A critical inquiry into the relationships elementary principals have with parents

Material Information

A critical inquiry into the relationships elementary principals have with parents
Allen, Beatrice Harrison
Publication Date:
Physical Description:
xi, 128 leaves : illustrations, forms ; 29 cm

Thesis/Dissertation Information

Doctorate ( Doctor of Philosophy)
Degree Grantor:
University of Colorado Denver
Degree Divisions:
School of Education and Human Development, CU Denver
Degree Disciplines:


Subjects / Keywords:
Elementary school principals ( lcsh )
Schools -- Public relations ( lcsh )
Elementary school principals ( fast )
Schools -- Public relations ( fast )
bibliography ( marcgt )
theses ( marcgt )
non-fiction ( marcgt )


Includes bibliographical references.
General Note:
Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree, Doctor of Philosophy, School of Education and Human Development.
Statement of Responsibility:
by Beatrice Harrison Allen.

Record Information

Source Institution:
|University of Colorado Denver
Holding Location:
Auraria Library
Rights Management:
All applicable rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
Resource Identifier:
28389252 ( OCLC )
LD1190.E3 1992d .A44 ( lcc )

Full Text
Beatrice Harrison Allen
B.A., University of Denver, 1966
M.A., University of Colorado, 1980
A thesis submitted to the
Faculty of the Graduate School of the
University of Colorado at Denver
in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Doctor of Philosophy
School of Education

This thesis for the Doctor of Philosophy Degree by
Beatrice Harrison Allen
has been approved for the
School of
(*/? /?a>
Nancy Shanklin

1992 by Beatrice Harrison Allen
All rights reserved.

Allen, Beatrice Harrison (Ph.D., Education)
A Critical Inquiry into the Relationships Elementary Principals Have
with Parents
Thesis directed by Professor Paul Bauman
The purpose of this study was to provide a detailed
understanding of the relationships elementary principals have with
parents, to explore why and how some principals are more successful
in developing and maintaining these relationships, and to determine
the role school and principal characteristics play in the relationships.
The major research questions addressed were:
1. What is the nature of the dealings principals have with
parents on a daily basis?
2. How do principals define and achieve successful
relationships with parents?
3. How do principals view the effect of district policies and
procedures and central office administrators on their
relationships with parents?
4. To what extent do characteristics of principals and
schools influence the nature of the relationship?
A qualitative case study design set in a critical inquiry
paradigm was employed. Research methodology included
interviews, participant observation, and participant review. Data were
collected through interviews, field notes and reflective dialogue.
Participants included central office administrators, influential parents,
and elementary principals in a large, urban district identified as
having an informal management system in the area of parent

This study found parent relationships to be a complex set of
interactions primarily affected by two major forces: the district context
and conditions of school uncertainty. Principals view relationships
they have with parents as increasingly problematic and adversarial
but a significant component of their job responsibilities. School
uncertainty was found to impact principals' attitudes toward job
satisfaction, central office administrators, and parents in a negative
This study also found that parents at the elementary school
have become the source of consumer satisfaction. If maintaining a
quiet parent community is a district's goal, then principals must
accommodate conflicting demands and complaints of parents as
consumers. This results in neutral school environments. School
improvement efforts are change oriented, generate parent complaints,
and increase uncertainty for principals. If principals must maintain
quiet parent communities to be perceived as successful, then
dramatic school improvement efforts have little likelihood of
succeeding. Districts with such practices must provide ways to
reduce the uncertainty principals confront and to release them from
constraints of maintaining quiet parent communities as a condition of
job success.
This abstract accurately
thesis. I recommend its
represents the content of the candidate's
Paul Bauman

To my best friend -- my dearest love,
and in all ways my champion:
At the end of our travels
we have arrived back at our beginning
so we could know the place for the first time
. . and begin again.

Acknowledgements are a way to thank those who have been
instrumental in the creation of a major work. However,
acknowledgements also provide a window through which to view the
mind and the life of the author. This set of acknowledgements is no
Paul Bauman directed this thesis. His interest in new ideas,
strength of character, and clarity of thought enabled this work to be
completed despite the confusion and uncertainty around us.
Nadyne Guzman provided a generous amount of
encouragement, the eye of a practitioner, and a vision of what the life
of a principal should be like.
Marie Wirsing survived with me the lectures of Sir Arnold
Toynbee and Sir Karl Popper at the University of Denver. Gratefully
she reappeared during my final year as a doctoral candidate
providing me with a much needed reminder of my intellectual roots.
My children, Heather and Nate, have never failed to express
their pride in me and determination that all three of us must and will
My mother, Nellie Harrison, has always been the lever that
pried me out of a small town existence and into the larger world of
ideas and knowledge.
Bob Alford has never given up on me personally or
professionally and has aggressively challenged me to continue on
the path of reason, excellence, and completion.
Mary Ann Cunningham has worked unfailingly and
optimistically to provide a quality document.
And finally... Dr. Lance Wright served as my first doctoral
advisor at the University of Colorado at Denver and my friend. Even

in death he will not allow us to forget, as Wolf puts it in Hours in a
Library (1916), that always
... it should be our delight to watch this turmoil, do battle with
the ideas and vision of our times, to seize what we can use,...
and above all to be generous to the people that are giving
shape as best they can to the ideas within them.

1. NATURE AND SCOPE OF THE PROBLEM......................... 1
Introduction to the Problem............................ 1
Background of the Problem.............................. 2
Statement of the Problem............................... 5
Significance of the Study.............................. 8
Verification of the Originality of the Study......... 8
Delimitations of the Study........................... 9
Limitations of the Study............................. 9
Definition of Terms.................................. 10
Organization of the Thesis........................... 11
2. REVIEW OF THE LITERATURE................................ 13
Introduction......................................... 13
Contemporary Perspectives............................14
Historical Perspectives..............................20
Framing the Relationship Between
Parents and Principals............................... 23
Characteristics of the Management
System of a School District........................ 24
Characteristics of the School Community............ 25
Characteristics of the Principal................... 28
3. METHODS...................................................34
Overview.............................................. 35
Description of Research Methodology....................37
Research Design........................................39
Selection of Site..................................... 41
Selection of Subjects................................. 42
Instrumentation....................................... 44

Data Collection and Recording........................ 48
Data Processing and Analysis......................... 49
4. ANALYSIS AND FINDINGS................................... 51
Methodological Process...............................52
Evolution and Emergence..........................52
Triangulation of Data Sources....................53
Analysis of Data.....................................54
Findings Related to the Research Questions...........54
Question One......................................... 55
How Principals Describe Their
Relationships with Parents....................... 56
Concerns Principals Have About
Their Daily Dealings with Parents................57
How Principals View the Importance
of the Parent Relationship.......................58
Question Two......................................... 61
How Elementary Principals Define
Successful Parent Relationships..................61
How Central Office Administrators
Define Principal Success in
Relationships with Parents....................... 64
How Elementary Principals Achieve
Successful Relationships with
Parents.......................................... 67
How Elementary Principals Deal with
Parent Complaints................................ 77
Summary.......................................... 81
Question Three....................................... 82
How District Policies and Procedures
Affect Principals................................ 83
Concerns Principals Have About the
Effect of Parent Complaints to
Central Office................................... 85

How Principals View Central Office
Expectations.................................... 86
What Elementary Principals Need from
Central Office Administrators to Be
More Successful in Their Relationships
With Parents.................................... 89
How Principals Simultaneously Satisfy
Parents and Central Office
Administrators................................... 91
Summary.......................................... 92
Question Four....................................... 92
How Principal Characteristics Influence
the Nature of the Principal's
Relationships with Parents....................... 93
How School Characteristics Influence
the Nature of the Principal's
Relationships with Parents....................... 94
Summary of Findings................................. 96
Summary of Implications............................ 105
Discussion of Implications..........................108
Recommendations for
Further Study.......................................114
A. Principal Identification Matrix....................116
B. Interview Guide and Scripted

Chapter 1
Introduction to the Problem
A marked shift has occurred in family and societal structures
during the last two decades which has dramatically impacted the
work of schools. Accompanying this shift are increasing demands for
changes in schools which address the myriad needs and capacities
of students and their parents. School improvement has become a
legal, political and administrative imperative. Bringing parents
together with schools for the purpose of participation in improvement
efforts has become an increasingly popular notion (Chavkin &
Williams, 1987). Research on school effectiveness recognizes
parental participation as an important factor in "effective schools"
(Edmunds, 1978; Hoover-Dempsy, Bassler, & Brissien, 1987). As a
result, most successful school improvement efforts have a heavy
parent involvement component (Walberg, Bakalist, Bast, & Baer,
1988). The National Governors Association in its Goals for the Year
2000 has called for educators to involve parents more closely in the
life of the school. Attention has been focused not only on the
significance of the relationship between parents and schools but on
how to make the relationship as successful as possible through
various pieces of legislation dealing with school decentralization and
accountability in federally mandated parent advisory councils and
even in changes in the charter of the national PTA (Goldring, 1986).
A major responsibility for connecting parents with schools has
become that of school principals (Chavkin & Williams, 1987). It is
believed that the success of the relationship a principal develops with

parents impacts school improvement efforts (Goldring, 1990).
Therefore, developing and maintaining successful relationships with
parents has become a critical component of the performance of the
school principal. Yet, observation indicates that some elementary
principals are more successful than others in developing positive
relationships which connect parents with schools and enhance
school improvement efforts. The general purpose of this study is to
explore the relationships elementary principals have with parents.
The findings of this study will be useful in understanding the
relationships elementary principals have with parents thus facilitating
and enhancing local school improvement efforts.
Background of the Problem
What do we know about the status of the relationships
principals have with parents? Widely differing opinions are
expressed by principals and parents. Principals as a group tend to
describe their relationships with parents as being generally positive
(Doud, 1989). Yet, individually "principals seem to have divergent
opinions about parents and diverse strategies to cope with parental
pressures" (pp. 67-74). Some principals view their interactions with
parents as pleasurable and fulfilling. In contrast, other principals view
parents with apprehension and consider them to be troublesome
(Goldring, 1986). This disparity in opinion concerning the
relationships principals have with parents has been attributed by
Chavkin and Williams (1987) to the narrow views some principals
hold about parent involvement. These narrow views tend to limit
opportunities for parent participation and thus impact negatively
parent attitudes toward principals. Parents who perceive they have
not been offered appropriate roles and mechanisms for involvement
in schools limit their contact with schools. This limited contact inhibits

parents from developing an understanding of schools and school
personnel. As a result, parents tend to view principals as being
insensitive to their concerns while administrators view parents as
disinterested and unresponsive.
Indications of public sentiment and concern can also be found
in popular "advocacy" literature which fills bookstore shelves. These
advisory books are often published under the auspices of a variety of
parent and child advocacy groups. Fruchter (1985) cites five general
themes identified by school advocacy organizations that act as
impediments to positive parent involvement in the schools. The
pressures of simple economic survival place limits on parent activism.
Professional elitism among educators fosters a perception of parents
as intruders rather than school resources. An interlocking cycle of
negativism and blame for the lack of student success has developed
which discourages interaction and cooperation with parents.
Because of the complex politics and structures of schools, parents are
often confused about how to become involved. In addition, the
administrative structures of schools tend to exclude parents from the
educational process. Fruchter's summary indicates that although
popular advocacy literature generally represents opinion and informal
observation, it focuses public sentiment and concern. In addition,
these writings underscore the need for school professionals and
researchers to address the relationships between parents and
Principals who are now charged with bringing parents into
schools in new partnerships comment that they frequently find
parents to be defensive and reluctant to get involved. Evidence from
the parent point of view suggests that many parents have found it
necessary to adopt a defensive attitude toward principals. According
to the National PTA, parents want school leaders to understand that
they truly want to be involved and share in the responsibility for their

childrens education. In a pamphlet entitled "The Principal and the
PTA, Partners in Education," the PTA states that "principals need to
understand that parents cannot be truly supportive until they feel they
are recognized as working partners and constructive critics"
(PTA/Dodge, 1990, p. 2).
Yet recognition as partners in schooling is not a reality for
many parents. "Parent involvement as practiced in most schools
engages only a relatively small number of activist parents" (Davies,
1991, p. 377). For the majority of parents, relationships with the
principals are conflict rather than partnership oriented. It is "a great
irony that families and schools are engaged in a complementary
socio-cultural task and yet find themselves in great conflict with one
another" (Lightfoot, 1978, p. 93).
There is increasing interest in the relationships between
parents and principals. The quality of these relationships impacts the
involvement of parents and the effectiveness of shared decision-
making in school improvement efforts. However, until the last decade,
the school and the family were examined as if they were independent
entities in the life of the child. It is now recognized that "the efforts of
schools and families are linked, that they can either support and
reinforce each other or they can compete with and undermine each
other" (Henderson, Marburger, & Ooms, 1986, pp. 106-107).
Although various relationships between schools and families
have been studied, the relationship between principals and parents
has received little attention. Early in the school reform movement, it
was recognized that there was "little knowledge of the nature of the
functioning of the interaction; herein lies a crucial area in the future
investigation of school effectiveness" (Madaus, Airasion, & Kellaghan,
1989, p. 186). Yet, since 1980, there have been only a small number
of studies in this area and they have explored only the more general

aspects of parent involvement in the elementary school (Chavkin &
Williams, 1987; Lindle, 1989; and Peach & Reddick, 1987). More
recently, Goldring has examined the sentiments of principals toward
parents in districts with formal and informal management systems
(1990) and principal perceptions of parents (1986). However, the
relationships elementary principals have with parents have not yet
been critically studied in an in-depth manner using the principal as
the focus. Such a study might provide new knowledge about the
relationships and might clarify why and how some elementary
principals are more successful in developing positive relationships
with parents.
Statement of the Problem
The effectiveness of the elementary school principal has
emerged as a key component of effective schools (Duke, 1988). The
effectiveness of the elementary school can either be enhanced or
diminished by the quality of the principal's relationship with parents. It
is, therefore, important to understand and improve parent-principal
interaction as an integral part of an effective school.
The general purpose of this study relates to the relationships
between parents and elementary school principals. The relationships
have been described by Olson (1990) as troublesome and often
problematic ranging from polite but not intimate to wary and
distrusting. The ambiguous gray areas of authority and responsibility
between parents and principals exacerbates the distrust between
them which is further complicated by the fact that this distrust is rarely
articulated but remains silent and smoldering (Olson, p. 18). The
specific purposes of this study are three-fold:

1. To provide a detailed understanding of relationships
elementary principals have with parents;
2. To explore why and how some elementary principals
are more successful than others in developing and
maintaining successful relationships with parents
within the district context;
3. To determine the role certain characteristics of
the school, community and principal play in the
relationships elementary principals have with
The following questions are addressed by this study:
1. What is the nature of the dealings elementary
principals have with parents on a daily basis?
a. How do principals describe their relationships
with parents?
b. What concerns do principals have about their
daily dealings with parents?
c. How important do principals view the
relationships they have with parents?
2. How do elementary principals define and achieve
successful relationships with parents?
a. How do principals define successful
relationships with parents?
b. How do central office administrators define
principal success in relationships with
c. How do principals achieve successful
relationships with parents?
d. How do principals deal with parent

3. How do elementary principals view the effect of
district policies and procedures and central office
administrators on their relationships with parents?
a. How do district policies and procedures
affect the relationship principals have with
b. What concerns do principals have about the
effect of parent complaints to central office?
c. How do principals view the expectations of
central office?
d. What do elementary principals need from
central office administrators in order to be
more successful in their relationships with
e. How do principals simultaneously satisfy the
demands of parents and central office
4. To what extent do principal characteristics and school
demography influence the nature of the
relationships principals have with parents?
a. How do principal characteristics of training,
experience, ethnicity and gender influence
the nature of the relationships principals
have with parents?
b. How do school characteristics of school
ethnicity, economic status and "uncertainty"
influence the nature of the relationships
principals have with parents?

