Illinois school systems represent a dynamic educational landscape with challenges unique to individual schools and districts. Yet when evaluated from the school principal’s lens, overarching themes emerge that call for large-scale responses. Since principals in Chicago and across the state shoulder significant responsibilities with far-reaching effects, their voices must be at the center of any effort to address shared challenges.
Our new report, The Illinois Principal: Their Work, Their Challenges, Their Impact, is a joint effort between The Fund and the Illinois Principals Association (IPA), a statewide membership organization that aims to develop, support, and advocate for innovative educational leaders. Though The Fund and IPA differ in both approach and scope, we are committed to fostering conditions that allow strong educators to lead their schools effectively. As such, we hope our findings will contribute to important conversations about education policy and practice.
What We Heard From Principals
To understand principals’ day-to-day responsibilities and challenges, we interviewed principals in rural, urban, and suburban schools of all sizes across the state. Each principal provided a unique perspective to help shape our report. Despite differences in principal, school, and community characteristics, we identified three needs that school leaders consistently shared:
1. Principals Need Adequate Funding
Over 30% of Illinois principals surveyed said increased funding for schools and principal compensation are significant concerns. State funding data reinforces the importance of this issue: Only 19% of Illinois districts are funded at a level deemed “adequate” according to the state’s definition. Our report highlights principals to personify these issues. School leaders like Tron Young of Arthur Middle School in O’Fallon, Illinois — located just east of St. Louis — said funding issues frequently force them to decide which staff and resources are most necessary for students’ learning.
2. Principals Need Predictable Staffing
It is difficult for principals to plan and implement effective educational programs when schools are understaffed or staff levels fluctuate. Though Illinois schools report an 86.3% average teacher retention rate, principals must hire five new teachers each year on average. Notably, new teacher hires are predominantly in high-need areas like English as a second language and special education. Chicago Academy Elementary School Principal Joyce Pae described how this challenge affects students, stating that “students served by these staff are always the hardest hit by these shortages.”
3. Principals Need Relief From Mandates
The Illinois School Code contains over 40 instructional mandates, and more are added almost every time the state legislature convenes. Principals reported spending almost exactly as much time on internal administrative tasks as on teaching-related ones — yet time focused on supporting teachers’ instructional leadership is what makes the biggest impact on students. Further, these mandates are frequently time-consuming and costly to implement. Principal Cris Edwards of Richland County Elementary School in the downstate community of Olney, Illinois, summarized the conundrum when she said, “All these things are worthwhile, but there are only so many hours in a day, and I need to focus on instructional leadership.”
Autonomy Keeps Principals in Their Roles
Despite these challenges, Illinois principals report a high degree of job satisfaction, especially in areas related to community engagement and interactions with teachers. However, maintaining their satisfaction and retaining them in their roles requires policies that promote autonomy and support effective engagement in their essential responsibilities.
Ensuring principals have the ability to invest their time in instructional leadership practices is a critical first step. Our interviews and surveys indicate principals find deep gratification in observing teachers and students and actively engaging with them. As Principal Charles Anderson of Michele Clark Academic Prep Magnet High School in Chicago said, “I am happy when I do right by my students and staff in a way that’s responsive to my own school community.”
Looking Forward: Principals and Policy
Illinois principals play a pivotal role in guiding students through their unique educational journeys, especially as they recover from learning disruptions stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. As the education landscape continues to evolve, leaders at the local, state, and national levels will face decisions about how to adapt school systems to students’ changing needs. Given their crucial role in schools and communities, principals must feature prominently in any education policy considerations. The Fund and IPA are committed to ensuring school leaders’ perspectives, needs, and priorities contribute to policy discussions, and our report represents a first step in fulfilling that commitment.