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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Where Have All the Principals Gone?: The Acute School-Leader Shortage

Superintendents struggle to fill the school's top job, once considered a plum educational post.
By Jimmy Guterman
Related Tags: Assessment,All Grades

"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 meeting.

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 principal.

"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 added headaches.

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 neediest schools.

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.

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