Significance of the Study
The study of elementary principals and their relationships with
parents has received little systematic research-based attention
despite the importance of these relationships to current school
improvement efforts. This qualitative study is significant for the
following reasons:
1. It explores the relationships between elementary
principals and parents from the perspective of the
principal connecting parents and schools;
2. It provides an understanding of elementary
principals who are successful in relationships with
3. It offers suggestions for principals and school
districts as they seek to build and maintain
positive relationships with parents in order to
support school improvement efforts;
4. It offers new knowledge of home-school interaction
within the district context.
Verification of the
Originality of the Study
The originality of this research study has been verified by
manual and computer searches of the literature. Computer searches
in the Dissertation Abstracts Online have yielded no dissertations
specific to the relationships principals have with parents. Three
computer searches have been conducted in the Educational
Resources Information Center (ERIC) index. A manual search of the
1990 and 1991 ERIC index was conducted as well. Additionally,
manual searches have been conducted of the card catalog at the

University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, The Colorado College,
and the University of Denver.
No study using a qualitative or critical inquiry approach has
been found which deals with the relationships elementary school
principals have with parents from the perspective of the principal;
therefore, it is the assumption of the researcher that this study
introduces new insights and perspectives as well as new information
into the field of knowledge.
Delimitations of the Study
Delimiting factors of this study are:
1. A qualitative case study design set in a critical inquiry
framework is implemented. Triangulation of data is
achieved through participant observation, use of
multiple categories of interview participants and a
process of participant review. These three sources of
data are utilized to support, extend and expand the
emergent implications and theories.
2. The primary unit of analysis is the individual
elementary principal within the context of a single urban
school district who is conceptualized as a boundary
spanner between the parents as clients and the
school as a service organization.
Limitations of the Study
A possible limiting factor of this study is that participants were
volunteers who believe their views may be injurious to their careers if
confidentiality and anonymity are not strictly maintained. Thus, group

dialogue during which identities would be revealed was not an
Definition of Terms
The following definitions are presented to avoid
1. assertiveness -- The willingness of parents to press
their demands and make them known to central
office administrators (Goldring, 1986, p. 122);
2. boundaries -- the limits of an organization's control
over activities and personnel; the demarcation lines for
the domain of tasks which an organization such as a
school district stakes out for itself (Corwin & Wagenaar,
1976, p. 427);
3. boundary transactions -- interactions outside the
organization between clients served by the
organization and professional representatives of the
service organization (Corwin & Wagenaar, 1976);
4. central office administrator -- administrator above
the level of principal who evaluates principals and
makes recommendations for continued employment;
5 critical inquiry paradigm -- an approach to
generating and evaluating knowledge and practice
through a dialectical process of critical reflection
and dialogue within social, political and historical
context (Sirotnik and Oakes, 1986, pp. 36-37);
6. district context -- the organizational environment
within which the school and the principal must
function consisting of the district's formal and
informal policies and procedures, the management

style of the superintendent, the organizational
norms, and any other organizational controls
imposed by the district on schools;
7. experience -- counting the current year, the number
of years in a particular job;
8. formal trainina -- the highest college degree held;
9. influential parent -- a parent who serves on the
school district accountability committee and who
also holds a county level position on the board of
directors of a parent advisory organization such as
10. parent -- an individual who is either the custodial
parent or legal guardian with whom a child resides;
11. sociocultural school perspective -- a holistic view
of the culture of the school grounded in the larger
historical and social context of the school
community in which interactions and relationships
are viewed as part of the larger social milieu
(Sirotnik & Oakes, 1986);
12. uncertainty "the lack of information of future
events, so that alternatives of present decisions
and their outcomes are unpredictable" (Miles, 1980,
p. 198). Contributing to school uncertainty are
the assertiveness, willingness to participate,
homogeneity and responsiveness of a school
community (Goldring, 1986).
Organization of the Thesis
Chapter 1, "Nature and Scope of the Problem", has presented
an introduction and background of the problem, significance of the

study, verification of the originality of the study, delimitations and
limitations of the study and definition of terms.
Chapter 2, "Review of the Literature", explores through the
literature the status and evolution of the relationships elementary
principals have with parents from contemporary and historical
perspectives, provides a discussion of a sociocultural framework to
be used as a backdrop for the study and reviews the literature
concerning characteristics of school communities, characteristics of
principals and characteristics of school districts which may affect the
relationships principals have with parents.
Chapter 3, "Methods", describes the methodology of the study,
including the rationale for selecting a combination of critical inquiry
and qualitative research methods, the research design and
procedures of data gathering and analysis.
Chapter 4, "Analysis and Findings", presents an analysis of
findings from interviews, participant observations, and participant
Chapter 5 summarizes the significant findings of the study,
conclusions drawn from the findings and implications for school

Chapter 2
School improvement through involving parents in new roles of
participation and decision-making is an increasingly popular theme.
While not abandoning the traditional parent roles of "audience, school
program supporter, and home tutor," increasing emphasis is now
being placed on involving parents in the newer roles of "advocate,
co-learner, and decision-maker" (Chavkin & Williams, 1987, p. 179).
Principals provide the linkage between parents and schools. The
anticipated success or failure of school improvement during the
1990s is directly related to the ability of principals to engage parents
in school improvement efforts and to sustain ongoing, productive
relationships with them (Goldring, 1990).
In this review, contemporary relationships between parents
and principals will be examined within an historical context and the
sociocultural framework adopted in this study. Using the critical
inquiry approach set forth by Sirotnik and Oakes (1986), the following
questions have been used as guidelines for the inclusion of literature
relating to the relationships between parents and principals in order
to make sense out of the situation in which principals find themselves
with parents:
1. What is the status of relationships between parents and
principals? ("Contemporary Perspectives")
2. How did relationships between parents and principals
come to be this way? ("Historical Perspectives")

How can we study relationships between parents and
principals? ("A Sociocultural Framework")
The first section of this review of the literature examines
contemporary relationships between parents and principals. The
second section explores the historical evolution of the parent-
principal relationship in American education as well as origins of the
current challenge to principals to involve parents more actively. The
final section places the parent-principal relationship within the context
of a sociocultural framework. This section presents a theoretical
analysis of the relationship principals have with parents. It involves a
discussion of certain characteristics of school districts, school
communities, and elementary principals which may impact the
relationship principals have with parents.
Contemporary Perspectives
What is the status of the relationship between parent and
principal from the perspective of the principal? In the K-8 Principal in
1988, a study sponsored by the National Association of Elementary
School Principals, 97% of principals surveyed perceived their
relationship with parents to be either "excellent" or "good" (Doud,
1989). In an ethnographic study of principals with low job satisfaction
by Duke (1988), each respondent described positive feelings from
contact with parents (p. 311). This strongly positive view of the
parent-principal relationship held by some principals is not shared by
all principals (Goldring, 1986) nor is it reflected in the views reported
by parents (PTA/Dodge, 1990, p. 2).
Evidence from the parent point of view suggests that many
parents have found it necessary to adopt a defensive attitude toward
school principals. According to the National PTA, parents want
school leaders to understand that they truly want to be involved and

share in the responsibility for their children's education. In the
pamphlet entitled "The Principal and the PTA, Partners in Education,"
the emphasis of PTA is on the need for principals to understand that
parents must be treated as legitimate partners before they can be truly
supportive (PTA/Dodge, 1990, p. 2). However, Davies (1991)
contends that being recognized as a school partner for most parents
is not a reality particularly for those who can be described as being in
"socioeconomic crisis." Other parents, which are viewed in a negative
manner by principals, are those in school communities which have a
high degree of "uncertainty" resulting from parent assertiveness,
participation, homogeneity and responsiveness (Goldring, 1986).
Parents who live in depressed urban areas are often viewed by
principals as being passive and unresponsive as well as ignorant and
naive about the intellectual and social needs of their children
(Lightfoot, 1978). Lewis points out that Black parents, in particular,
place added value on the education of their children as a means of
escaping low and achieving high status. This has become a "myth-
like cultural theme" (1967, p. 400). The great discrepancy between
the high aspirations of Black parents for their children and the realities
of limited social and economic opportunities has created an
alienation from school which school personnel mistakenly interpret
as disinterest and noninvolvement. Lightfoot (1978) emphasizes that
what these parents want is for schooling to actually produce what it
promises, not just for affluent children but for all children, regardless
of their socioeconomic condition or ethnicity.
The work of Lindle (1989) confirms that parents, regardless of
socioeconomic status, indicate similar preferences about the behavior
of school personnel. Her research, at the University of Pittsburgh
investigating specific principal characteristics which parents find
desirable and motivating, concludes that parents dislike principals
who are too businesslike and who treat them in a professional-client

manner. They dislike personnel who are patronizing or who
demonstrate a lack of interest in the parent's perspective. What
parents prefer are principals who respond not as "street level
bureaucrats" but as approachable individuals who rely more on the
personal touch than formal relationships. Lindle reports that the
preferences of parents are not what school personnel think they are.
School personnel inaccurately believe that a professional,
businesslike manner will win the respect and support of parents
(Lindle, 1989, p. 13).
The responses of parents in the Lindle study (1989) indicate
that parents view "professionalism" on the part of the principal to be
undesirable. Professionalism as described by Corwin and Wagenaar
(1976) as well as Lindle (1989) refers to a high level in professional
training which promotes greater remoteness. Although high levels of
professional principal training are the norm, Featherstone (1976)
finds that such training is not an indicator of principal effectiveness.
The remoteness often accompanying higher levels of training tends to
decrease the effectiveness of the principal. Principals describe their
work as being the worst of two demanding worlds:
They are lonely in their work, yet they are constantly harassed
by what the army calls 'chicken shit'. Parents feel cut off from
schools, and their efforts to find out, to help, or to complain, are
often seen by the principal as a source of further harassment.
(Featherstone, 1976, p. 19)
Although a high level of principal training is seen as related to the
remoteness of many principals and the alienation of parents, good
schools nevertheless require well trained professionals. Thus,
principal professionalism and parent participation often "square-off" in
the arena of the elementary school.
What views do central office administrators hold regarding the
involvement of parents in the school? According to Chavkin and

Williams (1987), central office administrators, who themselves
typically demonstrate a high degree of professionalism, view parent
participation in decision-making as being limited at best. Although
central office administrators strongly agree that principals should take
the initiative to get parents involved in the schools, they believe that
parent involvement should be limited to traditional roles of audience,
program supporter and home tutor rather than to newer shared
decision-making roles. These administrators also agree that parents
should not be involved in teacher or principal selection, assignment,
or evaluation. Neither should they be involved in budgetary issues.
Only modest agreement was found by Chavkin and Williams (1987)
that parents should be involved in decisions concerning curriculum
and instruction. In contrast, parents in the same study indicated a
strong preference for involvement in a much wider array of school
decisions than central office administrators or principals believe are
Why is there such disparity in opinion concerning the
participation of parents? Chavkin and Williams (1987) suggest that a
lack of personal interaction between parents and principals not only
accounts for the difference in opinion but has prevented them from
developing the kind of relationship that could contribute to the
improvement of schools. This study echoes the conclusions of Lewis,
(1967) emphasizing that the relationships between parents and
principals are fraught with misconceptions. Central office
administrators and principals tend to hold narrow views about parent
involvement and place bureaucratic controls on their participation
opportunities in order to deflect parent demands and interference
(Goldring, 1986, p. 117). Principals then "consider parents
unresponsive or apathetic regarding their childrens education when
they fail to become involved in the limited ways offered them"
(Chavkin & Williams, 1987, p. 165). Parents, who have not been

offered more appropriate roles and mechanisms for involvement in
education, have limited their contact with schools which then results
in an inability to develop an understanding of the school, its operating
procedures, and the role of the principal. As a result, parents tend to
view principals as being insensitive to parent and community
concerns while principals view parents as disinterested and
These mutually negative views and the accompanying lack of
parent participation in schools seems to be particularly troublesome
with respect to school improvement efforts. Bringing parents together
with schools for the purpose of greater participation and collaboration
has been identified as a key component of school improvement efforts
in the work of Chavkin and Williams (1987), Warner (1985) and Saxe
(1984). Although parents and principals have differing views on
parent participation, each of these studies suggests that they must
get together to build a mutual base of understanding about the goals
of parent involvement.
In the movement to redefine parent participation and
involvement, three efforts have been especially successful: First, the
work of Comer (1987) in New Haven has focused on drawing in
parents of poor and minority children. Second, Levin has developed
an accelerated school model which emphasizes parents as decision
makers and resources for the school (1987). Third, Epstein's multi-
school project in Baltimore has received attention as a model of
school and family connections which consists of a variety of parental
involvement (1988). In recognizing these distinctive efforts, Davies
(1991) notes three common themes. Each program emphasizes the
success of every child regardless of social, economic, or racial
characteristics. Each program fosters serving the whole child.
Finally, each program emphasizes shared and overlapping
responsibilities of the school, the family and the community. As a

result of the success of these three efforts, Davies (1991) contends
that principals who are serious about school improvement must
clearly demonstrate support and respect for parents in order for
parents to participate and be involved in the school improvement
efforts. This conclusion is also emphasized by Peach and Reddick
(1987) in a study to determine parent perceptions of the effectiveness
of the principal. These authors suggest that principals should give
more serious attention to providing parents with viable
communications and to developing public relations initiatives which
draw parents into the school setting in meaningful ways. However,
Davies (1991) cautions that "parent involvement as it is often played
out can be a cosmetic to cover up inadequate performance by
schools and families in promoting the academic and social success of
all children" (p. 380).
In summary, enhancing parent participation in schools as a
means for school improvement requires that principals look beyond
traditional ways of working with parents and address parent
involvement preferences. The narrow views principals hold of parent
involvement tend to result in the placement of limits on ways parents
are permitted to be involved in the education of their children as well
as the roles parents are allowed to play in school improvement efforts.
In addition, the narrowness of such principals' views may well
contribute to the alienation of parents from schools. Parents may be
more sophisticated than principals and central office administrators
have perceived them to be. Principals need to make available more
appropriate resources to support parents as decision makers,
advocates, and collaborators (Chavkin & Williams, 1987, p. 179).

