Stressed out: survey finds DCPS principals face more pressure than others nationally


Untold Research

Chloe Fatsis and Hannah Masling

Since Principal Kimberly Martin started at Wilson, she’s become increasingly on edge. Her heart beats quicker and her stress hormone levels are higher. She said some of her principal friends who transitioned from DCPS to other school districts “think they have PTSD from being here, just because of the fast pace of things.”

“People don’t see me, and their assumption is that I’m having martinis and life is so easy,” Martin said. What people don’t see, Martin explained, is the stress of her constantly changing daily schedule and the many demands that come with being a DCPS principal.

A recent survey conducted by the Office of the District of Columbia Auditor (ODCA) found that 54 percent of surveyed DCPS principals felt that they were under, “great stress” almost every day, compared to the national average of 20 percent in a 2012 survey by MetLife, an insurance company that annually surveys educators across America. Also, 50 percent of surveyed DCPS principals said they, “believe there is a DCPS-wide culture of passing students regardless of academic performance.”

Martin believes that the DCPS response to low graduation rates has been very shortsighted. “We’re very reactionary. We’ll get a piece of data—graduation rates—[and say], ‘Oh my god, graduation rates are terrible. Get them higher.’ And then there will be some sort of quick silver bullet remedy to make graduation rates go up,” she said. “But people don’t spend the time to sort of think, ‘if I do this one thing, this silver bullet, how’s it going to affect other things?’”

When Martin interviewed for her principalship, she was immediately struck by the focus on improving statistics and measurements. “I knew that this was a very data-heavy district. The problem, I think, is that data [only] gets you so far. You can be very data-rich, but information-poor, because nobody’s taking the time to uncover everything behind the data,” she said.

Simon Rodberg, who used to work in DCPS Central Office, was an assistant principal at Alice Deal Middle School, and was the principal of DC International School, a charter school, said, “There’s pressure to sort of make the numbers, but you also know that the numbers represent real kids and their abilities to do valuable things.”

The survey also unveiled principals’ frustration with their lack of control over money; 72 percent of surveyed DCPS principals said they wanted more control over their school’s budget.

Martin echoed these complaints. Of the $18.7 million that Wilson was allotted for the 2018-19 school year, Martin was left with less than $1 million to spend. Martin said that her slim budget can’t meet everyone’s wishes. “Yeah, we can put more money in the art budget, but don’t be mad when there’s no toilet paper,” she said.

In response to the ODCA survey, DCPS said in a statement that they, “[have] built systems and structures that intentionally give school leaders a voice, and [have] created strong pathways that support our educators as professionals and school leaders.” They also cited the 2017-18 Panorama staff survey, in which 82 percent of surveyed DCPS principals said they enjoyed their work at DCPS.

In the ODCA survey, however, 100 percent of surveyed high school principals said they saw Central Office as an “impediment.” According to Martin, Central Office is comprised of many people who have never worked as an educator in a school. Consequently, “they just don’t have an understanding of how school works,” Martin said.

“When they make their demands or their expectations like, ‘why weren’t you on your email at noon?’ I’m like, that’s because it’s STEP and my job is to be in the cafeteria,” Martin said. Before coming to Wilson, Martin said she “never had somebody email me and say ‘I need this by close of business today.’” Now, prompt responses are the norm.

Martin also feels a lack of support from DCPS. “All of them feel as though I work for them, like I’m the lowest guy on the totem pole,” she said. She blames the lack of interaction between her and Central Office for their poor support and general disconnect.

“I get visited maybe monthly by the instructional superintendent,” she said. “The chancellor, if you’re lucky, comes once a year.”

Rodberg doesn’t place all the blame on Central Office. “People like to say, ‘Oh, it’s the central office, they’re doing the wrong thing,’” he said. “But I think some degree of the extra stress that DCPS principals say they feel has to do with that fact that our students have a lot of challenges that schools alone aren’t capable of solving.”

Though the work is demanding, Martin thrives amid the constant challenges of working in DCPS. “There are no two days that are the same, which is a wonderful joy,” Martin said.

DCPS’ emphasis on numbers and reports, while cumbersome, has an upside: “I can churn data like a machine,” Martin said. “I can interview at just about any school in the world, and they’re like ‘wow, look at all she knows.’”

Martin also appreciates how DCPS takes risks. “I can’t think of a lot of cities in the world that are as cutting-edge as DC,” she said. “Any kind of new reform that comes, DC’s the first. We’re the first to try it. We will jump in, both feet, throw millions of dollars at something, embed it across the District—we are the first.”

For most DCPS principals, however, the negatives still outweigh the positives. Sixty-seven percent of surveyed DCPS principals were “very likely” or “fairly likely” to seek principalships in other school districts in the next five years.

But not all DCPS principals leave willingly. “All of us know that we’re always sort of teetering. We’re always on the edge of that sword,” Martin said. “We’re in these glossy, fancy, high profile jobs, and yet it can be ripped away from you.”