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New principals, accountability, and commitment in low-performing schools

Matthew Shirrell (School of Education and Social Policy, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, USA)

Journal of Educational Administration

ISSN: 0957-8234

Article publication date: 1 August 2016




The purpose of this paper is to examine first-year principals’ sense-making about two potentially conflicting demands as they take over low-performing urban schools: the demand to exert control over their teachers’ practice, and the need to build their teachers’ trust, collegiality, and commitment.


This study draws on a series of surveys and interviews with 12 first-year principals that took over some of the lowest-performing public schools in one large urban district.


Some principals begin their first year seeing their work to build accountability and commitment as complementary, while others see these two areas as in tension. Principals remain relatively consistent in these approaches over their first year on the job, although some principals change their views, generally coming to see these two areas as increasingly separate over time.

Research limitations/implications

Future work should examine principals’ work to balance the demands of accountability and commitment in a variety of organizational contexts.

Practical implications

Principal preparation may benefit from training principals on the particular challenges they may face as they work with teachers in low-performing schools. Accountability systems may also seek to alter the demands placed on novice principals.


Despite the centrality of principals to school improvement, the prevalence of high-stakes school accountability, and findings on the importance of commitment to school success, little empirical research has examined how principals make sense of the potentially conflicting demands of accountability and commitment in highly pressured circumstances.



The author would like to thank Jim Spillane, David Figlio, and Kirabo Jackson for their valuable input and support. This research was supported by funding from the National Academy of Education/Spencer Foundation; the P3 study was funded by Spencer Foundation Grant no. 200900092. The opinions expressed herein do not represent the views of the funders.


Shirrell, M. (2016), "New principals, accountability, and commitment in low-performing schools", Journal of Educational Administration, Vol. 54 No. 5, pp. 558-574.



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Copyright © 2016, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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