Historical Perspectives
Views of parent involvement in education have shifted over
time. Prior to the 19th century, schooling was viewed as a process
conducted within the home for which the parent was entirely
responsible. By the 20th century, schooling was viewed as the
responsibility of school professionals, to the exclusion of parents.
Contemporary views of parent participation in schooling are returning
to a more centered position of parent-school partnerships. According
to Rich (1987), parent involvement in the late 1980s can be
characterized by a "give and take" in responsibility and decision-
making between schools and parents.
During the early years of our country, children were considered
to be an asset to parents and co-workers in the family economic unit.
Families were largely self-sufficient with parents providing the
religious and work skill instruction for their children. Formal schooling
which developed later across America varied greatly from area to
area. In Massachusetts, laws were passed as early as 1647 which
required communities of fifty or more families to set up schools which
would be attended by all children. In Virginia only children of wealthy
families had access to quality "Latin" schools, while the children of the
poor, at best, had access to less adequate schools and
apprenticeship programs. The common purpose of schooling, during
this period, was to accommodate the needs of families rather than for
broader economic and/or political purposes. The purpose of
educators was to serve families (Elkind, 1990, p. 9).
The advent of the industrial revolution brought a movement
from the farm to the factory from the rural environment to that of the
city. This movement induced major changes in family structure
making the family unit more dependent upon manufactured goods. In
the separation of the family from its workplace, the household became

a refuge from the impersonality and drudgery of the workplace. The
need for craft skills was replaced by the need for factory skills,
technological know-how, an emphasis on efficiency, and a "bigger-is-
better" mentality. These economic needs, coupled with an increasing
political need for a literate electorate, helped spur the development of
a universal education system. Just as "massed produced, store-
bought" goods became a staple in city homes, "massed produced,
store-bought" curriculum became a staple of city schools. With the
development of a universal education system, family-school
interactions underwent fundamental changes (Elkind, 1990, p. 80).
In contrast to earlier times in which the relationship between
schools and parents was clearly defined, the relationships became
increasingly blurred. Parents and schools began to form ambiguous
and often strained partnerships. "Perhaps the best evidence of this
new partnership was the formation, around the turn of the century, of
local, state and national parent-teacher organizations" (Elkind, 1990,
p. 100). A stereotypic view of parent groups soon developed
and embedded itself in the public imagery and became part of
the defensive posture of educational practitioners. Without
actually knowing parents, without actually hearing their point of
view, teachers and principals developed strong negative
images of them that justified their exclusion from the schooling
process. (Lightfoot, 1978, p. 36)
As a result of these perceptions, principals and teachers
banded together making an implicit bargain with each other to
support the school as an organization as long as the school protected
them from parental pressure and criticism. This mutual protection
tended to insulate the school from the forces of change (Elkind, 1990,
p. 100).
The post World War II period brought a significant shift in
national values. "Bigger-is-better" gave way to "smaller-and-

streamlined-is-better" including all aspects of technology, industry,
housing, transportation, and even families. According to Elkind
(1990), changes in marriage and family life created new cracks in the
support structure for children. As children became viewed more as an
economic liability, parents became more willing to share their child-
rearing functions with others. As a result, the nature of the school-
family relationship also changed (pp. 15-16). By 1975, the almost
unquestioned and supportive relationship between home and school,
which characterized earlier periods, had substantially deteriorated.
Principals and teachers could no longer assume they stood in
loco parentis. Obviously, the collaborative strength of school
and home working together toward common goals of child
rearing and educating was weakened. (Goodlad, 1984, p. 7)
Featherstone (1976) describes the latter 20th century parent as
having a renewed need for participation in the school. This need for
involvement has risen from two strong historic trends. As the human
service sectors of the American economy have undergone continuous
expansion, more and more of the work of our society involves
professionals helping their clients. The second trend is a response to
the first. As service expands, clientele such as parents begin to
organize to make school professionals more responsive and
With the professionalization of teaching and particularly
administration ... the feeling developed that parents should be
held at arm's length from the schools______(1990, p. 9)
Featherstone goes on to say that those issues around which
clientele organize involve what he calls a pathological
professionalism of many of our social services which often seemed
designed to insulate professionals from the public rather than to
provide services (p. 11).

The elementary principal of the 1990s now faces a mandate to
bring parents into the schools. From viewing the school professional
as a family servant and later to that of a distant professional, the
principal has now been transitioned into an "all-purpose" role of not
just providing leadership in traditional educational activities but
inventing new ways of involving parents more closely in determining
what goes on in schools. Parents themselves have begun to redefine
for themselves the relationship between themselves and schools
expressing a belief that professionals do not have a monopoly on
talent and expertise (Davies, 1976, p. 154). According to Goldring
(1990), this demand for principals to involve parents as active
decision-makers in the school has been fueled by three major trends:
First, research on school effectiveness clearly identifies parents'
participation as a significant component of the effective school.
Second, the impact of school choice and the exit option it offers
parents has proven to be a powerful incentive for principals to
respond to the market forces of parental preferences and interests.
Finally, the school is increasingly viewed by the public as a service
organization inter-connected to its environment and having
boundaries spanned by the principal. This latter trend is particularly
significant in that it offers not only a partial explanation for the
increasing demand for principals to involve parents in the life of the
school but, for the purpose of this study, it provides an appropriate
framework from which to view more closely the relationship between
parents and principals.
Framing the Relationship Between Parents and Principals
A useful way to explore the relationship between parents and
principals is to place that relationship within a sociocultural framework
which views the school as a client serving organization connected to

its environment by principals as boundary spanners. This approach
has been used by Goldring (1990), Blau (I960), Caplow (1964) and
Corwin and Wagenaar (1976). Bidwell (1970) also describes the
relationship between parent and principal as being that of client to
professional in a client-serving organization but calls the relationship
precarious at best and continually threatened: Parental sentiments
are often ignored and prime reliance is placed
on capturing the students good wishes because negative
parental attitudes often place parents at some social distance
from the school. The traditional apartness of schools-their lack
of community involvement and cooperation with other
government and voluntary agencies-compounds the problem,
(p. 58)
For the purpose of this study, the relationships principals have
with parents will be explored as being affected by the following:
1. The characteristics of the management system of the
school district which affects the behavior of the principal
toward parents;
2. The characteristics of the school community: ethnicity,
economic status, and level of uncertainty;
3. The characteristics of individual principals: experience,
training, gender, and ethnicity.
Characteristics of the Management System of a School District
The characteristics of a school district management system
may impact the relationship principals have with parents. The
principal has been described by Thompson (1967) as a primary
boundary spanner who is forced to link the functioning of the school
with parents within the context of the school district's hierarchical
system of control. Corwin and Wagenaar (1976), describe this system

of "organizational control" as the degree of formalization of a school
district's management system.
According to Goldring (1990), districts having highly formalized
management systems, with strictly defined policies and procedures
that apply to relationships with parents, reduce the boundary
spanning activities of the principal and regulate the interactions which
do occur. In contrast, less formal management systems tend to
increase the principal's boundary spanning activities. Informal
management systems allow the principal relative freedom to respond
to environmental demands in a manner and style characteristic not of
the school district as an organization but of the principal as an
Characteristics of the School Community
Certain characteristics of the school community have been
identified as impacting the relationship between parents and
principals. These include the economic status, the ethnicity, and the
condition of "uncertainty" of the school community.
Effect of Economic Status of the School Community
The economic status of the school community may impact the
relationship the principal is able to sustain with parents from that
community. According to Caplow (1964), the effect of any economic
status difference in a relationship is a reduction in the amount of
interaction between the participants. When applied to the parent-
principal relationship, it appears that the greater the status difference
between parent and principal, the less the interaction required to
sustain coordinated activity between the two. The smaller the status
difference between parent and principal, the greater the increase in

interactions required to sustain the relationship. Katz and Danat
(1973) suggest that higher status school parents tend to be more
assertive than their lower status counterparts in making demands on
the school and principals. Goldring (1990) finds that parents in
higher-status schools are more assertive, responsive and willing to
participate in school affairs. Higher status parents tend to be more
persistent in their demands on the school which tends to force
principals to seek ways to involve higher status parents in the life of
the school. Conversely, lower status school parents tend to make
fewer demands on principals and are perceived by principals to want
less involvement. However, there is disagreement in the literature
regarding the impact of economic status on relationships between
parents and principals. Lindle's study (1989) indicates that parents,
whatever their economic status, have the same preferences with
respect to principals. Lightfoot (1978) suggests that it is not the lower
status school parents' lack of desire to be involved with principals that
is the reason for their lack of involvement and participation in schools.
Instead, it represents a rejection of patronizing forms of involvement
permitted them as well as rejection by the principal.
Effect of Ethnicity of the School Community
The ethnicity of a school community may impact the
relationships elementary principals are able to sustain with parents.
Parent groups such as Blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans have
been identified by Comer (1987) as often lacking the political or social
power necessary to force responses to their problems. The
sociocultural gap between parents and principals increases when the
ethnicity of the principal is different from that of the school community.
As the gap widens, because of ethnic differences, parents feel
intimidated and principals view the presence of parents as an

intrusion rather than a resource (Bastian, Fruchter, Gittell, Greer, &
Haskins, 1985, p. 70).
Effect of Uncertainty of the School Community
Characteristics of the school community which increase
uncertainty for the principal impact the relationship elementary
principals are able to sustain with parents. When confronted by
uncertainty in the school community, principals view parents in the
aggregate as difficult and problematic. The following four community
characteristics have been identified by Goldring (1986) as increasing
uncertainty for principals: the assertiveness of the community in
making demands of the school, the eagerness of the community to
participate in school affairs, the homogeneity of the parents'
expectations of the school, and the responsiveness of parents to the
initiatives of the principal. A conclusion of this Goldring (1986) study
is that only an increase in the sharing of information with parents can
"serve to reduce much of the uncertainty for the principal and lead the
way for a more productive principal-parent relationship" (p. 130).
Assertiveness of School Community. In school communities
viewed as assertive in making demands of the school, principals find
it more difficult to concentrate on the internal management of the
school. In addition, parents in assertive communities present a threat
to principals by complaining to central office administrators. These
complaints make the principal vulnerable to pressures from central
office administrators who control the principal's job security and
mobility. Thus, assertive school communities create uncertainty for
Eagerness of the School Community to Participate in School
Affairs. School communities rated by principals as being only
somewhat eager to participate tend to generate negative principal

sentiment toward parents. Such communities present principals with
ambiguity and uncertainty. Principals are not able to predict under
what circumstances parents will become involved in school affairs or
will respond to which school event.
Homogeneity of the School Community. The less
homogeneous the school community, the more is required of
principals in order to deal with the diverse parent expectations. In
heterogeneous communities, principals are not easily able to discern
and meet parent expectations. They do not know how parents will
respond to the school. Heterogeneous school communities require
considerably more principal engagement of parents in order to
manage the resulting uncertainty.
Responsiveness of the School Community. School
communities which tend not to respond readily to the initiatives of
school personnel present principals with greater uncertainty. In
unresponsive communities principals cannot rely on parents to help
or comply when asked. Dealing with the unresponsiveness of a
school community consumes much of the principal's work day that
could be spent on other tasks. Unresponsive communities require a
much larger amount of time spent in engaging parents by the
in order to get parents involved in the school or to try to turn the
community into a more responsive group. Hence, these
principals mentioned that it was a time consuming task to
interact with parents and it was important to involve parents in
school affairs, precisely because they are not already involved
in the school. (Goldring, 1986, p. 128)
Characteristics of the Principal
The behavior of principals as primary boundary spanners is
viewed as being related to certain characteristics of the principal

which tend to effect the interactions they have with parents (Corwin &
Wagenaar, 1976). These characteristics include the level of
professional training, seniority, ethnicity and gender.
Principal Seniority
Conformity to the norms of the school as a service organization
tends to increase with the professional's seniority in the organization
(Merton, 1952). As the commitment of the professional turns inward
toward the organization, that individual becomes more involved with
other professionals and less involved with the clientele except for
those few with perceived power. The result is an increase in
boundary interactions. In a study by Blau (1960) the ability of
teachers to serve parents was found to increase with teacher
experience. However, more experienced teachers were found to
gravitate to those parents representing power or influence. Lightfoot
(1978) provides a similar description of principals who also gravitate
toward parents considered to be powerful or influential such as upper
middle class professional parents or parents considered to be
irrational and capable of violence. "The whole middle range of
parents who are perceived as neither frightening and outspoken nor
lofty and articulate are usually considered relatively safe and inactive,
and therefore not worthy of the principal's alliance" (Lightfoot, 1978,
p. 96).
Principal Training
A goal of advanced professional training at a college or
university is to instill a sense of competence and service ethic and
thus to encourage professionals to make more contact with the public
(Blau & Scott, 1962). However, professional training also creates a

professionalization which tends to increase the distance between
parents as clients and school professionals. Corwin and Wagenaar
(1976) have found that the frequency of interactions with parents
varies inversely with the status distance between the parents and
school professionals. Socialization into the occupation of principal
with its distinct subculture promotes a "culture gap" between
principals and parents. Professional training can have a
cosmopolitanizing influence (Blau & Scott, 1962) which turns the
professionals loyalties away from the local community and acts as an
impediment to interactions with parents. As a result individuals, such
as principals with a high degree of professional training, tend to be
criticized for a lack of commitment to service which arises from their
self-imposed isolation from and lack of responsiveness to a large
segment of the public they serve (Levine, 1970).
Ethnicity of Principal
The national trend toward pluralism is reflected to some degree
in the ranks of elementary principals, particularly those in urban
schools. Nearly 20% of all urban principals are Black, Hispanic or
American Indian (Doud, 1989, p. 8). Those urban elementary schools
characterized as being "in trouble" are more likely to have a minority
recently placed in the principalship for the purpose of improving
conditions (Ortiz, 1982, p. 106).
Minority educators who hold positions as principals have
typically undergone a rigorous "professional socialization" experience
that is more intense than for non-minorities. In achieving success,
these individuals have developed a stronger sense of
accomplishment and mission than non-minorities. "A characteristic
that becomes evident is an intensity about their work which is absent

