woman who insisted she needed to see him face-to-face.

The woman's urgent purpose: She wanted Robertson to explain why she should send her child to Washington-Lee rather than another high school. That seemed reasonable. But Robertson was astonished and a bit resentful when the mother revealed that her child was only in elementary school.

"It was disconcerting that at a time when we were trying to meet the many demands of a June schedule with graduation quickly approaching, that I spent almost an hour with a parent regarding a school year that was seven or so years away," he said.

Inconsiderate, time-wasting parents are only one of the numerous torments afflicting the region's principals as schools reopen at summer's end. Misinformed loudmouths venting on neighborhood e-mail lists can stain a school's reputation. Nervous county administrators and even school board members increasingly micromanage principals. Each year the federal No Child Left Behind law raises the targets for student test scores. Tight budgets are hurting teachers' morale, and the risk of the worst flu epidemic in 90 years looms in the fall.

I heard about all these headaches when I had the privilege of spending five days last month with nearly two dozen of the Washington region's top principals. We were on a working vacation -- part seminar, part holiday -- at a luxury Florida resort. The trip rewarded the "Principals of the Year" picked as part of The Washington Post's Distinguished Educational Leadership Awards.

It's often said that the principal is by far the most important factor in determining a school's success. I figured a smart way to explore the state of education in our region was to ask these principals what their work was like and how it's changed in recent years.

Some of the answers were disturbing. Principals today are stressed and squeezed, by parents below and bureaucrats and politicians above. Some of the trends they mentioned are helpful, by making educators more accountable, while others are mostly trouble.

The Internet is a major culprit. It has dramatically raised pressure on principals to respond to individual parents' complaints and concerns, however minor.

"A lot of people want to hear back from you in an hour. Tomorrow is already too late," said Mark Pritts, principal of Middletown Primary School in Middletown, Md.

On e-mail discussion groups and networking sites, a few carping critics whose free time exceeds their good judgment can demand a lot of attention with unfounded or trivial complaints about a disappointing Halloween party, single dirty restroom or bus schedule misunderstanding. A school's reputation can suffer when distorted information appears.

"I have a fight in the hallway, and it's on YouTube in 15 minutes, and suddenly we're a 'rough' school," said Denise S. Fargo-Devine, principal of Frederick High School.

A related frustration is the accelerating tendency for superiors at the central office -- superintendents, assistant superintendents, school board members -- to intervene in decisions that principals traditionally made on their own. For instance, it used to be rare for an appeal of a suspension for fighting, cursing or willful disobedience to go higher than the principal. Now it happens regularly.

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