An annual survey sheds light on challenges facing U.S. teachers and school leaders.

School principals and teachers have high opinions of how effectively each group is working to educate students, but principals say their job is growing increasingly stressful and has changed significantly, according to the latest MetLife Survey of the American Teacher, conducted for MetLife by Harris Interactive in late 2012.

The 2012 survey examines how teachers and principals are approaching leadership challenges and requirements within schools and districts.

“This year’s survey focuses on how teachers and principals view responsibility and challenges of leadership in schools as they begin to implement more ambitious standards to increase achievement in schools and beyond,” said Dennis White, vice president of corporate contributions for MetLife.

Principals say their responsibilities have changed significantly in recent years, and the job is morphing into something “too complex and highly stressful.” In fact, three-quarters of principals say their jobs have become too complex, and almost half say they are under a large amount of stress at least several days a week.

A “key insight” from the survey is that many school leaders feel that the biggest challenges to schools are out of their hands, said Dana Markow, vice president of Harris Interactive and the poll’s project director.

(Next page: More on what the survey data reveal)

Most principals say they have a great deal of control over hiring teachers and making decisions about teacher schedules, but fewer than half said they have a lot of control when it comes to removing teachers or reviewing curriculum and instruction. Principals also report having the least control in making decisions about school finances.

The survey indicates that principals and teachers hold each other in high regard, but their opinions on what skills and experiences school leaders need differ slightly. Teachers place importance on principals’ having had experience as a classroom teacher (79 percent), while principals reported that they believe it is most important to be able to use student performance data to improve instruction (85 percent) and to be able to lead the development of strong teaching capacity across a school (84 percent).

The Common Core State Standards present challenges, and in fact, most principals and a majority of teachers said implementing the standards is a challenge for their schools. While both groups are likely to be very confident that teachers will be able to effectively teach to the Common Core (53 percent of teachers and 38 percent of principals) and report being knowledgeable about the content (93 percent of principals and 92 percent of teachers), fewer educators are convinced that the Common Core will boost student achievement (17 percent of teachers and 22 percent of principals).

Other detailed findings include:

  • Eighty-nine percent of principals said that a principal ultimately should be held accountable for everything that happens to the children in a school; 74 percent of teachers agree.
  • In 2008, 68 percent of principals reported feeling very satisfied with their jobs, while only 59 percent said they feel the same way in the 2012 survey.
  • More than half of principals (53 percent) and teachers (56 percent) said their school’s budget has decreased in the past 12 months.
  • Half of teachers and 40 percent of principals say that managing the school budget and resources to meet school needs is very challenging; overall, 86 percent of teachers and 78 percent of principals say this is challenging or very challenging for school leaders.
  • More than 70 percent of educators identify addressing the individual needs of diverse learners (83 percent of principals and 78 percent of teachers) and engaging parents and the community in improving education for students (72 percent of principals and 73 percent of teachers) as challenging or very challenging.

“We know the importance of an effective principal in a building; it can account for a 25-percent difference in test scores,” said Mel Riddile, associate director for high school services at the National Association of Secondary School Principals. “The issue of tight budgets is a big concern and has been a big concern of principals around the country. It impacts not only principal satisfaction, but teacher satisfaction.”

At the American Association of School Administrators’ National Conference on Education in Los Angeles Feb. 21, author Jim Collins—of Good to Great fame—confirmed the importance of school principals by citing his own research:

Riddile referenced an “autonomy gap,” in which “principals see themselves as accountable, the public sees them as accountable, but they have a lack of control in areas. … What support do principals need? It’s really important to understand that we’re asking principals to do as best they can with little or fewer resources.”