One of the many things I love about my work is the chance to partner with colleagues from across Western Kentucky University and beyond on a variety of projects. The fruit of one of those collaborations was recently published in the NASSP Bulletin, peer-reviewed research journal of the National Association of Secondary School Principals.
This research study used the 2011 Teaching, Empowering, Leading, and Learning (TELL) Kentucky survey, administered statewide to all Kentucky educators, to explore how high school principals differed from assistant principals in their perceptions of school working conditions. My co-authors included former WKU colleague Dr. Jie Zhang (now a the University of Houston), WKU Educational Leadership doctoral program graduate Dr. Chunling Niu (now with the University of Kentucky College of Social Work), retired WKU colleague Dr. Stephen K. Miller, and Dr. Tony Norman, director of WKU's EdD program.
The TELL Kentucky survey was developed by the New Teacher Center of Santa Cruz, California, and has been administered every other year since 2011 to all Kentucky teachers and other school-level, certified personnel. The survey collects teacher attitudes toward eight aspects of their working conditions: Time, Facilities and Resources, Community Support and Involvement, Managing Student Conduct, Teacher Leadership, School Leadership, Professional Development, and Instructional Practices and Supports. The survey has always enjoyed a high response rate (80% in 2011) and provides a useful tool for reflecting on factors that impact teacher job satisfaction and school-wide professional culture.
Previously our research team had used the 2011 TELL Kentucky results to examine how implementing school-wide Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) impacts teacher perceptions of their working conditions. In this study, we wanted to focus on school administrators. Specifically, we were interested in how assistant principals might differ from principals in their perceptions.
As I have written previously, the assistant principalship is the gateway for many aspiring principals to enter school administration, but not always a good one. Assistant principals are often relegated to uninspiring, non-instructional managerial tasks that may not prepare them well for the multi-faceted job of school principals. While empirical research is limited, we found evidence from earlier literature that principals and assistant principals often differ in their perceptions of each other's roles. We hypothesized that assistant principals might likewise differ in their perceptions of the school's working conditions. And given that the primary way principals impact student achievement is through developing structures of distributed leadership and by building academic capacity in the school, we speculated that differences between principal and assistant principal perceptions might also be related to student achievement outcomes.
We limited our population to high schools (where the most combinations of principals and assistant principals could be found). Using selection criteria described in the article, our sample included 149 principals and 240 assistant principals representing 133 schools (many schools have multiple AP's and some even have multiple principals). We found that principals and assistant principals had significantly different perceptions of their schools on two TELL constructs: school leadership and teacher leadership. In both cases, principals tended to rate their schools more positively than assistant principals. In other analyses (presented at the Mid-South Education Research Association in 2013), we had found that high school principals tended to rate most TELL constructs higher than teachers.
In this way, assistant principal perceptions were more like teachers on the constructs of school leadership (which has to do with how responsive and collaborative school leaders are with teachers) and teacher leadership (which focuses on how teachers are empowered with decision-making authority). Differences in principal and AP perceptions did not predict differences in student achievement, however.
Limitations abound in every research study, of course. Our school achievement variable was the overall academic index score of the school, which is an amalgamation of numerous student outcome data points. A more fine-grain analysis may have revealed other effects on student achievement. But it's also possible that, by virtue of their mostly non-instructional roles, differences in assistant principal and principal perceptions just have limited bearing on the academic life of the school.
The study also revealed some interesting interactions between parental involvement and discrepancies between principals and assistant principals in their perceptions of working conditions. Schools with high levels of parental involvement tended to also have higher degrees of agreement between APs and principals on TELL constructs. Our earlier research found that higher levels of parent involvement were (unsurprisingly) predictive of higher levels of student achievement in the school.
While we can't draw causal connections among these variables, this research in general suggests there is value in principals working more closely with their assistant principals to calibrate their perceptions of what is happening in the school. Doing so may not only build a unity of purpose but also serve to better empower assistant principals as more significant decision-makers in the school and better prepare them for leadership roles.
I'm continuing to work with colleagues on several additional analyses of TELL data from 2011 and subsequent years, along with results from other teacher perceptions surveys, and how these tools might better predict student achievement outcomes and therefore inform school improvement efforts in more meaningful ways. We hope to begin presenting and publishing those results later this year.
You may download our study on the NASSP Bulletin website (behind a paywall, but you may have access through a university affiliation). Contact me directly for more information on our research.
Usual disclaimer: All views expressed on this website are mine alone and do not reflect the opinions of Western Kentucky University (where I am associate professor of educational administration, leadership, and research) or the Kentucky Board of Education (where I have served as a member since 2016).