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Education Insiders

Principal Woes

A new report says that school districts need to be more scientific in hiring principals. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Who wants to be a school principal? Not enough people who can actually do it, according to a new study from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and Public Impact. The authors were given almost unprecedented access to the principal selection and placement process in five school districts. They tell a sobering but not surprising tale about the struggles of finding a the right person to lead a school.

In a nutshell, the job is unattractive enough to keep lots of qualified people from applying for open positions, the report says. On top of that, school districts do a poor job of recruiting from outside of their regions or the education world to find good candidates. This is partly due to a fear (often well-founded) that newcomers won't "fit" in the school. Or worse, district managers worry that the new hires will leave at the first opportunity. Also, money is tight, and extensive recruiting efforts can break the budget.

If a principal is that important, maybe districts should be paying more attention, Fordham executives suggest. "Districts need to stop viewing principals as glorified teachers and more as executives with expertise in instruction, operations, and finance," said Fordham President Chester Finn and Research Vice President Amber Northern in the introduction to the report.

 

Finn and Northern offer an eyebrow-raising possibility for making the job more attractive—add $100,000 to a principal's pay. That more than doubles the salaries of principals in one of the districts profiled in the report. But isn't a talented executive worth that much? If so, why would they decide to lead a school when they could make a much better living elsewhere? (The same question could be asked of teachers, but that's a topic for another day.)

The actual report, written by Public Impact's Daniela Doyle and Gillian Locke, is less provocative than Fordham executives' rhetoric, but their findings offer the same basic critiques. "Given the limited time and financial resources available for principal recruiting, [districts] often focus on what they consider the safer bet," the authors wrote.

Too many districts fly by the seat of their pants when selecting principals, avoiding crucial questions, the report says. "Four out of the five districts do not seem to ask the critical question: Is there solid evidence that this candidate has improved student outcomes in his past roles, and therefore reason to believe that he knows how and is apt to do it again?"

Probably the most important part about this report is that it happened. Fordham isn't the only organization putting resources behind understanding the role of the principal, but there aren't too many other groups doing the same thing. Education Writer's Association Emily Richmond noted that the Wallace Foundation has put considerable work behind the "principal pipeline." Wallace officials say not all schools needs are alike, which means that district officials need to think carefully about what qualifications they want where.

As with the teaching profession, it is often the most talented principals that are needed in the most challenging environments. And who wants to take that on? Here's where it pays to think like a business executive. Give them a real incentive. Indianapolis Public Schools just signed off on $10,000 bonuses for principals who take the helm at failing schools. They get another $10,000 if they meet teacher and student improvement goals.

It's not $100,000 pay raise, but it's a start.

For our insiders: What is the biggest barrier to finding qualified principals? Thinking about other education challenges, is the lack of candidates a big problem or a middling one? Why don't districts typically look beyond education circles to find principals? What makes a good principal? Are teachers a good pool of potential candidates? How much difference does a principal actually make in a school? Should principals be treated like CEOs? How much should they be paid?

(Note: This is a moderated blog on education issues. Comments are approved on a case-by-case basis. Contact me if you want to be a regular commenter.)

From the Education Insiders

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