in those who progress in a more leisurely fashion" (Ortiz, 1982,
p. 108).
Successful minority principals are viewed as having developed
a role distinctive from less successful minority principals. More
successful minority principals demonstrate an understanding and
sensitivity toward minority problems while remaining positive and
hopeful. They also display a range of behaviors which are
appropriate in the company of ethnic groups as well as school
personnel. Successful minority principals
have come to terms with their ethnicity and what it means in
their lives. Those who are extremely adept can move from one
culture to another with ease. Those less adept are most likely
to be suspect in both contexts. (Ortiz, 1982, p. 108)
Successful minority principals, when faced with circumstances
of potential conflict between the school and parents of their own
ethnic background, are somehow able to respond as a representative
of the school rather than of their own ethnic group. On the other hand,
they are also able to act as an ethnic advocate yet not experience
institutional rejection. Whatever their ethnicity, successful minority
principals have adapted to organizational demands while assuring
their personal success. It appears that "success in administration
means that ethnicity is secondary, but ever present" (Ortiz, 1982,
p. 108).
For the purpose of this study, it is significant that Hemphill,
Griffiths, & Fredericksen, (1962) found that women principals
demonstrate superior ability in working with the community. Parents
look more favorably on schools with women principals. Parents also
tended to be more involved in school affairs, approved more often of

the learning activities and outcomes, and approved of discipline in
schools headed by women. The degree of performance and morale
of students and staff in schools administered by females is also found
to be higher than those administered by men (Grambs, 1976; Fishel &
Pottker, 1979). It is suggested by Shakeshaft (1987) that the success
of female principals may be due, at least in part, to the more frequent
use made by females of collaborative strategies involving group
decision-making and the facilitating of communications. Another
possible reason for the difference in success between female and
male principals is that females tend to wait longer for promotions and
have higher qualifications. Females tend to have adapted to the
system over a longer period of time and demonstrate less rigid
responses to school situations. Grambs goes so far as to suggest that
the most difficult schools in lower socioeconomic neighborhoods
would be better off with female principals (1976, p. 297).
Nevertheless, Folmar (1989) and Shakeshaft (1987) report that
females frequently tend to be kept out of administrative positions
because of a commonly held but inaccurate view that female
principals are less effective than their male counterparts.
This review of the literature has focused on contemporary
views of the status of the relationships between parents and
principals as well as historical views on how the relationship has
come to be the way it is. By placing the relationships principals have
with parents within a sociocultural framework, the relationship can be
viewed as that of a boundary spanner connecting parents to the
school. Factors which may effect the relationship include
characteristics of the school district management system,
characteristics of the school community, and characteristics of the

principal. This study will augment the current literature by exploring in
detail the relationships elementary principals have with parents from
the perspective of the principal. By understanding the role certain
characteristics of the school district, the school community, and the
elementary principal play in that relationship, it will be possible to
determine specifically why and how some elementary principals are
thought to be more successful than others in developing positive
relationships with parents.

Chapter 3
This chapter describes the methods used to conduct an
exploratory study of elementary principals and their relationships with
parents. This complex relationship has not been previously studied in
a qualitative or critical inquiry manner using the elementary principal
as the focus. It is hoped that this study will provide new and useful
ways of viewing the principalship.
This study of elementary principals and their relationships with
parents utilizes a qualitative case study methodology set in a critical
inquiry paradigm. The first phase of the study delineated the
parameters of the study through the review of the literature using a
critical inquiry approach. The second phase consisted of the
development of a study design and the selection of methods for
carrying out the design. The third phase involved a simultaneous
process of data collection and analysis. The conclusions and
implications, based on the analysis and interpretation of results, will
be presented in subsequent chapters of this study.
The methods used in this exploratory study include interviews,
participant observation, and critical review. These methods were
selected to address the research questions which emerged from the
review of the literature. When taken together, interviews, participant
observation, and participant review converged on the same set of
data and helped assure the construct validity of the design (Yin, 1988,
p. 41).

The remainder of this chapter provides an overview of the
study, a description of the research methods, the research design, the
selection of the site, the selection of subjects, instrumentation, data
collection and recording, and data processing and analysis.
This study was designed to meet three purposes:
1. To provide a detailed understanding of the relationships
elementary principals have with parents;
2. To explore why and how some elementary principals are
more successful than others in developing and
maintaining positive relationships with parents within the
district context; and
3. To determine the role certain characteristics of the
school community and of the elementary principal play
in the relationship.
Underlying these purposes and the resulting research
questions is an assumption that the relationships elementary
principals have with parents can be explored within a sociocultural
framework which views the activity of the principal as that of a
boundary spanner connecting parents to the school. This activity is
affected by certain characteristics of the school district, the school
community, and the principal. The research questions, along with
sub-questions, include:
1. What is the nature of the dealings elementary principals
have with parents on a daily basis?
a. How do principals describe their relationships
with parents?
b. What concerns do principals have about their
daily dealings with parents?

c. How important do principals view the
relationships they have with parents?
2. How do elementary principals define and achieve
successful relationships with parents?
a. How do principals define successful relationships
with parents?
b. How do central office administrators define
principals success in relationship with parents?
c. How do principals achieve successful
relationships with parents?
d. How do principals deal with parent complaints?
3. How do elementary principals view the effect of district
policies and procedures and central office
administrators on their relationships with parents?
a. How do district policies and procedures affect the
relationships principals have with parents?
b. What concerns do principals have with respect to
parent complaints to central office?
c. How do principals view the expectations of
central office administrators?
d. What do elementary principals need from central
office administrators in order to be more
successful in their relationships with parents?
e. How do principals simultaneously satisfy the
demands of parents and central office
4. To what extent do principal characteristics and school
demography influence the nature of the relationships
principals have with parents?
a. How do principal characteristics of training,
experience, ethnicity and gender influence the

nature ot the relationships principals have with
b. How do school characteristics of ethnicity,
economic status and conditions of "uncertainty"
influence the nature of the relationships principals
have with parents?
In order to collect data for addressing these research
questions, interviews were conducted with elementary principals,
central office administrators and influential parents. Field notes were
maintained. A cyclical process of participant review, reflection and
dialogue generated further data. The process of data analysis used
in this study was inductive. The patterns, themes and categories of
analysis were allowed to "emerge out of the data rather than being
decided prior to the collection and analysis" (Patton, 1987, p. 150).
Description of Research Methodology
A qualitative case study design set in a critical inquiry
framework was used in this exploration of the relationships
elementary principals have with parents. A qualitative design
component was selected for several reasons:
1. The intent of a qualitative design is consistent with the
general purpose of this study: to develop an
understanding of the behavior of elementary principals
within the context of a sociocultural framework which
views the interactions a principal has with parents as
those of a boundary spanner connecting clients with a
service organization. The philosophical roots of
qualitative methodology "emphasize the importance of
understanding the meanings of human behavior and the

socio-cultural context of social interaction" (Patton, 1987,
p. 20).
2. A qualitative design is an appropriate choice for an
exploratory study such as this because it is more
sensitive and adaptable to the many mutually shaping
influences and value patterns that may be encountered"
(Guba & Lincoln, 1985, p. 40).
3. A case study approach has been identified by Yin
(1988) as a particularly productive research strategy for
sociocultural studies which are exploratory in nature. It
is also preferred for studies of contemporary interactions
such as parent-principal interactions in which the intent
is not to manipulate behaviors but to understand them
4. For the purpose of this study, a qualitative case study
approach was valuable in that it addresses the holistic
examination of phenomena and seeks to avoid the
separation of components from the larger social and
cultural contexts to which they are related (Jorgensen,
1989, p. 19).
5. The form of the research questions themselves suggest
a qualitative study approach. For studies asking
questions such as "how," "why," and "what," a qualitative
case study is the methodology of choice (Yin, 1988,
p. 19).
Despite the usefulness of a qualitative case study design, it is
not sufficient for the purpose of this study of a complex relationship.
Coomer (1986) contends that a qualitative case study approach,
when taken alone, tends to take social reality for granted and does
not account for the manner in which social reality is constituted and
maintained or the belief structure of the participants. Limiting an

investigation to interviews and observations encourages the holding
on to old beliefs and minimizing the existence of conflict. "Yet conflict
has the potential to generate the tension necessary for getting
attention directed toward unrecognized problems, resolutions, and
growth" (Coomer, 1986, p. 187).
The added use of a critical inquiry paradigm proved significant
to this study as a means of placing the relationship into a
sociocultural context. It also brought the relationship to a level of
awareness in which the "patterns of events and their explanations are
not merely common sense, neutral or benign, but grow out of and in
turn affect particular internal and external conditions" (Sirotnik &
Oakes, 1986, p. 36).
Research Design
A primary source of data for this study was face-to-face
interviews with employees and influential parents within the same
large, urban school district. The first set of interviews involved four
central office administrators who evaluate elementary principals and
four parents who are influential in shaping parent sentiment toward
principals within the district. These interviews with central office
administrators and influential parents were conducted during the
summer of 1991. Emerging from this set of interviews was data which
helped refine the research questions and guided the development of
questions for subsequent interviews with elementary principals.
The elementary principals interviewed for this study were
identified by central office administrators and influential parents as
being particularly more or less successful in their relationships with
parents. This set of interviews was conducted during the winter of
1991. Although interview guides were used, additional questions
emerged during the interviews which were also discussed. Interviews

took on the form of dialogues and critical reflections as the study
A second source of data for this study was participant
observation. The researcher conducting this study is an assistant
principal within the school district selected as the site of the study.
The nature of this role permitted access and entry to the public and
private relationships, meetings, and events such as principals'
meetings and general leadership meetings. Unobtrusive participant
observation provided an insider's view of what was happening and
supplemented the interview data. According to Jorgensen (1989),
participant observation "reduces the possibility of inaccuracy because
the researcher gains through subjective involvement direct access to
what people think, do, and feel from multiple perspectives" (p. 56).
Supplementing interviews with participant observation has been
identified by Zelditch (1962) as an efficient and practical technique for
collecting data when using a small number of participants (p. 575).
A third source of data for this study was a process of participant
review, reflection and dialogue with the researcher. These participant
reviewers were a central office administrator and a more successful
principal both of whom had been interviewed during the early stages
of this study. These individuals were particularly candid and
knowledgeable with respect to the district context. The process of
participant review involved returning to the participant reviewers with
data, analyses, and interpretations which evoked new data through
dialogue and critical review. This process served
... to encourage participants to look not only at the superficial
aspects of what is being represented but to go beyond in order
to investigate and reflect on the deep structure beneath them--
to consider questions of how practices came to be and whose
interests are served by them educationally, socially,
economically, and politically. (Sirotnik & Oakes, 1986, p. 77)

Selection of Site
District X was selected as the site of this study. As a large
urban district with more than thirty elementary schools, this district
was particularly appropriate for this study because of its management
system. Central office administrators and principals alike describe the
management system in the area of parent-community relations as
being "informal and inconsistent." According to Goldring (1990),
districts with informal management systems require of principals a
high amount of boundary-spanning activities with relative freedom to
respond to environmental demands in a manner and style
characteristic not of the organization but of themselves as individuals.
A study of elementary principals in District X allows the success or
failure of principals in developing and maintaining positive
relationships with parents to be viewed not just as a function of the
district management system but as a function of characteristics of the
elementary principal and the school community as well.
District X was also appropriate for this study in that it satisfies
the criteria of an ideal site as suggested by Marshall and Rossman
(1989, pp. 54-55).
1. Entry by the researcher of this study was not just
possible but welcomed by the central office
administrators, influential parents and principals;
2. A "rich mix" of people, relationships and interactions was
available upon which this study could focus;
3. A continuity of presence of the researcher for as long as
necessary to complete the study was possible due to the
researcher's role as an assistant principal in the district;
4. The credibility of the study and the quality of the data
were reasonably assured by the availability of all
participants selected;

5. The researcher, as a participant observer in the daily
functioning of District X, had access to the private and
public "faces" of the relationships principals have with
Selection of Subjects
The logic of purposeful sampling guided the selection of
subjects for this study. The goal was to select information-rich cases
"from which one can learn a great deal about issues of central
importance" (Patton, 1987, p. 52). The intention was to generate
sufficient information from the selected subjects upon which to base
emergent design and grounded theory (Guba & Lincoln, 1985).
Subjects were selected for two sets of interviews. The first set
of interviews was conducted with central office administrators and
influential parents. The purpose of the first set of interviews was to
define principal "success" in developing and maintaining positive
parent relationships from the perspective of "policymakers and
stakeholders" within the district context. This group consisted of the
four central office administrators who evaluate elementary principals
and who make recommendations for continued employment and the
four influential parents who serve on the district accountability
committee and who also hold county level positions with parent
advisory organizations. These subjects represent what Goldring
(1990) refers to as the administrative and political imperatives which
principals must simultaneously satisfy (p. 393).
Another purpose of the first set of interviews was to identify
elementary principals for the second set of interviews using "extreme
case sampling." This form of sampling was used rather than
representative sampling because "in many instances more can be
learned from intensively studying extreme or unusual cases than can

be learned from statistical depictions of what the average case is like
(Patton, 1987, p. 53). The actual technique used to select the
individual elementary principals is termed "nonprobability sampling"
(Jorgensen, 1989, pp. 19-20). Central office administrators and
influential parents were asked to nominate elementary principals
whom they view as being particularly more or less successful in their
relationships with parents. The names of nominated principals were
coded then arranged in a simple four cell matrix (Appendix A). Only
six elementary principals were nominated by both a central office
administrator and an influential parent for subsequent interviews:
three principals considered to be more successful and three
principals considered to be less successful. The selection of
elementary principals as subjects, through the responses of central
office administrators and influential parents, can be viewed as a
sequential process based on consideration of information rather than
statistics. The intent of this process is to maximize useful data (Guba
& Lincoln, 1985).
In order to gain permission to conduct the research with the
selected subjects in District X, the following procedures were
1. Approval to initiate the research was obtained from the
2. Approval to conduct the research was obtained from the
Department of Planning and Evaluation.
3. Consent was obtained from the elementary principals
confirming their willingness to participate and their
awareness of the nature and scope of the study.

