History Of Principalship Essay

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Until the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, full-time building administrators were not typically found in schools. Since then, the role of the principal has constantly been reshaped, redefined, and renegotiated due to changing demographics, conflicting societal values, and shifting expectations. Throughout the history of the modern American school, differences in political, social, and economic philosophies have had a major impact on the development and organization of education in general. Immigration, urbanization, the rise of great corporations, the traumas of two world wars, the Great Depression, the social upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s, and the high-stakes accountability movement of the 1990s influenced the values of society, reshaped the purpose of schooling, and increased the demands of the principal-ship. This entry reviews that history.

The emergence of the principal-ship during the late 1800s created the shift of the administrative leader from “head teacher” to “principal.” The professionalization of the principal-ship during the early 1900s was the process of formal recognition and acceptance of the role. The anti-intellectualism of the principal-ship between the years 1940 and 1960 questioned the transition from scientific management through the human relations movement to the theory movement. The constancy and change of the principal-ship throughout the 1960s and 1970s highlighted the tensions between those seeking stability and the maintenance of traditional values and those pressing for change. The reform and restructuring of the principal-ship from 1980 to 2000 charted the shift in demands from management and control with forced compliance to shared decision making and decentralized site-based management. This entry explores this development of the principal-ship from its inception to the present, and concludes by outlining the challenges and promises of the principal-ship for the twenty-first century.

Early Years

The “head teacher” of the early nineteenth century was the first professional position in American schools to have administrative and supervisory responsibilities. As the nation’s population grew and one-room schools became graded, multiroom schools with several faculty members, the need for program coordination and internal management increased. Although hardly differentiated from teaching, head teachers were appointed to monitor students, teachers, and classroom procedures.

Accountable to the locally elected school board, “principal teachers” were expected to teach the highest class in their school, to implement specific board policies, and to perform certain clerical and janitorial tasks. Over time, their duties became mainly administrative and less involved with direct classroom instruction. The actual term principal appeared as early as 1838 in the Common School Report of Cincinnati and then again in 1841 in Horace Mann’s report to the Massachusetts School Board, but the title did not become formally recognized and widely accepted until the latter part of the nineteenth century.

The development of the eight-year, graded elementary school and the district system, combined with the common school ideal of a uniform curriculum for all children, the desire of the middle-class and native groups to protect their values and power, the need for the socialization of students for an industrial workplace, and the position of principal and his (i.e., school administration was structured from the beginning as a “manly” profession) accompanying “pedagogical harem” were all elements in the early development of a hierarchical, bureaucratic organization for the administration of American education.

The burgeoning role and new authority position of the principal was solidified in the early 1900s with the beginning of the Progressive movement and the advent of scientific management. Scientific management, with its emphasis on efficiency, had dramatic and almost immediate effects on education, including the “professionalization” of the principalship. During this time period, executive, managerial functions were centralized and structured systematically at the top with specialized divisions in a hierarchical model intended to cause the entire school district and each school to run efficiently. The role of the principal shifted from evangelical missionary and values broker to scientific manager and dignified social leader. Charged with administering discipline, selecting, hiring, and evaluating teachers, determining the curriculum, monitoring pedagogical techniques, and overseeing other organizational tasks, the principal was quickly established as the school’s administrative head and directing manager of instruction. This perspective of the principal as a business executive continued until the alliance between business managers and school administrators collapsed under the economic pressures of the Depression.

A Transition Period

The anti-intellectualism of the principal-ship chronicled the transition from the scientific movement through the human relations movement to the theory movement. Because of World War II and the Cold War that followed, the values of the 1940s and 1950s were less religious than earlier and more concerned with democratic principles. From 1940 to 1960, there was a pivotal shift from a top-down managerial philosophy to more of a democratic facilitative process of developing, supporting, and coordinating cooperative group efforts as both the end and the means of reform in schools.

As a result, the principal’s role changed from authority figure to process helper, consultant, curriculum leader, supervisor, public relations representative, and leader on the home front. Those occupying the role were expected to demonstrate democratic rather than autocratic leadership, to be directly involved with the school’s instructional program, and to communicate the practices and priorities of the school to the community. The business-management doctrine was abandoned and the “social conscience” of administrators was awakened.

