The Principal’s Role in Rural Schools
The Principal’s Role in Rural Schools
“Leadership is influence…[and] the ability to obtain followers.” (Cruzeiro & Morgan, 2006, p. 569)
Principals of rural schools spend a large percentage of their time teaching cross-age, multi-grade students (Starr & White, 2008). As recent legislation and litigation continue to place more responsibility on the principal, site level responsibilities challenge the constant, increasing role of the administrator (Cruzeiro & Morgan, 2006).
Most principals in rural schools get little in the way of administrative support, ancillary personnel, and ground staff (Starr & White, 2008). While principals in larger schools are able to delegate and share in management tasks, this is not a luxury afforded to their small rural counterparts (Starr & White, 2008). Regardless of the size of the school, principals still have a moral obligation to comply with federal and state standards. The ethical behavior of educators, write Rude & Whetstone (2008), is a driving force that ensures balance.
Statement of the Problem
A rural school district is classified as such in that all of the schools in that particular district are located in counties with a population density of fewer than 10 persons per square mile and was identified as rural by a governmental agency (Cruzeiro & Morgan, 2006). Due in large part to declining enrollment, loss of resources, and loss of population, most school districts across America, rural schools and district are confronted and faced with continuous challenges (Patterson et al.., 2005). Additional barriers involve resistance to change, economic challenges, and geographic challenges (Cruzeiro & Morgan, 2006).
Principals in rural school districts do not receive funding which assists in overcoming small-school challenges. The problems faced by rural school principals create additional leadership challenges which require the need for increased school personnel. Other problems faced by principals include (a) redefined principalship, (b) workload proliferation, (c) educational equity issues, (d) escalating role multiplicity, and (e) school survival (Starr & White, 2008).
Redefined principalship. School reforms have made a drastic impact on the way schools operate and the way principals are positioned. Principals see their main role as instructional leaders (Starr & White, 2008). Principals express concern over the bureaucratic interference, which changes the nature of their roles and the way in which they work (Starr & White, 2008). There is constant complaining that rural school principals have to do more with less (Starr & White, 2008).
“Principals feel dislocated and alienated from debates about education policy-making, whereas previously they felt more involved, connected, and integral to the business of making a difference and setting direction” (Starr & White, 2008, p. 5). There is an ongoing consensus that principals are marginalized and ignored by education bureaucracies. Many principals are not supported by the education system at either the state or federal level (Starr & White, 2008). It is vital, says Wright (2007), that policy makers, educational administrators, and local citizens understand that schools are vital to rural communities.
Further, rural principals feel that there is a sense that the system is not set up to assist them, but rather the system is there to mandate, appraise, control, admonish when expectations are not met (Starr & White, 2008). Principals believe that the system is unsupportive and detracts from the more important work—the system, they say, is a nuisance (Starr & White, 2008).
Workload proliferation. The biggest concern expressed by principals is the increased amount of mandatory administrative and compliance work arriving from district, state, and federal governments (Starr & White, 2008). In addition to their increased workload, principals are also in the classrooms teaching. Workload pressures, principals say, also steal time from family life. Principals express anger and frustration with the ever increasing workload in the following ways
I’m running the whole day… I find it very hard to close the door when someone wants to see me—because who else would they see?… It’s getting worse the longer I’m in the job. It’s very tiring… You just never stop… It’s just never-ending. I’m always busy. It’s the horrendous hours you put in to do things well…so it’s huge…You’ve still got to do it all the things you’ve got to do in bigger schools, but you’ve only got one day of administrative school services officer support, and by the time they ay the bills…and get stuff ready for the school council, what’s normally left…is left to you… I just put in the extra hours.
(Starr & White, 2008, p. 4).
Principals as absorbed with the extra requirements of their existing work lives. They argue that they are too busy to engage with reforms, as the use of personnel time is valuable. Because principals are too busy coping with the everyday immediate needs of the school, they have no time to participate in politics (Starr & White, 2008).