The primary source of data for this qualitative case study set in
a critical inquiry paradigm was the interview. The degree of structure
of any interview can range from structured to unstructured depending
upon the particular project. Goetz and LeCompte (1984) suggest that
"researchers are best served by seeking and following guidelines for
interview construction that are consistent with the goals and designs
of particular research projects" (p. 124). For the purpose of this
exploratory study, a nonscheduled standardized interview format was
Some researchers refer to the non-standardized interview as
an interview guide, in which general questions to be
addressed and specifics desired by the researcher are
anticipated, but may be addressed during the interview
informally in whatever order or context they happen to arise.
(Goetz & LeCompte, 1984, p. 119)
The interview guide for this study consisted of a list of
questions and issues that were to be explored in the interview
(Appendix B). Although certain questions for this study were specified
in advance, the sequence and specific wording of the questions
varied during the course of the interviews allowing the researcher to
establish a more conversational style while focusing on particular
Patton (1987) cites several advantages in using an interview
guide approach which is also known as a non-scheduled
standardized format or a semi-structured interview. This approach
insures that the interviewing of subjects is systematic and
comprehensive by delimiting the issues. This approach makes the
best use of available time in an interview. It also allows the
interviewing of subjects to be systematic yet flexible and open-ended.

Although the interview guides for interviews with central office
administrators, influential parents, and elementary principals differed,
each included a scripted introduction to the interview and a number of
interview questions which emerged from the research questions. The
sequence of the questions during the actual interviews varied as
decisions were made by the researcher during the course of each
interview in order to generate additional data. New questions, which
emerged during the interviews, were posed as they emerged and
then included in subsequent interviews if productive in collecting
data. Critical reflection was encouraged as was dialogue with the
The initial set of interviews was conducted with four central
office administrators and four influential parents. These interviews
were highly exploratory and were used to establish normative data
regarding the successfulness of elementary principals in their
relationships with parents within the district context. During these
interviews, elementary principals were identified as subjects for the
subsequent interviews. These interviews also generated data that
was useful in refining the research questions.
The interview guide for the first set of interviews with central
office administrators and influential parents consisted of the following
open-ended questions:
1. What criteria do you use to determine whether an
elementary principal maintains successful relationships
with parents?
2. What criteria do you use to determine whether an
elementary principal does not maintain successful
relationships with parents?
3. When you think about principals and parents, is there a
story, circumstance or situation involving an elementary
principal and a parent which is meaningful to you?

4. Which elementary principals in this district are known for
being particularly more or less successful in their
relationships with parents?
The next set of interviews was conducted with six elementary
principals identified within the district context as being particularly
successful or unsuccessful in their relationships with parents. The
interview guide prepared for this set of interviews was constructed
using a combination of two typologies designed to generate specific
interview questions related to the research questions.
First, the typology of questions suggested by Patton (1987) was
applied to each of this study's research questions. This typology
consists of six cells in which to generate questions:
1. Experience and behavior questions which elicit what
respondents do or have done;
2. Opinion and value questions that elicit how respondents
think about their behaviors and experience;
3. Feeling questions that elicit how respondents react
emotionally to their experiences and opinions;
4. Knowledge questions that elicit what respondents know
about their world;
5. Sensory questions; and
6. Background and demographic questions that elicit
respondents' descriptions of themselves.
Second, the system of Schatzman and Strauss (1973) which
overlaps that of Patton, was used to create a variety of question forms:
1. Reportorial questions that elicit a knowledge of factors
usually preceded by "who, what, when, where or how";
2. Devil's advocate questions that elicit what respondents
view as controversial;
3. Hypothetical questions that encourage respondent

4. Posing-the-ideal questions that elicit respondent's
values; and
5. Propositional questions that elicit or verify
The sequencing of questions during individual interviews
tended to follow Patton's suggestions that interviews begin with
descriptive questions and end with more complex issues and
demographic questions. However, the sequencing varied from
interview to interview depending upon the comfort level of individuals
and their interest in the interview. In addition, each interview was
prefaced by a scripted introduction. "Interviews are conducted more
smoothly when prefaced by a brief statement of research purpose, by
assurance of protection of respondent identity, and by an outline of
how the interaction is expected to proceed" (Goetz & LeCompte,
1984, p. 129). Copies of the scripted introduction to the interview and
the interview guide are included in Appendix B.
All subjects participating in this study were contacted by
telephone by the researcher to discuss their participation in this study.
Each individual was offered alternatives of time and place for their
face-to-face interviews. Every individual, selected for the study,
participated in at least one interview.
Because the primary manner of collecting data was through
interviews, care was given to the capturing of the actual words of the
participants. Although notes were taken during the interviews to
facilitate later analysis, "the interactive nature of in-depth interviewing
is seriously affected by the attempt to take verbatim notes during the
interview" (Patton, 1987, p. 137). All interviews as well as field notes
were recorded on audio tape and transcribed for later analysis.
Tapes and transcripts have been maintained by the researcher.

Data Collection and Recording
Data collection began with the interviews of central office
administrators and influential parents in District X. These participants
served as experts or "key informants" and provided insights into the
relationships elementary principals have with parents.
Key informants are often critical to the success of a case study.
Such persons not only provide the case study investigator with
insights into a matter but also can suggest sources of
corroboratory evidence--and initiate the access to such
sources. (Yin, 1988, p. 89)
For the purpose of this study, the key informants also identified
elementary principals as subjects for the second series of interviews.
All interviews with central office administrators, influential
parents and elementary principals were recorded on audio tape. In
addition, the researcher took notes during the interviews and
extensive debriefing notes immediately after each interview were also
made. These notes were recorded in a prepared format which was
organized in a manner for later analysis facilitation.
A second source of data for this study was participant
observation. Field notes were maintained throughout the study as a
way of recording observed events, conversations, and meetings as
well as personal feelings and insights. These field notes were
particularly useful because of an unexpected richness of events
surrounding the relationships elementary principals have with parents
within District X.
A final source of data which emerged during the course of data
collection was the process of participant review consisting of
reflection and dialogue by two knowledgeable and cooperative
participants who were both interviewed during the early stage of this
study: a central office administrator and an elementary principal who
had been identified as more successful. Identified by Schatzman and

Strauss (1973) as a way of corroborating the essential data in an
exploratory case study, a review cycle by participants also has the
potential of generating new data. For the purpose of this study,
review by key informants provided an opportunity for reflection and
new dialogue thus contributing to the body of data as well as the
quality of the final revision of the report.
Data Processing and Analysis
The analysis of data collected in this study took an evolving,
circuitous path of continuous and cyclical decoding, interpreting,
reviewing, dialoguing, and modifying. The decoding process had as
its goal the identification of pervasive themes. Both traditional and
nontraditional approaches were used in the decoding process
reflecting the belief expressed by Sirotnik and Oakes (1986) that "no
one method and the inquiry perspective behind it has a lock on
scientific legitimacy" (p. 74).
One data analysis process used was that of unitizing and
categorizing as suggested by Spradley (1979). This process involved
the breaking down of information in transcripts into small units of
meaning then combining the units into categories. These categories
were not meant to be exhaustive or mutually exclusive but
overlapping and requiring continuous testing and modifying during
the analysis process (Guba, 1978).
Another process of data analysis used for this study can best
be described as a digesting and summarizing of data by the
researcher and participant reviewers followed by critical dialogue.
Through dialogue and interplay, a "coordinated sense-making" was
achieved from the normative perspectives of the participants within
the context of the school district. Each participant reviewer's
interpretation along with that of the researcher served as a challenge

to the others' perspectives requiring a reconsideration of the analysis.
As described by Freire (1973, p. 104), the analysis of data made by
each participant reviewer or "decoder" sent the researcher back,
"dialogically" to the disjoined whole which once more became a
"totality." This in turn evoked a new analysis by the researcher which
was followed by new critical, evaluative dialogues. With each "pass"
through the process of data analysis, the researcher moved closer
toward the findings of this study.
An analysis of the data collected in this study is presented in
Chapter 4. This analysis of data also provides the basis for Chapter 5
which will include a summary of the significant findings, conclusions,
implications for school policy, and recommendations for further study.

Chapter 4
The analysis of qualitative data using the critical inquiry
approach guided the researcher through a cyclical process described
by Sirotnik and Oakes (1986) as "coordinated sense-making." The
goal of this process of analysis was to lift what goes on day after day
in the relationships elementary principals have with parents "from
their usual taken-for-granted status and begin to uncover both the
personal meanings and the social and political significance these
events have" (p. 51). The organization of this chapter emerged from
the data and consists of a brief discussion of the methodological
process implemented in this study and the findings as they relate to
the research questions.
The cyclical process of data collection and analysis reported in
this chapter continued over a twelve month period and included the
1. "Tuning-in" through face-to-face interviews and
participant observation;
2. The transcription of interviews and field notes;
3. The continuous, cyclical decoding of transcriptions by
themes and categories as additional data were
4. The writing of an evolving draft report including
interpretation of meanings as additional themes were

5. The ongoing presentation of the evolving draft report to
participant reviewers for their consideration and critical
6. Continuous dialoguing with participant reviewers as
additional data were collected and analyzed to evoke
new themes and interpretations investigated through
followup interviews, observations, and re-analysis of
7. Returning to, examining, and modifying the draft report
until "sense-making" was achieved.
This process was not divided into discrete or consecutive
steps. Instead, it became a cyclical, evolving process which
eventually converged upon an understanding of the relationships
elementary principals have with parents and the significance those
relationships have within the district context. This chapter will present
the essential findings of the data analysis as they relate to the study's
research questions.
Methodological Process
Evolution and Emergence
The evolution and emergence of data in this study took the
form of a cyclical, evolving process. It began informally during a
period of many years prior to the beginning of the actual study when
the researcher, in the role of parent and then as elementary teacher
and assistant principal, observed the outward manifestations of the
relationships elementary principals have with parents. From these
observations arose many questions which provided an initial focus for
the formal study and the formulation of the research questions. This
section describes the process of triangulation of data sources and the
gathering of data.

Trianaulation of Data Sources
The findings of this study are the result of the convergence of
three sources of data and their interrelatedness. The first source of
data included non-scheduled, standardized interviews of three
categories of participants and followup telephone interviews. A
second source of data was field notes collected throughout the
duration of the study. A third source of data was the draft review
process which, through continuous dialogue, evoked new data from
the participant reviewers.
Non-Scheduled Standardized Interviews. Interviews within the
district were conducted with a total of fourteen participants: four
central office administrators; four influential parents; three elementary
principals viewed as more successful in their relationships with
parents; and three elementary principals viewed as being less
successful in their relationships with parents. Interviews were
conducted at the location and time selected by the participants. All
interviews were audio taped and transcribed for analysis. Interviews
were conducted between July 15, 1991 and April 15, 1992. The
interview guide is included in Appendix B.
Participant Observation bv the Researcher. Field notes from
observations were used as a rich source of data. These notes
described events, conversations, and meetings as well as personal
reactions and insights of the researcher. The notes tended to range
from informal and sketchy to formal and detailed depending upon the
relevancy of a particular situation to the purpose of the study. All field
notes were audio taped as observations were made and then
transcribed for later analysis. Field notes were maintained from
September of 1991 to April of 1992. This source of data was
especially useful in providing an understanding of the district context.

Review of the Draft Report bv Participants. A continuous
review of the draft report as well as the interview transcripts of
interviews and field notes was utilized. The participant reviewers
included a central office administrator and an elementary principal
who were particularly knowledgeable, insightful and candid with
respect to the district context. The review process consisted of
individual, face-to-face dialogue with the participant reviewers as the
data was collected and analyzed. The review process served two
purposes. It generated new data as the reviewers contributed
additional details and perspectives. It also assisted in the refinement
of the data analysis.
Analysis of Data
The analysis of data collected in this study was a part of an
interdependent methodological process. The interview guides for all
interviews were derived from the research questions which
themselves evolved from the specific purposes of the study. The field
notes traced events within the district context which related to the
research questions. The dialogue with participant reviewers evoked
new data which also related to the research questions. Data
collected through interviews were verified and analyzed by cross-
checking through interviews with other participants, participant
observations, and the continuous review process.
Findings Related to the Research Questions
The general purpose of this study is to provide a detailed
understanding of the relationships elementary principals have
with parents. It is based upon four major research questions which
guided the review of the literature, the design of the study, and the

composition of the interview guides. The analysis ot the data derived
from interviews, the evaluation of field notes, and the ongoing
participant review resulted in the findings which follow.
Question One:
What is the nature of the dealings elementary
principals have with parents on a daily basis?
Elementary principals as well as central office administrators
and influential parents interviewed for this study believe that the
dealings elementary principals have with parents while often routine
and neutral are becoming more adversarial. All principals, whether
identified as more or less successful in their relationships with
parents, express some negative feelings about parents and the
impact they view parents have on them as professionals. While
principals view their relationships with parents as being essential to
their effectiveness and success, they also see parents as becoming
increasingly "problematic." Two major concerns principals express
with respect to their positions as school leaders include dealing with
angry parents and finding ways to involve individual parents in the
school on a regular basis. However, less successful principals have
taken on what can best be described as a "siege mentality" with
respect to parents. They tend to express a "them against me"
attitude. Privately, during principal meetings or informal
conversations, principals express a guardedness and a suspicion
about parents which belies their often seeming affability when in the
company of a parent. More successful principals express a different
attitude toward parents. Although these principals express concerns
about dealing with angry parents, they also speak of parents in a
more empathetic manner which says, "I'm on their side." More

successful principals tend to enjoy their interactions with parents,
indicate less anger toward parents, and demonstrate greater
acceptance of organized parent groups than less successful
How Principals Describe their Relationships with Parents
When asked to describe their daily interactions with parents,
both groups of principals conceptualize their dealings with parents as
frequently adversarial. Less successful principals reflect a more
guarded tone using such descriptors as "conflict-oriented,
antagonistic, business-like, forgiving and frustrating." However, more
successful principals tend to use more positive descriptors such as
"friendly, informational, warm, honest, and 'two-way'." A more
successful principal explains:
I'm not saying I don't have headaches-that's part of the job...
as is handling those headaches and being a friend to these
parents. I see so many people that are out there under such
dire circumstances. They're in terrible shape. I am one friend
they can come to-one person that maybe is in a position to
help them with their kid. They need that. It's wonderful to be
there for parents. That's where you can get so much joy out of
a job like this. I think of us at school as all some of these
people have. Intellectually there are days when I go home
drained and kind of bummed out because maybe too many
parents complained. But there are an awful lot of good days
too like when I'm sitting here talking to the poor mother who's
gonna have an abortion but really doesn't think she should and
she's crying and doesn't have a husband. I'm all she's got at
that moment to help her. Id better be happy that I'm in a
position to maybe help another human being. What greater joy
can you have in the world than that?!
In describing their relationships with parents, more successful
principals tend to describe their own role in their relationships with

parents in greater detail and indicate a greater empathy with parents
than less successful principals.
Concerns Principals Have About Their Daily Dealings with Parents
Elementary principals interviewed for this study agree that their
biggest concern with respect to parents is "keeping them happy" and
dealing with their anger. As parent interactions become more
adversarial in nature, principals search for an explanation of why this
phenomenon is taking place. They typically place the behavior of
parents in a social context.
Well--I've thought about that a lot. I think it's where we live with
parents losing jobs, marriages falling apart, the frustrations of
taxes being raised and all those pressures--even more than we
realize in families. All those pressures as released by parents
at the school. Lots of time it's just a small situation that gets out
of control-maybe a coat that is lost or misplaced or just
situations that I know if only the parent had taken the time and
calmed down and kept a perspective, would laugh about it. But
what happens is an intensity exists that comes through as
anger which spills over onto the school, (from field notes)
The most difficult episodes of parent anger with which
principals must cope tend to surface when a parent can only see one
side of an issue. One principal summed up the problem of dealing
with this kind of parent anger in the following way:
They come in angry about some specific incident and have
already determined what the outcome should be. Nothing else
is acceptable, and they won't engage in any type of problem-
solving, group decision, or whatever. You try and back up and
say: "Let's meet; let's talk; let's talk about the issue."
Nevertheless, they insist that either you need to change or
they'll call the Ad Building or keep their kid out of school until
you do what I want. This happens a lot.


