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School Principal: Managing in Public

reviewed by Thomas L. Good - August 10, 2009

coverTitle: School Principal: Managing in Public
Author(s): Dan C. Lortie
Publisher: University of Chicago Press, Chicago
ISBN: 0226493490, Pages: 288, Year: 2009
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School Principal: Managing in Public presents an insightful analysis of the role of the elementary school principal. Dan Lortie’s book is tightly written and concisely describes the principal's life in small suburban school districts. In describing the principalship, he reminds us of the enduring difficulty of organizational change in school settings reminiscent of earlier work by Seymour Sarason (1971) and Larry Cuban (1993). Both Lortie and an anonymous reviewer of his book note that School Principal addresses what the principalship and schooling are rather than what they could be or should be. However, Lortie does not claim that schools cannot change, but he does urge us to consider the fact that school organizational structures and purposes have been (and continue to be) shaped by various systemic forces. To change schools may necessarily require changing societal beliefs and other factors.

In describing "what is," Lortie brings his own rich experience and knowledge of school practice—he authored the classic book School Teacher and has studied schooling for decades—and combines it with the voices of practicing principals.

In Chapter 1—the setting—he describes his research context. Principals’ perceptions are drawn from 59 small school districts (the median number of schools in a district was six) surrounding Chicago. Hence, the strength of this book is its comprehensive focus on principals in suburban school districts, but of course those wanting information about the principalship in rural or urban school districts must necessarily turn to other sources.1 The districts studied were defined by factors other than just size. Student ethnicity was highly salient. In 75% of the schools, African American students were 5% or less of the school enrollment. In contrast, in six schools African American students accounted for 97% or more of the student population. Hence, the schools studied were small, and the student population was largely formed by one ethnic group. In comparison to the national student achievement average (including rural and urban schools) 71% of the principals reported that they believed their students scored above average on national achievement tests. It is also important for the reader to know that principal data were collected in 1980. Although this limits the value of the book for many purposes, it still yields a solid analytical framework for thinking about the role of the principal in today’s schools.

Chapter 2 describes the early career of school principals. The author notes that the socioeconomic origins of principals are highly similar to those of teachers, which is not surprising since the principal career is necessarily a two-stage career where principals must first be teachers. Beginning principals stress that keys to success are developing “people skills,” adapting the self (e.g., listening closely to others), and seeing schools in new ways and gaining new dispositions. Many principals reported that they strongly wished they had obtained more skills for evaluating teachers from their training program, and to a lesser extent principals lamented that educational certification programs had not given them more skills for working with parents.

Chapter 3—looking up—discusses the role of the principal as a subordinate in an organization. Principals, as they manage others, must cope with a system of controls imposed on them by the central office. The chapter explicates what principals think the central office wants from them, describes how principals form relationships with their bosses, and explores how they think their bosses should deal with them. Of special interest in this chapter is how principals think their superintendents evaluate them; the top factor is parents and community beliefs about the principal. The eighth factor, and much lower, is student test scores. Again it is useful to note that these data were collected in 1980.

The fourth chapter—on being in charge—discusses how the principal manages subordinates. Lortie notes that principals have little “pliability” because the teacher pay scale is based on number of years taught and because it is exceedingly difficult to fire teachers once they obtain tenure. So how do principals want teachers to think about them? Principals’ beliefs about their reputation are divided into four clusters—warm and open, trustworthy, expert, and doer. The first two categories are by far the basis for their preferred reputation—principals want to be viewed as caring, friendly, fair, and trusted. In part the desired reputations that principals seek may be because principals see teachers as partners in doing the work of schools.

Chapter 5—the rewards—presents sources of pride, major satisfactions and the positive aspects of being a principal. Principals' main satisfactions are students learning and the perception that “my” school is well managed. Sources of pride include projects and innovations. The reader will find three areas of inquiry of interest and value—favorite tasks, the good day, and what would they do if they had 10 additional hours a week. Lortie notes that principals fuse their desire for harmony with their effectiveness in getting things done. The chapter ends with a discussion of how difficult it is for principals to evaluate their own effectiveness because of conditions of ambiguity (multiple goals and so forth).

Chapter 6—complications and complexities—tells why being a principal is a hard job. The complicating conditions that Lortie discusses are the scarcity of time, frequent interruptions, maintaining safety, and the deluge of paper work. At the core, principals must deal with conflict in various situations including teacher evaluation, and as noted earlier, principals feel unprepared for this role (see Good and Brophy (2008) for more detail about teacher observation). They must deal with teacher-student conflict as well as parent-teacher conflict. To fail with parent-teacher conflict is especially problematic. The perception of teacher favoritism can lead to irate parents in the superintendent's office. Perceived lack of support for a teacher can fuel reports of teacher abandonment and other issues. Principals understand conflict as a major threat to smooth organizational life.

Chapter 7—careers and satisfactions—discusses the satisfactions and disappointments of the principal’s job. In addition to a general discussion, Lortie describes particular phases of the principal's career—the mostly hopeful thirties, the forties, affirmations and regrets, and the fifties, the terminal decade. It will come as no surprise that inadequate rewards are the principal’s largest dissatisfaction, especially in terms of income. The chapter ends with an interesting discussion of the special features of the principal career that make it distinct from being a manager in other bureaucratic organizations. For example, principals unlike middle managers elsewhere have scant power to dismiss or reward those who work for them.

In Chapter 8—reality and response—the author presents seven ways in which the work of principals differs from that of other managers. These are: junior but prominent; the fishbowl; an emotionally charged setting; constrained authority; diffuse goals; shaky premises; and career processes. These themes have been introduced in one or more previous chapters but here they are developed more fully. These dimensions and their collective effects are also discussed. Lortie notes that the conditions of uncertainty make change less likely than in other organizations. (For more detail on the role of uncertainty in educational organizations see Rosenholtz (1989).)

Chapter 9—an uncertain future—is perhaps the most problematic chapter, primarily because Lortie notes a set of modern developments including changes in prinicpals’ gender composition, special programs, computers, competition for students, and high stake testing, that were not part of the principalship when he collected his data. In conclusion, the rich, descriptive insights the book yields are somewhat diminished by the fact that the data for the book were collected in 1980. Still, with this reservation in mind, I would recommend this book to readers because the power of Lortie’s analytical framework makes it an insightful tool for use in contemporary schools.


1. A full description of the sampling decisions and the interview and survey methods are appended in the book allowing one to examine the language, order of questions, and so forth. The book also has a discussion of a large sample of principals collected in Iowa in 1984. This sample contains urban and rural principals as well as suburban ones. However, few significant differences were found across district settings.


Cuban, L. (1993). How teachers taught: Constancy and change in American classrooms (2nd edition). New York: Teachers College Press.

Good, T., & Brophy, J. (2008). Looking in classrooms (10th edition). Boston: Pearson.

Rosenholtz, S. (1989). Teachers’ workplace: the social organization of schools. New York: Longman.

Sarason, S. (1982). The culture of the school and the problem of change (2nd edition). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 10, 2009
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15748, Date Accessed: 10/16/2021 7:28:15 AM

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About the Author
  • Thomas Good
    University of Arizona
    THOMAS L. GOOD is professor and head of the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Arizona. He recently co-edited a special issue of Teachers College Record with Mary McCaslin, which describes a five-year research program on Comprehensive School Reform efforts in Arizona. He is a co-author of Looking in Classrooms (now in its 10th edition) with Jere Brophy. His present work includes an experiment on helping grade 3-5 students to better understand rational numbers.
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