"We need more programs to make instructional leaders." -- W. Norton Grubb, who runs one such program at the University of California at Berkeley
Credit: Bart Nagel
You left the house this morning while it was dark. It's now fifteen
hours later, dark again, and you're just returning from your last
So far today, among many other things, you've spoken into a crackling
megaphone at a school assembly, listened to a phone message in which a
parent yelled about parking rules at drop-off time, added four new students
to your already overflowing classrooms, helped one teacher with a
science-curriculum question and another with an email problem, met
with the school site council, worked with the PTA to keep a canceled
after-school arts program alive, fetched children in time for the late bus,
snuck home for a quick dinner with your extremely forgiving family, and
then (once your meal was quickly scarfed down) slipped out to explain to
the local neighborhood association why the upcoming construction project
to repair your school's long-disintegrating playground won't inconvenience
them as much as they fear.
In your free time (stop laughing), you've been able to focus on education,
which is what originally brought you into this job.
Welcome to a day--and night--in the life of a public school
"It is absolutely insane," says W. Norton Grubb, a professor at the
University of California at Berkeley who specializes in educational-management
issues. "We're living at a time when we are demanding
that principals all be heroes. Well, there aren't that many heroes in this
country in any line of work."
Aside from the usual demands of educational leadership and management,
the principal serves as the school's public face and spokesperson,
and must respond to parents, teachers, unions, and many other constituencies.
In addition, he or she is in charge of truly mundane things,
like keeping the lights on.
And, Grubb notes, if principals "don't bring schools up to standards,
they lose their jobs. As a result, we see a lot of teachers who look at the job
of principal and decide it's not worth it. The additional salary is not all
that great, and the additional workload is all that great."
Those concerns, as well as simple demographics, have led to what
many are calling a full-grown shortage of principals. A study commissioned
by the National Association of Elementary School Principals and
the National Association of Secondary School Principals found that
"approximately half of the school districts surveyed reported a shortage in
the labor pool for K-12 principal positions they were trying to fill that
year." That was the case across the board, "regardless of the schools' grade
levels and whether they were rural, suburban, or urban schools."
That wasn't always the case. "There were a whole bunch of us who
entered the school system when the number of students in California was
exploding," says Paul Mercier, superintendent of the Magnolia School District,
in Anaheim, California. "We entered as teachers, and then we became
principals and administrators. That's the usual trajectory. And now we're
going to start retiring, and it looks like there could be a vacuum over the
next five to ten years, because we might not be able to meet the incredible
demand for new principals." Indeed, in some states, more than half of
school leaders will shortly be eligible for retirement. A recent study by the
Northeast Regional Elementary School Principals' Council found that
more than 36 percent of principals in nine northeastern states plan to
retire within the next five years. If that trend continues nationwide, the
ramifications could be dramatic. According to the National Education
Association, during the 2004-2005 school year, 186,309 public school
principals and supervisors were on the job in the United States.
Tom Cavanagh is in his twenty-fourth year as principal of the Edith C.
Baker School, a K-8 school in the Boston suburb of Brookline. He has
seen many teachers come and go, including some he feels had the leadership
skills and energy to have become strong principals. "When I was
coming up, it was a natural step to go from teacher to vice principal and
then principal," he says. "Increasingly, I find myself talking to young
teachers who make it clear they see my job as alien to their sensibilities. It's
not something they wish to pursue, despite them being remarkably able."
"There's not much of a financial bump when you move up to principal, and the pressures are so much greater. For many, it's not worth the trouble."
One problem: The money doesn't compensate for the
Michele Lawrence, a superintendent for sixteen years, has led the Berkeley Unified School District for the last six years.
Credit: Bart Nagel
Michele Lawrence, a superintendent for sixteen years,
including the last six with the Berkeley Unified School District,
runs the numbers: "There's not much of a financial bump when
you move up, and the pressures are just so much greater for the
principal. The difference in salary between a senior teacher and
a principal can be only $25,000 to $30,000. Now, that may
sound like a nice chunk of money, but on an hourly basis, that
might be only $1 or $2 more, and for many people it's just not
worth the trouble. At the high school level, principals are out
working almost every night."
Although statistics suggest that new principals flee their posts
at a much slower rate than new teachers (nearly half of whom
leave the profession within five years), there's no doubt that the
financial pinch exerts extra pressure. Brookline's Tom Cavanagh says,
"The compensation factor is an important part of this principal shortage,
but just as important are the additional responsibilities. If anything
happens in a school, or if the staff is shorthanded for a day, everyone sees
the principal, not an individual teacher, as the person to handle it."