Educational equity issues. Educational equity, according to Starr & White (2008), appears dependent on a principal’s ability to prepare a strong, convincing case utilizing standardized samples. Starr & White (2008) use the example of staffing for students with special needs being a submission-based exercise with strict criteria; therefore, there are fewer students qualifying for extra support.
Resources are “difficult to obtain despite increasing learning support needs as homogeneity decreases in some rural populations” (Starr & White, 2008, p. 5). Even if funding submissions are successful, there is more work to be done. Now suitable teachers have to be found and progress and final reports are required (Starr & White, 2008).
Escalating role multiplicity. Principals, according to Starr & White (2008), see their main role as instructional leader. Principals in small rural schools do not have assistant principals and unanimously complain about the lack of administrative support in undertaking increasing external demands (Starr & White, 2008). The breadth of the problem is stated in the following comments
There’s a feeling of great frustration amongst principals for the lack of support and care from the Department… I think we’re getting sick of trying to make do… Morale is terribly low for principals…the role is busier and more complex. I…work every night of the week. You work most Sundays… If it’s for the school you don’t mind, but if it’s for the Department you tend to put it off…otherwise you’d be working all of the time…You can’t take a day off. The work[load] has skyrocketed and resources have disappeared… There’s no time to do anything thoroughly… The Department’s on about outcomes and improvement, but how do they expect it’s going to happen? They’re making things worse. The support and money [from] the Department isn’t there now. The job satisfaction isn’t what it used to be. The demands are getting greater and greater… People are getting a lot more jaded than they used to…they’re getting run down. There’s too much expectation and responsibility put on principals.
(Starr & White, 2008, p. 4)
The sidelining of important educational matters and unrealistic expectations are a burden on principals. The increase in responsibility also causes an increase in managerial tasks, feelings of isolation, rising stress levels, and a decrease in professional satisfaction (Starr & White, 2008). These concerns detract from the real issues of leadership because of the lack of reward principals receive for their hard work, as they receive no tangible evidence of any positive outcomes.
School survival. As resources decline, funding for rural schools depend to a great extent on the successful completion of funding submissions (Starr & White, 2008). One principal expressed her frustration by stating
I get the impression that if you’re [a] small [school], people think you can cope… You haven’t got that many kids to deal with, so you don’t need extra resources. You should just get on with it. I think we’re disadvantaged from a perception point of view. I think we’re viewed as so insignificant as to not matter very much… So you start to think, “Why bother?”
(Starr & White, 2008, p. 5)
If schools become too small, they are subject to closure. Many rural schools are facing continual enrollment decline. Starr & White (2008) suggest population trends show no immediate solution to this problem. Principals made the following comments on this issue
You’re concerned all the time about survival. [The school is]…an asset in the community, you wonder what would happen if it closed. So you watch the enrollments and fear every time a family moves out of the district taking several kids with them. You can’t get caught riding a dead horse. The numbers went down quite rapidly…due to local demographics. We had big groups—well big for us, say 10 in each class. Then those students went off to high school and we were left with only 3 or 4 kids per class. Our numbers are decreasing. Because we’re isolated, there’s not much up here anymore employment-wise. We get a few transient families who will stay for 4-6 months and leave again… [This school] is not cost effective…and that makes you worry about what [will happen] in the longer term. We have to make do and do more with less. There should be differential staffing that recognizes the real needs… But while we’re losing numbers, the staffing formula makes things worse. You lose teachers and it’s even busier. We should have more control over human resources.
(Starr & White, 2008, pp. 6-7).
As a result of decreasing numbers in population, school closures have increased over the past several decades. If a rural school closes, it usually means that children are forced to travel long distances to ascertain alternative schooling (Starr & White, 2008).
Significance of the Study
Cruzeiro & Morgan (2006) write that inclusionary schools occur through purposeful leadership. The principal, Cruzeiro & Morgan (2006) writes, is the key to leading others through the change process. In order to do so, the principal must validate its perception with other stakeholders in the school community, including teachers, families, students and community members, and also in other rural communities (Cruzeiro & Morgan, 2006). Validation, according to Cruzeiro & Morgan (2006) involves evaluating reported inclusion efforts, in particular, leadership.
