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  • THE PRINCIPAL’S OFFICE: A Social History of the American School Principal by Kate Rousmaniere
  • Annette L. Varcoe
THE PRINCIPAL’S OFFICE: A Social History of the American School Principal. By Kate Rousmaniere. Albany: State University of New York Press. 2013.

Examining the history of ubiquitous objects is always a fascinating endeavor. The history of how principals became universal fixtures in public schools over the past two centuries is no less captivating. In The Principal’s Office, Kate Rousmaniere sets out to fix the “simplistic understanding” the public has of the position of principals in American education (151). She challenges the standard tropes of the principal as a harsh disciplinarian or as an empty, ineffective figurehead by examining the historical development of the building administrator from the early organization of public schools in the nineteenth century.

The structure of The Principal’s Office is a linear study, one that also examines the differing roles of the principal in elementary versus secondary schools. Rousmaniere grounds her work in the history of schooling movements, from the formation of the public school and the growth of state bureaucratic control of local schools to the managerial role implicit in the accountability movements of today. She constantly questions what expectation the public and the district boards held as the purpose of the principal, unearthing the ways that building administrators navigated and defined their roles in schools. Although her work is far more extensive in the twentieth century, her discussion of the growth of principals from head teachers to building administrators with separate offices and staff creates a very interesting analysis of how gender and race played into the preference for white male school leaders. While women principals dominated elementary school positions until after World War II, the professionalization of principals’ positions led to a “redesign” that meant fewer [End Page 149] women were eligible for such positions and paralleled a cultural expectation that masculinized discipline as necessary for school control (52).

Rousmaniere’s analysis of the school desegregation movement illustrates the strength of her broad approach. In the chapter “Bearing the Burden,” Rousmaniere examines the effect of the Brown v. Board of Education decision through the lens of the principal, noting that desegregation often worked or failed through the actions of the person who generally was “excluded from most of the policy making” (129). The study of principal’s responses to desegregation across the country, rather than solely focusing on southern schools, as well as comparing the experiences of Hispanic and Native American segregated school systems, gives greater depth to her analysis of the effect of desegregation on day-to-day school activities. Her case studies illustrate that the most progressive principals figured out how to make connections within their communities to give students instructional opportunities in spite of public support or dissent regarding desegregation.

Rousmariere mines an impressive array of sources to present such a broad social history of principals. She examines many secondary educational sources, as well as a multitude of primary sources, including newspapers, labor union archives, and annual school board reports. Her well-researched depth enables her work to span urban and rural divisions, as well as covering districts from many different regions. Perhaps here a criticism could be made that a focus on one specific region or building level would raise different evidentiary questions. However, those questions are really about what Rousmariere’s work suggests for the next set of studies that her work inspires—that of the history of the principal within individual state systems.

While being a social history of the building administration of schools, this book also analyzes the modern principal in context with recent federal policies, such as the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 and the high-stakes, standardized testing movement of today. This excellent work would be very useful for both a graduate or undergraduate class on the history of American education, an education class on the culture of public schools, as well as any general survey course on American social movements. It represents the best kind of work in education and history.

Annette L. Varcoe
Independent Scholar


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pp. 149-150
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