Urban principals and systemic reform: Empowerment and powerlessness

Mary Helen Spiri, University of Pennsylvania


This case study describes the responses of 12 principals to a mandate for systemic educational reform in a large urban school district. Through study group meetings, interviews, and participant journals spanning eight months, the study explored situations in which principals felt empowered or powerless to reach the heightened expectations of high-stakes assessment and published school accountability. Principal responses are interpreted through the lenses of educational history, learned helplessness and organizations as instruments of domination. This study concludes that principals who believe that the life chances of their students are inherently limited are more likely to behave helplessly when confronted with choices regarding their school communities. Those who believe in the unlimited potential of learners behave helplessly only in situations in which they have learned that they are unable to control necessary resources. The study suggests 3 areas of district organization which resulted in helplessness on the part of all of the principals: professional development, human resource management, and the Student Support Process. By the conclusion of the study, 9 of the 12 participants had elected to leave the district in which the study was conducted to seek principalships elsewhere. The study suggests that the pivotal role of the principal in site-based management and instructional leadership must be defined and studied in terms of both school and district culture.

Subject Area

School administration

Recommended Citation

Spiri, Mary Helen, "Urban principals and systemic reform: Empowerment and powerlessness" (2000). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI9970540.