School reform has criticized over the years for universalizing schools and students (Wallin & Reimer, 2008). Such reform pays insufficient attention to race, class or gender. The premise takes into consideration the differences between rural and urban school. Further, commitment to a formal education which sustains local communities is a thing of the past and has been replaced with national and global school improvement initiatives (Wallin & Reimer, 2008). The future health of rural schools is related to the sustainability of their rural communities (Zacharakis et al., 2008).
Background. Wallin & Reimer (2008) write while rural scholars and educational stakeholders believe rural schools should serve local community interests, conflicts still exists over the purpose of schooling. Concerns in urban school reforms are often overshadowed by those of the rural schools. Rural schools, according to Wright (2007), serve a vital role in recreating communities in a highly mobile, industrialized society. Further, according to Wallin & Reimer (2008), rural schools are often plagued with educational problems such as (a) isolation from specialized services; (b) limited accessibility to quality staff development and university services; (c) teacher shortages in math and science; (d) decreasing enrollment which leads to decreased funding; and (e) declining pool of qualified administrative candidates.
Many rural schools offer fewer support and extracurricular programs overall than nonrural schools (Hardré et al., 2007). Often times when studies are presented on school district issues, the circumstances of rural schools are overlooked. As a result, rural schools are not included in school improvement plans across all school systems (Wallin & Reimer, 2008). Rural school principals are left bearing the burden of survival are dependent on the funding from school districts.
Analysis. It is quite evident that in order for schools to succeed they must hire principals who are willing to work to keep rural schools open. The school districts have an obligation to ensure that they do all they can to encourage and motivate school leaders. Districts need to consider promoting from within the community when seeking loyal rural school principals.
Synthesis. Challenges faced by principals in small rural schools result in creative initiatives. As a result, principals in rural communities are moving beyond traditional pathways to deliver educational benefits to their students (Starr & White, 2008). Such pathways involve cross-school activities, extensive use of information, involvement from the community, and greater communication (Starr & White, 2008).
Principals are working in a collective effort to cover teaching, learning, leadership, and management requirements, and to keep up-to-date with standardization and legislation. These collective activities occur as a result of school reform and the lack of available resources. Some principal explain the basis of these collaborative efforts as follows
We decided to combine our collective funding to hire a teacher for six schools, and share learning resources. [The literacy focus] was critical so we went from there, starting with “how can we solve this problem rather than re-inventing the wheel?” There’s a range of activities that are organized across the schools—drama days, inter-school sports days, combined with professional development days. The job is getting bigger all the time. You can’t do it all yourself. You can’t get caught up in all the red tape about parents needing police checks and not being out of sight of teachers… You just have to be pragmatic—do what needs to be done and take on any help that’s on offer.
(Starr & White, 2008, p. 7)
Evaluation. Studies show regardless of the issues rural school districts have with staying in business, studies do very well academically and socially as they move from middle school to high school (Patterson et al., 2005). According to a study released by the U.S. Department of Education, students in rural areas perform better in science and math than those in urban areas (Anonymous, 2007). Patterson et al. (2005) writes “Evidence of their accomplishments can be found in State Assessment scores, honor roll listings, homecoming candidate announcements, and those who have excelled in various extracurricular activities” (p. 153).
A 2006 report from the American College Testing Program, Inc. show performance of students on this high stakes test continue to climb (Zacharakis et al., 2008). Anonymous (2007) states compared to students at all grade levels, students in rural schools scored better on national science and math tests than children in cities. Smaller schools, Patterson et al. (2005) writes, perform well on state-mandated assessment tests.
Students in Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and most other states in the Heartland evidence the highest percentage (60-80%) of students who take this test (Zacharakis et al., 2008). Further, the US Department of Education showed student achievement scores well above the state average in almost all content areas and in some cases reaching the state’s “standard of excellence” rating (Patterson et al., 2005).
