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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
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"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.

Comments (14) Sign in or register to comment Subscribe to comments via RSS

Julia Nusrallah's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I became a principal when the former walked out, because I was a good teacher. By the way, good teachers do not always make good administrators - which is a reason that many fail or walk away. Most want the power and prestige, but the stress and demands are not worth it physically or financially. I ended up loving the job because I could impact more students and help more faculty; however, I left after six years because of the school board, not the job. Principals need support and someone to appreciate them. It is a day full of issues, few thank yous and loads of negativity. Yes, you get the reward of knowing that you are making a difference, but we are human and that is not always enough. There needs to be a network of positive support and the ability to rejuvinate.

Jerry's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I too thought I was prepared for the job of school principal. I had taken many administrative courses, I had been put in charge of the school when the principal I worked for was out of the building and the school ran well while I was in charge.
Then I got the job. Now it was my decisions that I had to work with not the ones set up by the other principal I worked for. As the fill in I only had to continue the work my principal set up. No one expected me to start anything new. No one who had a complaint would waste their time telling it to me. They knew that I would have to wait for the real principal to decide the issue. Never the less I thought I knew enough. :-)
It didn't take long for me to learn that there is a vast difference between acting and being.
Having said that, I loved the job. I think I really made a difference. The principal of a school is the most important person in that school. He or she sets the tone for the staff, students and parents. My superintendent said to me on my first day, "the job may kill you but never from boredom". no truer words were ever told to me.
Good luck to those of you who are still willing to lead.

corey's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have my teaching certificate as well as my principal certificate. In the beginning of my educational career, I thought that this avenue was what I wanted to pursue, however upon viewing the day-to-day activities of a principal, or an administrator for that matter, I have since chosen to remain a teacher.

There are many rewarding aspects to being an administrator such as seeing your model take shape and being able to expand on your educational career by teaching other teachers the 'correct' way to convey their messages, however in the modern school, it seems that principals no longer have this role.

In my school district, the school board makes the rules and tends to shun the administrator before his mouth closes after distributing his ideas. This leads to an outcry from the administration, which drips down to the teachers below them. The amount of red tape seems to hinder the impact that principals CAN create within their school and it makes me wonder what the advantage is. Of course, the money is always there, but for the struggle of bureaucracy, is it worth it?

I noticed when I went through the administration program that I was at a higher level than my colleagues who were taking the courses with me who then went on to become principals or administrators. I'm not trying to brag in any way, but I feel my undergraduate was stronger with the knowledge of schools, when I noticed that the 'new' topics we were talking about I have known since my freshman year of college. So when I look at the decisions that principals make at my school, I tend to think, "was that the right decision based on how schools should work?" I'm more frustrated with the training of principals, I think. There was nothing 'outstanding' in my personal training.

But of course, I think on-the-job training has to be the most rewarding part, and since I do not have that as an administrator, I must respect their decisions when they make them. It's a way to help education and I must understand that no matter the troubles that they take, if it wasn't for them, the teachers would be feeling the brunt of the educational problems.

Heather Helsley's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Tom Cavanagh mentions in the article that teachers whom he feels has the qualities of an effective principal, won't pursue a career in it for they see it as "alien to their sensibilities." Immediately I thought of my teacher colleagues.
Currently, I am working towards principal certification. As I was making this decision, I heard many comments such as, "Why would you want to do that?" and "I wouldn't want to be pricipal." I am a relatively new teacher, not even tenured in my school district, and I was very surprised at this. I thought that everyone would want to be principal! I almost didn't want to tell anybody- as I felt that it was just not a sensible decision in the eyes of my colleagues. After working a few years, I realized as to why they may be hesitating.
I truly believe that teachers are concerned about the pressures they would face as the school "hero" and for the reasons stated in the article, will not move outside of the classroom. I remember feeling pressure before I received my teaching job - and the only thing that could ease my worries- was being in the classroom and knowing that my cooperating teacher and others were on my side- to guide and support me to do the best job I could. It is the same with future principals. I agree with the author- begin a program which builds comradery and support for principals - but- you have to show the availabilty for that comradery and support to the teachers, to inspire them to join the leadership ranks.