The manner in which principals react toward parent anger
differs between more and less successful principals. Less successful
principals seem more concerned about "getting their side across" and
"making parents understand." They indicate a greater degree of fear
in confronting parents. Less successful principals describe
themselves as feeling angry with parents. One principal expressed it
this way: "I hate that black and white kind of stuff that parents come to
me with!" In contrast, a more successful principal explains:
When parents come angry, I can't always settle their problem
immediately. But at least I try to make them know that I'm on
their side and trying to get the problem settled for them and
trying to make a good situation for them.
Less successful principals were not able to share enjoyable
aspects of dealing with parents. Instead, they returned to dwell upon
the more unpleasant situations with parents. Remarks of more
successful principals, such as the following statement, illustrates their
enjoyment of parents:
What's the best? There are so many things. Getting to have
the fun of appreciating their kid with them almost like a
grandparent. These parents really care for their kids and like to
talk about their kids. This helps me see things in a different
light. Then some day a parent will come in and I'll say, "You'll
never guess what your son did," or "Did you see the story he
wrote?" That is so much fun for me. It's kind of like getting to
be a parent again to 500 kids if you share with the parents.
How Principals View the Importance of the Parent Relationship
All elementary principals interviewed for this study view their
dealings with parents as a significant part of their responsibilities as
principals. Without successful relationships with parents, the overall
effectiveness of the principal is seen to be limited. The following
statement typifies this belief:

I feel it is important to deal with parents and work with them
because you get to know their child better. And if there is a
close bond between parent and principal, we have a better
chance of developing a better educational program for their
Principals express a belief that interactions with parents are
increasing each year. All of the principals in this study estimate that at
least one-third of every work day is spent in dealings with parents.
Despite the importance of these interactions, principals see this large
amount of time with parents and dealing with parent issues as
detracting from their other administrative roles.
When principals were asked whether or not they would prefer
to involve parents at school, all principals responded that more
individual parent involvement is at least somewhat desirable. All
principals express the belief that for the most part, parent involvement
can be an asset. Having individual parents in the schools more often
is seen as a means of helping parents appreciate the "shades of gray"
in running a school.
When I think of parents who have worked at this school, I know
they have come away with a whole different perspective of
what schools are and what schools need to be. I've never
encountered a parent who volunteered in the office who didn't
come away with a new appreciation of what elementary
schools are all about.
Although involving individual parents is seen as an asset by all
principals, there is considerable disagreement with respect to
principal attitudes toward organized groups of parents such as PTA.
More successful principals speak of enjoying interactions with such
groups and find them helpful particularly with respect to improving
communications and supporting the school improvement efforts of the
principal. However, organized parent groups are viewed with

suspicion by less successful principals who express a concern that
such groups tend to complicate the job of principal. One principal
described his view of having an organized parent group in his school
this way:
It requires managing people's egos. I was critical in my own
mind that an organized group did not exist when I got here.
Now that I have one, I understand why the previous principal
didn't want one--gives me a lot more to contend with that really
isn't important and doesn't produce enough benefits for the
school for the amount of time I invest in it.
The nature of the dealings elementary principals have with
parents on a daily basis can best be described as frequently
adversarial and becoming more so. All principals express some
negative feelings about parents. Principals are most concerned
about keeping parents happy and dealing with their anger. Principals
view the importance of their relationship with parents as a significant
component of their professional responsibility. They see interactions
with parents consuming about one third of their day. Most principals
would prefer to have individual parents more involved in the school.
Principals considered to'be more successful tend to be more positive
and empathetic toward parents and encourage the activities of parent
organizations. On the other hand, principals considered less
successful tend to be more cautious and guarded toward parents and
discourage the activities of parent organizations.

Question Two:
How do elementary principals define and
achieve successful relationships with parents?
The definition of "successful parent relationships" provided by
elementary principals in this study was succinct and direct. There
was agreement that their definition was shaped in response to the
views of central office administrators who evaluate them for continued
employment. This section will first present how elementary principals
define "successful parent relationships." Then, the views of central
office administrators will be discussed as well as certain related
events within the district context. Finally, how elementary principals
can and do achieve success in their relationships with parents will be
explored and compared from the perspectives of elementary
principals, central office administrators, and influential parents who
shape parent opinion within the district context.
How Elementary Principals
Define Successful Parent Relationships
The elementary principals interviewed for this study expressed
agreement that the success of relationships they have with parents
has been defined for them by central office administrators in terms of
how "quiet" they are able to keep the parent community. Principals
express a belief that the fewer the number of parent complaints which
get past them and reach the central office, the more successful they
are considered to be in their relationships with parents by central
office administrators.
Principals express a concern that parent complaints are used
by central office administrators to determine not just whether parent
relationships are successful but "to assess indirectly the general
competency of principals, their ability to manage a school, and their

overall effectiveness as instructional leaders." Principals express
concern that parent complaints have become so significant a
measure of success that central office administrators are more
concerned with the number of parent complaints than any other single
measure used to evaluate principals.
It makes me so angry that as principals we are judged by the
"quietness" of our parents. If, for whatever reason, a small
trickle of discontent broadens, then we are in jeopardy not just
of being reprimanded but being reprimanded in public and
having our careers altered forever, (from field notes)
An incident occurred during the course of this study which
proved to be a watershed event for the relationships elementary
principals have with parents within the district. Various aspects of this
incident have been recorded in field notes and interview transcripts.
The incident is reported below and will be referred to throughout the
findings portion of the study. The incident also seems to reinforce the
general anxiety of elementary principals about parents and confirms
their belief that maintaining the "quietness" of their parent community
is not just a component of their success but may be the overriding
It was late February and the night of a regular School Board
meeting. During an early portion of the meeting, which is
reserved for public comment, a group of parents from a north
end elementary school went up to the microphone one person
at a time to make public complaints about the principal of that
school. Each person was allowed at least three minutes to
speak. Comments were emotional and negative. The
principal's motives and actions were called into question as
were his character and integrity. Names were named. Specific
situations were cited. The parents had even asked that
representatives of the media be present to record every word of
their comments, (from field notes)

The next morning the local newspaper ran an article bearing
the following headline: "Board Hears Parents Pleas--Charges
Leveled at Principal; Officials Want More Information." This article
detailed the events and comments during the School Board meeting
the night before. The school district also made reference to this
incident in its "Morning After" report posted in each school. Under the
"Citizen Comments" section was the following reference to the
incident referred to above:
Several parents expressed their concern about the principal of
an elementary school, especially what they perceive as a
reluctance to involve parents in the school and about the
quality of education at the school. The office of school
management is meeting with parents to try to resolve the
issues they have raised.
Coincidentally, the principals in a northern part of the school
district held a regularly scheduled meeting the morning after the
incident. Principals at this meeting expressed unanimous outrage
that this group of parents was allowed a public forum to denigrate
their elementary principal. They were also concerned that the parents
were allowed to speak without adjournment to an executive session
to hear the complaints and to substantiate them. It was noted by
principals that no member of the Board and no central office
administrator intervened on behalf of the principal in question. One of
the principals interviewed for this study made the following comments:
How could the Board of Education allow such a debacle to
occur? Wasn't anyone strong enough a leader to suggest
adjournment to closed session to deal with the grievances of
the parents? How can we, as front line administrators, avoid
having such a problem dropped in our laps without warning? I,
for one, feel vulnerable and believe that all of us are
vulnerable. If this had happened to a teacher, the person
would have been covered by the Master Agreement. The
Board would have adjourned to an executive session. But,

now that we're not teachers anymore, we've left our protection
and due process at the classroom door.
Principals, one after another, echoed their own fear and
feelings of vulnerability. Each said that as a result of the handling of
parent complaints during the School Board meeting, they felt
individually threatened. The following remarks typify the comments of
all principals in this study:
They [School Board Members] are so worried about votes--
they are so worried about bad press. I think they would
galvanize votes by being more forthright, honest and
supportive of their staff. So what we've got here is a situation
in which our central office administrator needs for us to keep
parents as quiet as possible so that a complaint doesn't move
up one more level.
The action of the central office administrators and School
Board members seemed to confirm for principals that they will not be
supported if they are unable to resolve parent complaints at the
building level.
How Central Office Administrators Define Principal
Success in Relationships with Parents
Interviews with central office administrators were conducted
five months prior to the incident at the School Board meeting cited in
the previous section. The comments of central office administrators
were consistent with those of the elementary principals interviewed.
Central office administrators directly and indirectly define the success
of principals in their relationships with parents as the absence of
parent complaints.
Diffusing parent complaints before they reach the central office
should be a priority for principals according to central office
administrators. During a presentation before a training session for all

assistant principals within the district, a central office administrator
made the following comments:
We expect you [principals] to be able to diffuse parent
complaints before they hit central office or the School Board.
When things go wrong, you are expected not to blame central
office or district policies. That just sets up parents to complain
at us. You, as administrators, are expected to work well with
conflict-that's important. Complaints should not reach central
office, (from field notes)
Complaints are accepted by the central office in many way.
Some are received in writing. Some are in the form of anonymous
phone calls. Once a complaint is received, the central office
administrator assigned to the principal in question will make a
judgement call as to how the complaint should be handled.
Principals indicate that at least eight out of every ten phone
conversations they have with their assigned central office
administrator is related to some parent complaint. A central office
administrator made the following comment:
As long as we don't have parent complaints coming at us by
the numbers, then we don't say much to a principal. We don't
even talk much about his instructional leadership or his
curriculum focus. However, once the complaints start rolling in,
we're compelled to take some kind of action in order to satisfy
parents and ultimately the superintendent and members of the
Board of Education.
When complaints do reach the central office, even anonymous
complaints, principals are often seriously impacted. One central office
administrator indicated that so significant is the effect of parent
complaints that, of the nine elementary principals who are no longer
in their positions, at least six removals were precipitated by parent
complaints. This information was confirmed by participant reviewers.

Each central office administrator interviewed expressed concern over
parent complaints and echoed the following comment:
I have to weigh complaints real carefully and cautiously
because some schools, just because of the nature of the
community, generate a little more "bad news." However, what
I'm saying to you is that when I hear the same thing over and
over about a principal from parents ... and usually what I hear
is either he or she doesn't listen or says something will be
done and it isn't or gets angry at me and hangs up the phone
or doesn't care about my kid, only sticks up for the teacher... I
then begin to get concerned and know I have to take some kind
of action. If I don't, the complaint will move up a level and I'll be
the one who will have to answer to my boss [the Deputy
Elementary principals seem to be engaged in a kind of
balancing act in an effort to connect the school with parents. This was
best summed up by one central office administrator who was also a
participant reviewer for this study. He described the principal who is
more successful in parent relationships as being the one who can
walk the "tightrope" between parents and central office administrators.
Although certain strategies can be learned to dissipate or avoid
parent concerns and complaints, it is often guided more by the
principal's accurate intuition and appropriate reactions within areas of
ambiguity. What happens at the extreme when the "balancing act on
the tightrope" fails? Recently, an elementary principal was assaulted
by a parent. This incident received little media attention within the
community but a great deal of private discussion by principals. The
central office administrator, who also served as a participant reviewer,
was asked to confirm what "really" happened.
As far as I can recall, the parent had a complaint about some
small matter. The parent felt on another occasion she had tried
to get the situation worked out but was not able to reach any
kind of resolution that was acceptable. When unable to get

resolution, the parent called the building to vent or get
information ... whichever. However, the parent's use of
obscene language was not acceptable to the building
principal. The principal indicated that he would hang up the
phone if the parent didn't stop using such language. The
parent said in that case she'd be right there. So the parent
came into the building and assaulted the principal and struck a
secretary and a teacher. The principal was injured. The police
had to be involved. A situation like this can frequently happen
with parents when they feel a sense of hopelessness. "Since
you won't help me, let me swear at you or become abusive to
get your attention." Our principals have missed the boat. They
don't seem to know how to diffuse or prevent that kind of
behavior. This principal had a history of doing only a so-so job
with parents. But it was going to catch up with him eventually
in one way or another. The problem is how he approaches
things. I think it's his "Oh, well" attitude. He trivializes things
like parent feelings. It's a cast-off thing ... "No big deal, no big
deal." But it is a big deal! Especially when parents assault you
or call central office and complain about you. Then the
"tightrope" begins to sway... and it's a lot harder to stay on.
During the following school year, the principal was
"supervised" much more closely than in previous years by central
office administrators. Any parent complaints to central office were
followed by visits from central office administrators rather than the
usual advisory phone calls. The principal's focus during the year
became one of maintenance rather than improvement. Fewer new
school projects were attempted which might have drawn parent
complaints. In general, the incident with the parent assault created a
condition of greater uncertainty and apprehension for the principal.
How Elementary Principals Achieve
Successful Relationships with Parents
Central office administrators and influential parents express
similar views as to how certain elementary principals are able to be
more successful than others in their relationships with parents. These