According to Anonymous (2007), the achievement in science by rural students is better because students get their education in a real-world setting as well as in classrooms. Zacharakis et al. (2008) write that measuring school success by the standard parameters of student test scores and achievement is meaningless in the overall scheme of defining the purpose of a rural community. “Parental involvement is an important factor—huge factor—in student achievement” (Anonymous, 2007, p. 59).
Summary, Conclusions, and Recommendations
“In any moment of decision the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worse thing you can do is nothing.” – Theodore Roosevelt (Rude & Whetstone, 2008).
Restatement of the Problem. Keeping well-liked principals on board increases the morale of parents and satisfies the need of the communities (Patterson et al., 2005). However, principals in rural schools have more than their fair share of work. Principals in rural schools are overworked and need more assistance to serve the schools in the manner best serving to the students. The school districts are not stepping up to the task of providing more assistance to the small rural school principal. As such, the lack of funding and administrative assistance is reflective in the high turnover rate of principals who leave because the work is too much to handle alone. Hardré et al. (2007) writes “Many rural schools find it hard to recruit and retain high quality teaching staff.”
Restatement of the Purpose. According to Berkeley & Ludlow (2008), the ethical imperative is an ideal based upon an assumption that we must both do good and do good well (p. 3). However, the job of a rural school principal is both cumbersome and burdensome. One principal describes his disparate workload in this manner
You have to constantly be on the front foot… You try and keep up with what the Department wants, you have to watch your numbers [enrollments], you have to keep an ear to the ground to know what’s happening in the community that might spill over into the school, and you have to watch how staff in the school are faring with pressures to do as much as a large school does. It’s a juggling act that’s a lot about survival.
(Starr & White, 2008, p. 6)
School leaders have the skills and experience to contribute to community leadership in rural communities, yet they are recruited for their school administrative skills and not for their community leadership skills (Zacharakis et al., 2008).
Findings. It is possible for principals in rural schools to focus on three components which might assist them in having success in their endeavors (a) Legitimization of Alternatives, (b) Diverse Networks, and (c) Resource Mobilization.
Legitimization of Alternatives focuses on the value of constructive controversy so that communities can engage in discussions around inclusive processes, without the political nature of those discussions becoming personal (Willin & Reimer, 2008). As a consequence Willin & Reimer (2008) write, superficial harmony and destructive conflict are replaced with processes that encourage dialogue and thoughtful decision making. Such alternatives are legitimized and valued, therefore continuous improvement occurs as goals are monitored and assessed (Wallin & Reimer, 2008).
Diverse Networks involve establishing horizontal and vertical networks to access potential sources of experience and knowledge (Wallin & Reimer, 2008). Diverse networks are diverse and inclusive and are created through both broad-based and personal invitations (Wallin & Reimer, 2008). Horizontal networks are teachers, administrators, staff, trustees, the school and the community. Vertical networks are individuals linked to regional, provincial, and national organizations (Wallin & Reimer, 2008). Such networks are diverse, can change and grow or narrow, depending on the issue at hand.
Resource mobilization speaks to the need to develop surplus in the community through private and collective local investments (Wallin & Reimer, 2008). According to Wallin & Reimer (2008), there is an equal distribution of resources and individuals or groups are encouraged to take risks to improve the community. These resources are available to everyone with the criteria being clear and visible to all.
Further findings indicate that principals are also community leaders who make significant contribution to local community and economic development activities (Zacharakis et al., 2008). It is concluded, therefore, that leaders should be developed from within. As such, local leadership should include professional development training and support for principals to attend workshops and national conferences (Zacharakis et al., 2008).
The professional role and responsibility of rural school principals receive a vast amount of guidance through the use of ethical guidelines as well as examples from real world practice (Rude & Whetstone, 2008). It would unethical for a principal to assume a role or responsibility for which he or she is not qualified. Once professional development is implemented utilizing the right training, it can produce the desired results (Rude & Whetstone, 2008).