George's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I completed all my classes to be a principal. I made straight A's. I asked my prinicpal to let me do my intership and she stated "I am not committed to let you do your internship with me." I told my college advisor and she stated you will have to find someone. My principal is doing this because she wants to keep me as a teacher. My students tests scores at the end of last year increased remarkable last year. As a result, this year I was given students who are academically and behaviorally low. I was told to do the same with them. Now, she gives me bad marks on my evaluation - not with teaching but with anything that pertains to being a good administrator. Before I started my classes to be a principal she told me I would make a good principal and that was before my students tests scores zoomed.

I have never heard of a principal doing this. Others state she is using her power to keep you where she wants you.

Good luck to you all who have never encountered this. Someone who dictates what you can and cannot do.

Brendan Smith's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Fifteen years ago I was enrolled in an Educational Leadership and Management program at a state university in Massachusetts. At the time, I was not interested in staying in the classroom for an extended period of time. I was engulfed in coaching and was looking to be either an athletic director or principal. I had the opportunity to relocate back to western Pennsylvania and the unexpected happened, I found a niche teaching middle school social studies. Entering my twenty third year as a teacher and close to finishing my principal's certification, I'll soon be faced with the decision to remain in teaching or shift gears and apply for a position as an administrator. One of the dilemmas I face is that I may have to take a pay cut to become an assistant principal. The other one is that as every year goes by I get a year older but the seventh graders I teach stay the same age. If I stay in teaching I will have no regrets in getting my principal's certification. I have learned a tremendous amount regarding how schools work. The preparation has given me a broader perspective and a greater appreciation for the role of the principal. I also feel very strongly that it has made me a better teacher and leader in my own building. If I do get into administration it will not be for the prestige or ego factor like it was fifteen years ago. It will be because I feel I can assist students and faculty in reaching a level they have not been.

Denise Pusateri's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am one of six teachers in my district this year that are finishing up our principal certification. We have the added pressure that we were educated in PA and currently teach in NY. Are the certifications going to reciprocate? We want to be principals and are in fact fighting over summer school time to complete internships. There are many teachers out there that will attempt the challenge of administration. Have current Administrators asked teachers to pursue certification? I look forward to becoming a leader in my district. We need to prepare our students for the 21st Century.

Dan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I was in my sixth year of teaching in a Catholic grade school and felt that it was time to make the leap over to administration. I think that my experience is common with many people in that my peers thought I was a 'fool' for wanting to get into the hot mess of the office. Boy were they wrong!

I get to see the shifting and undulating currents of the school, PTA, and students. You do feel like the court jester at times, juggling fifteen or more balls, but at the end of the day, grading period or what ever you did the job well. Not just well, but rationally and with the aire of professionalism that people critisize school personnel of lacking.

Keep up the good fight!

Chris Howard Lacks's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

[quote]I too thought I was prepared for the job of school principal. I had taken many administrative courses, I had been put in charge of the school when the principal I worked for was out of the building and the school ran well while I was in charge.Then I got the job. Now it was my decisions that I had to work with not the ones set up by the other principal I worked for. As the fill in I only had to continue the work my principal set up. No one expected me to start anything new. No one who had a complaint would waste their time telling it to me. They knew that I would have to wait for the real principal to decide the issue. Never the less I thought I knew enough. :-)It didn't take long for me to learn that there is a vast difference between acting and being.Having said that, I loved the job. I think I really made a difference. The principal of a school is the most important person in that school. He or she sets the tone for the staff, students and parents. My superintendent said to me on my first day, "the job may kill you but never from boredom". no truer words were ever told to me.Good luck to those of you who are still willing to lead.[/quote]I would thank that the students were the most important thing....get off your soap box before you fall. The students are the most important...not you Mr. Principal...get off that soap box before you fall real hard... glad I don't work in your building

Cynthia Pilar's picture
Cynthia Pilar
doctoral student

Exemplary schools cannot exist without exemplary principals. The current job is unmanageable and we have to find ways to make it more attractive. The pipeline to the principalship is drying up. The MetLife study in Feb 2014 found that the majority of teachers reported they were "not at all interested" in becoming principals. Not surprising as they witness their own principal get thrown into a sink or swim situation. California as a thriving BTSA program for new teachers providing one-on-one mentoring and prof devt for the first three years. It's time we institutionalized a similar support program for principals. Principals are second only to teachers in their impact on student learning. They are worth our attention and investment.

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