After World War II, communities began to rebuild, the economy began to rebound, and liberal progressive educators began to speak out. Although the Brown v. Board of Education decision happened in 1954, the ramifications of this Supreme Court case and the notion of inequitable schooling were not truly dealt with until the 1960s and 1970s. In 1957 however, when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the effects were immediate. As fear and panic gripped the nation, a major crusade against ignorance initiated the anti-intellectuals campaign against schools in general, and principals in particular. Metaphors for the principal in the 1950s include the principal as administrator, defender of educational practice, provider of empirical evidence, efficient manager of time, and overseer of minute details.

The constancy and change of the principal-ship during the social and political turbulence of the 1960s highlight the tension between forces seeking stability and maintenance of traditional values and those pressing for change and the emergence of diverse values. While schools concentrated on academic excellence, particularly in math and science, principals drew on empirically developed strategies for management, organization, and stability, often neglecting the instructional arena as a domain of primary concern. The role of the principal during this time shifted to that of protector of bureaucracy, user of scientific strategies, accountable leader, and inhabitant of a role in conflict. Principals were caught between the constancy of bureaucratic rational thought and the outcries for a social revolution.

The growth of social problems in the 1970s required principals to provide a wide variety of remedies that turned their primary attention away from academic leadership. They were expected to lead students, teachers, and the larger community; to impart meaning to educational efforts; to juggle a number of roles that often required competing skills; to relate well to others; and to facilitate positive interactions between students and teachers. Public confidence in education declined in the 1970s, and the theme of accountability surfaced for the first time.

A Reform Era

During the reform stage of the 1980s and the restructuring stage of the 1990s, principals emerged as primary players in the improvement of school instructional programs. The instructional leadership role of the 1980s highlighted the centrality of the principal’s role in coordinating and controlling curriculum and instruction. During this decade, principals were seen as problem solvers, resource providers, instructional leaders, visionaries, and change agents. They managed people, implemented policies, and provided resources to facilitate the teaching and learning process. Principals also developed and communicated a picture of the ideal school while facilitating needed changes in educational operations to ensure student learning and school effectiveness.

In contrast, the transformational role of the 1990s emphasized the diffuse nature of school leadership and the role of principals as leaders of leaders. Restructuring during the 1990s brought the knowledge needed for school improvement back to the school and the role of the principal back to the image of leader, servant, organizational architect, social architect, educator, moral agent, and community member. During this phase, it was the responsibility of the principal to lead the transition from a bureaucratic model of schooling to a postindustrial model. The role of the principal had come full circle from 1840 to 2000, from “head teacher” to “teacher of teachers.” The description of moral, ethical, and servant leadership echoes the earlier role of principal as evangelical missionary, values broker, and spiritual leader. And, the notion of goals, objectives, and benchmarks mirrors the earlier concept of efficiency, scientific management, and bureaucracy.

Looking Ahead

As history continues to repeat itself, the twenty-first century presents new challenges and promises for the principal-ship role. Charged with the mission of improving teaching and learning for all children, the position has become progressively more and more demanding and fraught with fragmentation, variety, and brevity. The role has evolved into administering a highly specialized, extensively regulated, and enormously complex human organization—far more complex than at its emergence a hundred years ago. The emphasis has also shifted from pointing out the processes that must be used by principals to more of a values-based, outcomes-based approach to what schools are supposed to accomplish.

The shift in transforming schools from a power-over to a power-with approach signifies a reorientation toward moral leadership, professional empowerment, and collegial interdependence. Through collaboration, communication, and experimentation, principals in the twenty-first century can be learner centered, vision driven, action oriented, and reflectively confident in their ability to instigate reform and stimulate success for all students.


  1. Beck, L., & Murphy, J. (1993). Understanding the principalship: Metaphorical themes, 1920s–1990s. New York: Teachers College Press.
  2. Campbell, R. F., Fleming, T., Newell, L. J., & Bennion, J. W. (1987). A history of thought and practice in educational administration. New York: Teachers College Press.
  3. Dublin, A. E. (2006). Conversations with principals : issues, values, and politics. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  4. Tyack, D., & Hansot, E. (1982). Managers of virtue: Public school leadership in America, 1820–1980. Boston: Basic Books.

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