Small rural principals spend a substantial amount of their time teaching. They “face multiple conflicting work demands in ways that far exceed those of their non-rural peers” (Starr & White, 2008, p. 6). Further, Starr & White (2008) write, the necessity of teaching multi-grade and ability levels concurrently and the absence of personnel, such as an assistant principal, business manager, specialist teacher, student counselor, and maintenance staff, make the principal’s more labor intensive. Younker (2008) writes, “one of the many joys of teaching in a rural school used to be the amount of contact [he] could have with the students in [his] class whom [he] saw as people, not statistical variations” (p. 13). Principals need to get back to developing one-to-one relationships with their students and not treat their students as wedges on pie charts.
It is necessary that participants from all levels of the school district participate in collaborative efforts. Combining the leadership of “principals, school councils, and education department officers enables schools to engage future scenario planning, to share expertise, and to devise combined strategic plans to affect community educational provision—including making decisions about what is educationally viable and what is not” (Starr & White, 2008, pp. 8-9). Educational capacity and community development should be co-mingled so that sustainability replaces fear about school closures. Further, distance learning opportunities allow the use of broad curriculums and enable the transmission of lessons to students and parents (Starr & White, 2008). In this regard, all rural communities will benefit if everyone come together to present ideas which can solve this dilemma.
Authors Rude & Whetstone (2008) put it all together in this writing
The challenges facing educational communities today are as sacred in their importance as they are difficult to undergo. It is up to ethical leaders in rural communities that are far away from the mainstream of urban life to take a piece of the mess and not wait for higher authorities to figure out the answers. Those who do not see the significant benefits of adaptive changes that benefit the school and community as a whole, to the point where they simply cannot or will not go along with the change will become casualties. Ethical leaders are willing to accept these casualties as a result of courage and commitment to ethical change based on moral purpose (p. 16).
Recommends for Further Study. It is recommended, as a result of this study, that federal and state government fund further investigation into small rural school principals (Starr & White, 2008). That they encourage new forms of resource allocation, and maintain an equal distribution leadership in all schools. Further, that government and state officials invest in the future of our schools by rewarding principals who work over and above the call of duty to maintain schools whose doors can now remain open. “Rural research is essential because rural schools often face serious economic and community resource constraints that place rural students at risk for low motivation and lack of school success” (Hardré et al., 2007).
Anonymous. (2007). Study: rural students better in science. Techniques, 82(6), p. 59.
Berkeley, T. R., & Ludlow, B. L. (2007). Ethical dilemmas in rural special education: a call for a conversation about the ethics of practice. Rural Special Education Quarterly, 27(1/2), pp. 3-9.
Cruzeiro, P. A., & Morgan, R. L. (2006). The rural principal’s role with consideration for special education. Education, 126(3), pp. 569-579.
Hardré, P. L., Crowson, H. M., Debacker, T. K., & White, D. (2007). Predicting the academic motivation of rural high school students. The Journal of Experimental Education, 75(4), pp. 247-269.
Patterson, J. A., Koenigs, A., Mohn, G., & Rasmussen, C. (2005). Working against ourselves: decision making in a small rural school district. Journal of Educational Administration, 44(2), pp. 142-158.
Rude, H. A., & Whetstone, P. J. (2008). Ethical considerations for special educators in rural America. Rural Special Education Quarterly, 27(1/2), pp. 10-18.
Starr, K., & White, S. (2008). The small rural school principalship: key challenges and cross-school responses. Journal of Research in Rural Education, 23(5), pp. 1-12.
Wallin, D. C., & Reimer, L. (2008). Educational priorities and capacity: a rural perspective. Canadian Journal of Education, 31(3), pp. 591-613.
Wright, K. A. (2007). Reenergizing small communities: a vital role for rural schools. The Educational Forum, 71(4), pp. 345-360.
Younker, K. (2008). Our mandate as teachers in a democracy. English Journal, 97(5), pp. 13-14.
Zacharakis, J., Devin, M., & Miller, T. (2008). Political economy of rural schools in the heartland. Rural Special Education Quarterly, 27(3), pp. 16-22.
Velranee Pye is a graduate student at Florida A&M University.