And, as any teacher or parent knows, the difference between a competent
principal and one who's over his or her head is the difference
between a school that is innovative and open and one that isn't.
A great principal is one who coaches and inspires teachers to reach and
teach every child, while collaborating with parents, families, and communities
to make schools work. It's a tall order, demanding skills in multiple
areas. Increasingly, though, districts are getting creative in their effort to
bring new bodies and new ideas to the school's top post.
The Chicago Public Schools has partnered with the Broad Center
for the Management of School Systems in creating New Leaders for
New Schools, a national program that recruits and trains aspiring principals.
(See "Class Act," April/May 2006.) In Maryland, the State
Department of Education has created a Principals' Academy to support
new administrators, most emerging from the teaching ranks, with
classes that range from curriculum focus and refinement to providing
professional development for school staff.
In Ohio, the Toledo Public Schools, the Toledo Association of
Administrative Personnel, and the University of Toledo have come
together to create a mentoring program for aspiring principals.
Kentucky's Principals Excellence Program focuses on rural school
districts and the special needs required to ensure high-quality learning
for all rural students. The Boston Principal Fellowship Program is an
intensive twelve-month blend of theory and practice that links participants
with mentor principals, immersing them in the daily work
of effective principals, and then places them in some of the city's
In West Virginia, the Alleghany County Schools have adopted a
plan to base principals' pay on a formula indexed to the top of the
teachers' salary. And in Virginia, the Fairfax County Public Schools
created a leadership program called LEAD Fairfax that includes a
training and internship program for aspiring principals.
"We need more programs to make instructional leaders," says
W. Norton Grubb, who runs one such program at UC Berkeley.
"Instead, in many districts, especially those where schools do their
own budgeting of resources, new principals get entirely different
types of training. They teach principals how to use the software the
district wants you to use to submit the budget. But it's far more
important to learn how to spend the budget well. Most budget and
finance courses are not about that."
Grubb says an important part of bringing in the right principals is
to be clear about what the district wants. "Most districts don't have a
policy on attracting and retaining principals," he adds. "They advertise
and hope they get a hero. They are not trying to generate a pipeline of
people wanting to be principals."
He notes that districts need a structured and systemic path to the
principal's office. "Districts have to develop coherent policies that support
principals in the long term," Grubb says. "They have to create pipelines.
You prepare principals well not through one fifteen-month program,
but via a sequence of linked programs over a much longer time."
In Anaheim, Superintendent Paul Mercier and his team have developed
programs that reach out to potential future principals. They include training
in what he calls "the nitty-gritty" of the job, including how to use categorical
funds such as Title I monies and how to develop a school plan.
"They get exposure to how a school should work as an organizational
structure," Mercier says. "And when they do step up to become principals,
we have to provide useful, helpful feedback, and not just at evaluation
time. They have to get coaching and mentoring experience from sitting
and successful principals. I believe that people who would be good
principals but don't want to do it don't see the support structures that
would help them succeed. We need to give them those structures."
Brookline's Tom Cavanagh says that, despite the many demands of
his position, he loves the job. Adds Mercier, "There is success and
happiness in being a principal if you're trained and supported, part of a
team. A superintendent must create a culture that is all about solving
problems together. The single most important thing we can do to bring
in and support new principals is make sure that they don't feel they're
out there all by themselves."
Jimmy Guterman is the author of six books and the father of six children.
Stressed for Success
Many factors discourage teachers from pursuing the principal's job. In a national poll, superintendents say these top the list:
58% compensation insufficient for responsibilities
25% too much time required for the job
23% too stressful
Source: National Association of Elementary School Principals
What Makes An Effective Principal
Understands how children and adults learn.
Analyzes instruction and student learning through regular classroom observations and provides detailed feedback to teachers that supports instructional improvement.
Uses data to measure student learning and instructional improvement and to drive planning.
Develops and communicates a shared vision and common understanding of effective classrooms and instruction and organizes the school on it.
Understands the achievement gap and implements explicit strategies to close it.
Creates a collegial environment in which leadership is shared, professional practice is made public, risk taking and innovation are supported, and consistent high-quality instruction is paramount.
Creates a school community devoted to social justice, high expectations for all, and equity in students' opportunity to learn.
Understands the needs and assets students, parents, and the community bring to schools and builds strong relations with all constituents.
Uses the school budget, the human resource function, and other resources strategically to support improved student learning.
Develops and maintains a safe and disciplined learning environment and manages building operations in support of student learning.
Reflects on practice and continually refines leadership based on learning and experience.