views are consistent with the attitudes and behaviors attributed to
more successful principals interviewed for this study. The following
five categories of principal behaviors emerged as being significant to
the success of the relationships elementary principals have with
1. Setting a positive tone;
2. Operating in a cooperative, problem solving mode;
3. Behaving informally;
4. Treating parents and their views with importance; and
5. Managing stress successfully.
Setting a Positive Tone. Elementary principals, successful in
their relationships with parents, set a positive tone for the school
which is warm and welcoming. An influential parent explains the
significance of setting a positive tone this way:
You know it is the principal who sets the tone and helps the
staff to understand that it's important to be warm and receptive
to parents and to speak to them and to treat them with dignity
and not talk down to them. Parents feel it the minute they walk
in the door. They feel welcomed, not threatened. If the
principal warmly welcomes parents and supports the parent
organization, then the staff tends to do so likewise.
The research of Peach and Reddick (1987) puts it even more
strongly. So powerful is the effect of the principal on the tone of the
school that "the school and staff tend to develop a personality similar
to that of the principal" (p. 7). All of the more successful principals in
this study speak in positive tones about their relationships with
students and staff, their enjoyment of their work as principals, and
their appreciation of parents. They smile easily and make light of their
"little job headaches." As one principal put it, "I think the kids here are
doing well. My wonderful teachers are happy. I'm happy. I love to

come to work!" Less successful principals did not describe enjoyment
of their work or parents.
Operating in a Cooperative. Problem Solving Mode.
Elementary principals, successful in their relationships with parents,
are skillful in "getting everyone into a problem solving mode and
keeping them there until a solution is worked out." Central office
administrators and influential parents emphasize the importance of
the principal being actively engaged with parents in problem solving,
conflict management, and shared decision-making. A parent tells the
following story of an incident in which a principal did not engage in
these behaviors:
Once this principal called to tell me terrible things about my
daughter. It made me feel awful. This wasnt a side of my
daughter that I saw. So, he was on the phone with me and was
very negative and never said that we need to check this out or
that we need to get together to solve this problem. It made me
feel different toward this principal, particularly when I had to
deal with him in other situations. Things were never the same
again between us.
When a cooperative, problem solving mode is not consistently
a part of a principal's manner of interaction with parents, central office
administrators and influential parents alike believe there are long
term negative implications for the effectiveness of that principal which
erode parent support not just for the principal but for the school in
general. A less successful principal expressed a strong preference
for not "getting involved" in problem solving when the problem was
between a parent and another staff member.
I say in my own direct way that you'll need to deal with the
lunchroom manager who you feel was snippy to your child.
You can deal with the custodian who didn't shovel the
sidewalks. I will deal with the teacher who you feel was unfair
to your child and reduced his self-esteem in front of the rest of
the class. It's kind of like Im not going to take care of all this.

That has changed and I think it's because I want parents to be
more involved in those issues that are not going to make or
break any situation. You pretty much have to focus the parent
on what's really wrong instead of just letting them name a
hundred things that are wrong with our school--and sometimes
they get into that.
Although the principal who made this comment has a history of
discontented parents, she does not seem to be able to associate
these problems with any actions on her part. Another less successful
principal speaks more of problem solving as a singular event with
"unilateral" solutions: "I take every problem as it comes and try my
best to solve it without involving a whole lot of people. Then, if I can't
get it solved, I just admit it and move on to something else." Another
less successful principal talks of his problem solving strategy: "I'm not
ready to give any parent a solution. They've got to figure some things
out for themselves."
Influential parents interviewed in this study tell a similar story of
feeling in their relationships with principals that control not
cooperation has become the major issue. One principal (who was
also a participant in this study)
wanted to dominate so much that he tried to control everything
we, as parents, did in the school. He always wanted to be in
control. He wasn't into cooperation. He'd even insist that PTA
meetings be held in his office to fit his schedule. Did we want
control? There are very few parents who want to do a
principal's job. We just want a little bit of cooperation--a little
piece of the action. I'd like it if principals could just get over the
fear of losing control to parents and replace it by welcoming
and sharing.
In contrast, a more successful principal sees that a major
responsibility of being a principal is "trying to solve problems between
staff and parents and getting them back together." The point of this
principal is that it is important to get everyone jointly working on a

problem and then come to some happy solution. "I don't feel that I
have to give in to parents or they to me. I like to work to a satisfactory
Behaving Informally. Elementary principals who are more
successful in their relationships with parents behave in an informal
manner. Informality, rather than displays of "professionalism," is seen
by influential parents and central office administrators as an important
factor in developing and maintaining successful relationships with
parents. This is consistent with the findings of Lindle (1989) which
suggest that a professional, businesslike manner is not what will win
the support and approval of parents. It's not "professionalism" that
parents want but rather the "personal touch." When describing less
successful principals, one parent talked of the "distance" these
principals place between themselves and parents.
They keep their position as a "professional" away from parents
and indicate they are not open to receiving communications.
And maybe sometimes it is not intended but they live in an
educational world. And they talk educational language. And
then parents go in. They [principals] speak to their peers with
first names but call me "Mr. or Mrs."
Another parent says that her relationship with a principal made
a real breakthrough when the principal finally called her by her first
name and asked her to call him by his. "It was like I finally got
admitted to his private worId--the personal world rather than the
formal world."
Central office administrators also see informality as being
significant in developing positive relationships with parents,
particularly in difficult situations. A female central office administrator
talked about her own experience during her first year as a principal
with a parent named Charlie who was a "hostile PTA president":

Charlie was absolutely an adversary. Every PTA meeting
deteriorated into a complaint session about teachers and the
school-very intense. It was getting very difficult for me and it
certainly didn't feel very good. I just thought that somethings
got to happen. Ive got to get to the bottom of whats bothering
Charlie. He had a lot of power. Finally, one evening after the
PTA meeting, I said to Charlie, "You wanna go have a beer?"
And we went to Poor Richard's and had a beer. Best thing I
ever could have done. We sat and talked for an hour and a
half-maybe two. He began to open up. First of all, it wasn't me
he was angry with. These parents at this school were just mad.
They felt rejected by the staff. They felt abandoned by the
previous principals. There had been years of abandonment in
their minds. They also felt rejected by the staff. They felt their
children had missed important things educationally. After that,
things really did seem to turn around. Parents started to lighten
up. Didn't take problems so seriously. I think it was this way for
everybody. I brought the staff into it. We needed to do a better
job supporting the parents. So, for example, when PTA
sponsored some event, we really made a point of getting
behind it. That made everybody happy!
Positive incidents resulting from informal behaviors were cited
by each of the more successful principals interviewed in this study. In
addition, informality was observed by the researcher in their behavior
and demeanor. A female principal with a doctorate asks that parents
call her by her first name. A male principal was found by the
researcher sitting on the floor playing with a kindergartner who was
waiting for a day care bus to arrive. Another principal made the
following comment: "I always try to keep things on an informal basis
and conduct my relationships with parents on a friendly, open-door
The less successful principals did not use the terms "informal"
or friendly to describe their relationships with parents. They ask that
parents make appointments for even the briefest of meetings,
preferred not to be called by their first names, and generally
expressed more guardedness about parents.

Treating Parents and Their Views with Importance. Central
office administrators and influential parents believe that principals are
less successful and generate more complaints when their behaviors
are not inclusive of parents. This is observed when parents, in subtle
ways, are made to feel like outsiders; when principals express
themselves in a manner described by parents as "talking down" to
them; or when a principal gives little attention to the knowledge that
parents have of their own children. The story was told of a parent
"who had been treated as if she didn't know enough to be bothered
with until the principal learned this parent had a doctorate in
chemistry." As a parent, she was treated as if her opinions didn't
count, but as an "educated" person, she was treated with deference.
Although parents recognize that most principals acknowledge parent
importance in theory, they are seen as falling short of putting those
beliefs into practice. According to Olson (1990), "although there are
principals who treat parents as equal partners, there are far more who
... in countless ways send the message that parents are unimportant
and unwelcome" (p. 17). A parent explained: "I went into the office
and I stood there for what seemed like fifteen minutes before the
secretary or the principal would acknowledge me, even though they
knew I was there. Now that doesn't make you feel that you're very
important to that school."
Concerns relating to the discriminatory behaviors of the
principal toward parents, particularly with respect to race or gender,
generate not just parent complaints but legal problems for principals.
Once such a problem "hits" the central office in the form of a parent
complaint, it results in such immediate action as placing the principal
on administrative leave and central office administrators conducting
an investigation to substantiate the incident. One central office
administrator talks about his efforts to "get ahead" of such problems.

I often have to counsel principals about how to deal with racial
and gender issues. Usually it's not because the principal
intends to be discriminatory. They just don't know how to show
they are not. Sometimes they are just ignorant and need
coaching. It's a matter of on-the-job education. Sometimes I
have to help principals admit they could be wrong and even
teach them to apologize to a parent. You have no idea how
hard that can be for a principal-particularly for a male!
Mentioned, by all central office administrators and influential
parents as a source of a significant number of parent complaints is the
discrediting of parent views when a problem arises between the
parent and a staff member. Although principals need to support their
staff, sometimes that mandate has been translated by principals as
"defending staff whether they are right or wrong." A central office
administrator explains:
The thing that frustrates me the most and I think is the most
common mistake of an administrator is that they feel that they
have to support their staff at all cost. But support does not
mean that they are always right and that you must listen only to
them. The frustration that I sense from parents, over and over
and over again is "there is no use of my speaking to the
principal because they are only going to listen to what the
teacher is saying about the issue." I think that is a real mistake.
Illustrating this problem is a description of an event
experienced by an influential parent interviewed for this study.
There was an alleged incident between my son, who is deaf,
and a teacher. The principal never put into context the fact that
this boy was a frustrated deaf student. But instead, the
principal accused my son of wrong doing and protected the
teacher without hearing both sides. It turned out later that the
principal had accused the wrong kid. He never checked it out
or thought about ways of helping-only making accusations
against me and my son.

Treating parents with respect also involves valuing their presence at
school enough to accommodate their needs and schedules. Family
structures have shifted during the last two decades. In the majority of
households, parents work away from the home. As factors influencing
parent involvement in school, time and money have become rare
commodities for many families. One influential parent describes how
she could not afford to volunteer at her children's school because she
could not pay for a baby sitter for her preschooler:
The whole atmosphere changes when I walk in with my
preschooler. "It's fine for you to be here but not those little
children." But such behavior sends out a really clear message
to parents that only if you can come by yourself without your
children and in our time frame, do we want you here.
Central office administrators and influential parents stress how
important it is for principals to be sensitive to parent circumstances
and schedules so that parents can have the best opportunity for
More successful principals view accommodating parents as a
priority. However, that view is not true of less successful principals
who tend to view parents as intrusions.
What is a struggle for me are parents who will just show up and
immediately expect to be seen. They will literally come and
walk right in here and say "do you have a minute?" And
regardless of what you are doing, you have to do this quick sort
of shuffle, or do I say, "I don't right now but will at 3:00"? I hope
I would have a more professional image with people. But I
can't imagine walking into anyone, a doctor or dentist or
anyone else, and saying "Hey, got a minute? I need to speak
with you." It doesn't work that way for me either, because I
don't always have a minute.
Managing Stress. Neither central office administrators nor
influential parents believe there is a place in the schools for

elementary principals who deal so poorly with stress they become
hostile, defensive, or adversarial with parents. However, such
behaviors admittedly surface during periods when a great many
demands are being made upon the time and resources of the
principal. These behaviors not only generate parent complaints in
and of themselves but they also tend to be the catalyst for parent
complaints on other issues.
A story was told of an elementary principal who was known as
a fairly "efficient" principal but who for years was widely known as
being "moody" under pressure and on occasion losing his temper
with parents over trivial issues. These "temper outbursts" had been
overlooked for years because parents in his school tended not to be
assertive enough to call the central office. However, in a heated
disagreement with a parent over a child's lost book, the principal
ordered the parent out of his office. The parent anonymously phoned
a local newspaper's citizen action hotline. The next morning the
citizen comment section ran the parent's statement about the incident.
This made the principal's behavior known not just in private but in
public. The principal admitted to a central office administrator that the
incident had occurred. He was then placed on administrative leave
for three weeks during which time he received stress management
counseling. Not two months into the following school year, the old
"stressed out" behavior patterns were again observed. However, this
time the parents, as a group, confronted the principal with a list of
concerns relating to how he was treating them and their children.
Although the principal tried to placate the parents over the next few
weeks, parent pressure continued as did complaints to the central
office. The principal has not been permanently removed from his
position as a building administrator. One of the less successful
principals interviewed for this study, who also admitted to needing
help in handling stress, describes this incident as a "lesson about

giving parents what they want. It's not worth getting stressed out over.
I've watched many other administrators fall and tear themselves up
and I'm not going to do that. I have nothing to prove." This principal,
who characterizes his own parent community as highly assertive,
says that he "battles each day to placate parents." However, this
principal is also the individual cited earlier who insists that PTA
meetings be held in his office.
A central office administrator explained that no matter how
good the district policies to guide principal behavior, they break down
under stress.
It seems to me that principals who deal well with stress and can
work with parents in a cooperative manner, tend to be highly
successful with parents. It's the explosive ones who fly off the
handle or dig their heels in or have to have it their way or not at
all-these are the ones who get themselves and us in a lot of
More successful principals do not seem to illustrate in their
comments a troubled response to stress or parent pressures. An
example is this comment by a principal who is known for dealing well
with stress:
I think you really have to be introspective about it and keep
those little joys of the job in mind because it's easy to get
beaten down by some of the nitty-gritties of the job. I have to
be sort of cheerleader to myself and think this parent doesn't
know that I'm tired and run down. If you keep a grip on
yourself, you can bring it around so that it has a happy
How Elementary Principals Deal
With Parent Complaints
Parent complaints to the central office are significant to
principals because such complaints have become the primary

measure of the principal's success in maintaining relationships with
parents. Principals express the belief that the fewer the number of
complaints which get past them and reach central office, the more
favorably they are judged by central office administrators and the
more positive their evaluations. This section will discuss the
frequency of disputes with parents, the source of parent complaints to
central office, and principal reactions to parent anger and complaints.
Frequency of Parent Disputes. When asked how frequently
contacts with parents end in disputes, there was considerable
difference in the response of more and less successful principals.
Less successful principals estimate
contacts with parents ended in disputes more frequently than
not, probably due to the fact that parents have worked
themselves into a pitch by the time they get to school and don't
really care to have their problem resolved.
More successful principals see such forms of parent
assertiveness as rare but increasing. "The vast majority of parents
are pleased with us and so conversations with them are extremely
positive. Only occasionally do we have a major conflict to address or
Source of Parent Complaints to Central Office. According to all
principals and central office administrators, complaints from parents to
central office most frequently are the result of some form of dispute
with the principal that did not get resolved at the building level and
typically involve miscommunication. Often parent assertiveness
emerges in reaction to the manner in which a principal has handled
an earlier problem and typically dealing with a teacher's treatment of
a child, a child's dispute with another child, or the discipline
administered by the principal. These complaints are based on
general concerns of whether the child was treated fairly and equitably

or the parent's need to have more input into the dispensation of the
problem by the principal. Whatever the nature of the complaint, any
miscommunication on the part of the principal "muddies up the
situation and limits the possibility of reaching a mutually satisfactory
solution." Central office administrators get involved when parents
make their concerns publicly known.
How Principals View the Parent Who Complains. All principals
interviewed for this study have negative feelings about assertive
parents. They paint a similar picture of parents who tend to complain
more than others.
Their troubles stem from something within themselves. They're
not happy people-they're often disturbed in their personal life
because of dysfunction of some sort. Often, in this day and
age, it's the ex-husband that they still blame everything on or
an alcoholic father or whatever. They are not happy and so
that transfers into something about the school. The school is
wrong. It's the outside world's fault. When really I feel it's
inside them where the problem lies.
Another principal described it this way:
They put the blame on others. They don't look at themselves
as being part of the problem. Those are the most difficult. It's
difficult for them to discuss the problem in a rational way. They
tend to point the finger at other students or faculty instead of
looking at the way they parent--or looking at their child and the
way the child acted. So I have dealt with other parents that
respond in a physical nature to problems but I personally find
that easier to deal with than parents that are overly protective of
their children and constantly threaten lawsuits.
How Principals React to Parent Anger and Complaints. There
was general agreement among principals that it has become harder
to cope with parent assertiveness. Parents seem to have become
much more intense and adversarial over the last few years. However,

the reactions of more and less successful principals to parent anger
and complaints differed markedly.
The responses of the more successful principals indicate a
conciliatory tone. They want the parent to know right away that as the
principal they are there to support and help the parent. They
encourage the parent to "tell me all about it" even if the parent is loud
and abrasive. A more successful principal explains his actions this
I tell them I want to listen to their complaints. I sit them down. I
try to bring them out of being crazy or irate or whatever it might
be. I sometimes tell parents that they can't just fly off the
handle even if they are not happy. It's become almost second
nature to me. I also try to be much more calm and unemotional
during times like this. I don't really separate the way I treat
parents as being different from the way I'd treat anybody else.
The responses of less successful principals were more
confrontive yet detached. These parents come to the counter and
they're talking loudly and the words are "I want" and "I need." They
don't use the word demand
but that's the essence of their language. They refuse to sit.
They refuse to wait. They want to see somebody right now. I
mean right now. You can hear it and we do always keep my
door open. I try to troubleshoot as much as I can and rather
than have the secretary or anyone else try to engage them in
any kind of interchange, I will just walk right out and say I'm the
principal, what do you need? I come across in that tone
exactly. I don't even try and soothe them or calm them. It's just
spit it out and get on with it.
More successful principals confront parent assertiveness with
an increase in communication and dialogue with individual parents.
They utilize the PTA and other organized groups as an opportunity for
increased dialogue with groups of parents. These principals
encourage parents to join in decision making. They emphasize the

importance of planned, regularly scheduled parent activities, phone
calls, and a wide variety of invitations to encourage school
While more successful principals cope with parent
assertiveness by becoming more involved with parents, less
successful principals retreat from parents. Each of the less successful
principals in this study cite incidents in which they gave a parent the
number to a central office administrator rather than deal with a parent
in person. "If they don't like what I do I just tell them they can take it up
with someone downtown."
In this urban district, with an informal system for managing
parent complaints, successful relationships with parents are defined
by elementary principals and the central office administrators who
evaluate them in terms of the "quietness" of the parent community and
the absence of parent complaints to central office. The success of a
principal's relationship with parents is considered by central office
administrators to be the single most important measure of a
principal's ability to manage a school and overall competency.
Behaviors which central office administrators and influential parents
believe are associated with principals having successful relationships
with parents include: setting a positive tone; operating in a
cooperative, problem solving mode; behaving informally; and treating
parents and their views with importance by being inclusive,
accommodating, not discrediting parent views, and practicing good
stress management. These behaviors were those reported in this
study by principals considered to be more successful.
The context of the elementary school, i.e. certain versus
uncertain, affects the perceptions central office administrators have of

principals assigned to those schools as well as the views of the
principals. Principals are perceived as more successful if they are
assigned to more certain schools. These principals express views
which are more conciliatory than principals assigned to less certain
schools. These principals are perceived as less successful and
express more impatience and anger with parents.
However, in dealing with parent assertiveness, all principals
indicate that it has become increasingly difficult to resolve parent
complaints. They all view parents as having become more
adversarial and intense in the last five years. In general, principals
assigned to more certain schools deal with parents in a positive yet
assertive manner. Principals assigned to less certain schools retreat
from parent contact and express passive and negative feelings
toward parents.
Question Three:
How do elementary principals view the effect of district
policies and procedures and central office administrators
on their relationships with parents?
The relationships principals have with parents do not occur in
isolation but in the context of the school district. The consensus of ail
participants in this study is that in this district there are no written
policies and procedures in place which apply to relationships with
parents or how complaints made by parents should be handled.
Central office administrators and principals indicate that parent
complaints are handled in a rather loose and informal manner. When
a parent calls in a complaint to central office, the message is written
on a phone message form by a secretary and passed along to the
central office administrator assigned to the principal in question.
Although each complaint is usually followed by a return phone call,

the dispensation of the complaint is left to the discretion of the central
office administrator.
This section will discuss how principals are affected by the lack
of a formal procedure and the concerns principals have about the
effect of parent complaints to the central office. Although there are no
formal procedures, central office administrators do have certain
expectations from principals in their dealings with parents. Principals'
views of these expectations will be presented in addition to the needs
principals express for assistance from central office administrators.
Finally, how principals try to satisfy both central office administrators
and parents will be discussed.
How District Policies and Procedures Affect Principals
With no clear policy on how complaints are to be handled,
principals may or may not be informed of complaints until they have
"piled up over the year." Records of complaints are not kept from year
to year. The only record of complaints resides in the recent memory
of the central office administrator involved. Nevertheless, all central
office administrators, interviewed for this study, indicated a belief that
parent complaints are used as a significant indicator of a principal's
success with parents, their communication skills and their
interpersonal skills.
This unwritten, ambiguous "policy" regarding parent complaints
has created an uneasiness among elementary principals. There is
little consistency among central office administrators in dealing with
principals. There also has been a 75% turnover among central office
administrators during the last eighteen months. A principal
interviewed for this study described a common concern:
I think the difficulty is in the interpretation of the complaint to us
as principals. It depends on who the central office

administrator is. In my cluster we've had so many different
leaders that we're still learning the rules of the game in the
sense that those rules consistently change by virtue of the
position turning over. When we thought we operated one way,
we're now operating another.
During a principals' meeting soon after the School Board
meeting cited earlier at which an elementary principal was publicly
chastised by parents, principals began to ask difficult questions of the
central office administrator present regarding the procedures used
when they receive parent complaints. The following dialogue,
recorded during that meeting, illustrates the frustration principals feel:
Principal: Don't we have any formal policies out there in place?
What do you do when a parent calls you to com plain
about us? Do you have any procedure which you
follow? Or do you just wing it? Do you always call us if
some kind of complaint comes in?
Central Office Administrator: Sometimes, but not always.
Especially on anonymous calls.
Principal: Are we treated the same or are there variations
depending upon who we are and who the parent is and
even who the central office administrator is who takes
the call?
Central Office Administrator: Well, we try to be as sensitive as
possible and treat every situation as unique. No--
sometimes we handle it in one way and sometimes it's
handled in another way. Every situation is unique and
you can't legislate how we handle it.
Principal: This doesn't sound good, that's how_____got in such
trouble. He never knew what was going on. And if that's
not bad enough, the lack of Board action and the lack of
action on the part of all you central office administrators
speaks louder than words. We feel we have all been
hung out to dry and to be shot at and we should never
again let anything like thisthis kind of lynching happen

All principals interviewed for this study indicated that the effects
of the district not having any clear written policies or procedures
dealing with parent complaints compromises a principal's
effectiveness. It has made the situation precarious and professionally
As a result, the twenty-eight members of a principals'
organization sent a memo to the superintendent's office stating that "it
is essential that procedural safeguards be instituted to avoid public
condemnation and humiliation of a school administrator." The
safeguards principals are requesting in this memo read as follows:
1. Refusal to accept anonymous allegations of
wrongdoing. There is no complaint against a principal
unless it is in writing and signed.
2. Refusal to hear concern or charges in public meetings
against any individual identified specifically by name or
job assignment.
3. Formal opportunities for rebuttal of charges and
allegations must be provided.
4. There must be assurance that, like our students,
principals do not leave their rights at the schoolhouse
5. Treatment must be provided which reflects the respect
for the dignity of the principal involved.
6. Treatment must be provided which provides support for
the principal involved until such time as charges and/or
allegations prove to be valid.
As of the date of this study, the principals have yet to receive a
response to their request.
Concerns Principals Have About the Effect of
Parent Complaints to Central Office
All principals in this study expressed at least moderate concern
about parent complaints reaching the central office. Principals

attribute their concerns to recent events in the district, their own
previous experiences, and the inconsistency in which such
complaints are handled. Principals express concern that complaints
will affect their annual performance evaluation.
During this time with the problems we are having, the articles in
the newspaper about our colleague, and the lack of support we
often get from downtown, there is a lot of concern expressed by
principals. They are all worried that their evaluations will be
affected in some way by the number or the variety or the
intensity of the complaints that go downtown. In fact, some are
saying that the complaints figure into our evaluations more
than how much our kids learn or how well run our building is. It
probably doesn't matter if not much gets done as long as the
parents are happy.
These concerns seem to have contributed to an estrangement
from the central office. Principals no longer express a camaraderie
with their central office administrator. A more successful principal
described his feelings this way:
Even where you have a very good relationship with your
community, I think they don't bother to look into that or
acknowledge it or give you strokes for that. We're required to
give our staff a lot of positive reinforcement for the neat things
they do for kids and parents. I think we, as building
administrators, do that a lot. We let our staff know, in writing
and verbally, about the good things they do. Central office
administrators, for whatever reason--maybe they don't have the
time or the information-whatever, they don't do that for their
building administrators.
How Principals View Central Office Expectations
The belief of all principals interviewed is that central office
administrators expect parent complaints to be diffused before they
reach central office. If complaints do get through, the expectation is

that the principal will work with the parent to resolve the problem as
expeditiously as possible.
The message is first and foremost, we are public relations for
our district and now in particular with the political climate and
the reality that parents can just go anywhere they want. Even
though we've not sanctioned a voucher system, that's what we
have with open permits. We have to sell ourselves, sell our
district, and sell our school. I think, in some ways, we've gone
too far to appease and/or attract parents.
Each principal spoke of central office expectations that they
ought to have close communications with parents including "listening
to and addressing not just the kids' needs but the parents' needs."
Principals now find themselves in the position of serving parents not
as secondary clients but as primary consumers. When things are not
going well, principals are told to "make it right for the customer--the
parent." One principal explained her attitude toward parent
I want to take care of it and forget about it. I don't keep a log of
how many complaints this month it is but I'm just happy it's not
a lot of them. I'm happy we're handling it here. When I do hear
it, complaint to central office about me or my school, all I say is
'Give me the information; who is it; I'll take care of it.' I don't
want to make a judgement on it. I just want to do it right away
and get on with other things.
If relationships with parents begin to deteriorate and
complaints accelerate, principals are faced with unfortunate
consequences. The incident previously cited regarding the principal
who was chastised by parents during a School Board meeting is an .
example of such consequences. A participant reviewer explained it
this way:
The parents alleged that the principal had failed to encourage
and had even blocked parent efforts to start a PTA, run a

volunteer program, start a booster club, or provide after school
activities for kids at parent expense. Although the district says
they first became aware just six weeks before the meeting that
there had been problems, that is perhaps not accurate. The
concerns of the parents in that community go back at least a
year if not two or three. But it seems as if things began to build
up and build up. they were not dealt with in a manner by the
principal or his assigned central office administrator which
diffused the complaints. It is my impression that the principal
would really rather not have the parents in the school and
questioning things that he felt were in his realm of authority.
Guess he felt parents were trying to take over too much.
The principal in question was not able to comment directly
about his situation. However, he did say, in a phone interview with
the researcher, that he now recognizes that he misread what parents
wanted from him. His assigned central office administrator had
changed four times during the eighteen months before the incident.
The history of parent complaints to the central office had been lost in
this turnover. The principal had been left on his own to deal with
parents. Another principal in the district made the following comment
in a principals' meeting:
Certainly there is something that could have been done to
diffuse parent grievances before they exploded at a Board
meeting. I'm not criticizing the principal involved, mind you, but
surely he could have been more sensitive to what was going
on. (from field notes)
The repercussions of this incident were felt by many other
principals in the following days and weeks. Parents saw other
parents having success in getting a principal to respond to them.
Soon more parents began to "flex their political muscle." A participant
reviewer explained:
They had seventeen complaints after that morning it came out
in the paper. They had seventeen complaints about other
buildings! Now more than ever, it can happen anywhere. It

can happen to anybody. No matter how good a job you're
doing or you think you are doing, you're always gonna have
some parent bypass you--go around you--for whatever reason.
That just comes with the territory and unfortunately every year
is happening more and more as parents get more assertive.
What Elementary Principals Need from Central Office Administrators
To Be More Successful in Their Relationships With Parents
Principals express a wide range of opinion with respect to the
role central office administrators should play in helping them increase
their success in relationships with parents. More successful
principals seemed more positive about the support they are currently
receiving. As one principal explained, her feelings with central office
administrators have been minimal and pleasant. Another more
successful principal indicated that he would prefer that central office
administrators make more suggestions and provide more information
that would be useful in resolving a parent problem at the building
One of the first things would be always to let us resolve the
problems at the lowest level and give us support to resolve
issues at the school. And secondly, if they themselves have
good parent relationship skills, communication skills, and
interpersonal skills, they should make suggestions to us on
how to deal with certain personalities or with certain policy
disputes. In other words, give us information from a district
perspective as to how we should possibly look at the problem
and how to resolve it. Normally this doesn't happen.
In general, more successful principals believe that central
office administrators usually try to help principals solve problems
without making them look bad in the eyes of the parent. However,
less successful principals tell a much different story. These principals
express a need for central office administrators to be less controlling.