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Selecting Entry-Level Administrators

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Much of the literature of reform focuses on school districts' need for more knowledgeable and skilled administrators. If schools are to change and improve, they have to have good leadership. This thinking has led to the creation of panels and task forces looking for ways to revamp the training of future administrators. Articles with recommendations on restructuring administrative-training programs abound.

As a veteran "interviewee'' for administrative positions--in almost 40 districts in 17 states over the past 10 years--and as a participant on school and district committees responsible for selecting administrators, I am growing more and more convinced that improving the process used in selecting candidates for administrative posts is just as important as revising administrator-preparation programs. The often haphazard selection processes used for filling entry-level school-based administrative positions may be partly responsible for the limited pool of practicing administrators capable of bringing change to American schools.

The method for choosing committee members needs examination. The selector--whether a principal, a superintendent, a personnel director, or a nominating committee--is not politically neutral in this process. They, he, or she consciously or unconsciously may want a particular sort of person to be chosen as an administrator by the committee. And the people the first-stage selector chooses to do the selecting will reflect that selector's personal view of what a selection committee should look like in order to produce the preconceived appropriate finalist.

In addition, each committee member brings along certain psychological baggage to the process. Who the committee members are can have a major impact on the selection process and its outcome. A modified Noah's-ark theory seems to exist when it comes to committee selection, whether by the personnel office, a principal, or a superintendent. A selection committee usually has one of everything--one male teacher, one female teacher, an academic-subject teacher, an elective-subject teacher, one minority teacher, one support-staff person, at least one parent, one community member (or local school board member), one administrator, and at times one student and one classified staff person, like a custodian or a food-service worker. And if there are an uneven number of people on the committee, the majority will almost always be male.

The underlying assumption that a committee comprising mostly nonadministrators is appropriate and competent to select an administrator for a school needs to be questioned. We need research to determine whether a committee of competent and innovative administrators would select the same candidate as a committee of nonadministrators with a wide range in educational background and work experience. Research is also needed to determine whether administrators selected by typical committees actually demonstrate skill on the job and bring change to the schools that hired them.

The screening process used by the committee to select candidates to interview is itself problematic. Committee members usually read through the application files of candidates alone. Some members look for evidence of previous leadership experience, which often means coaching and counseling rather than being a department chairman or head of a curriculum-development committee.

Others look only for good reference letters, regardless of whether the committee members know anything about the authors' credentials. Some members are mainly interested in the candidates' ethnic background or gender. A few others review the candidates' transcripts to determine whether they have the knowledge and skills to be an instructional leader.

When the committee reassembles to determine whom to invite for interviews, the members each have their own lists of top candidates. The differences in those lists can be astounding. Some highly qualified candidates don't even get to the interview stage, while others who have nothing in their favor except political correctness are invited.

The actual interview further confounds an already flawed process. The candidate is ushered into a room occupied by a large table surrounded by people who clearly regard themselves as a group, and who often treat the candidate as an intruder. Although the people do introduce themselves, the candidate easily forgets who they are and which person represents which interest group, unless, of course, they have name cards in front of them on the table.

The candidate generally does not know any of the questions ahead of time and rarely is handed a written list of questions to follow during the interview. Everyone else in the room has the script, though. The interview itself is typically conducted more like an interrogation than a discussion. There is nothing else quite like it in education, except perhaps an oral exam to defend a thesis or a dissertation.

During the course of the 20- to 40-minute interview, a candidate who may have traveled hundreds of miles at his or her own expense is alternately grilled about educational philosophy and personal strengths and weaknesses or subjected to vague, generic questions about views on teacher evaluation or student discipline by interviewers who may not agree on what response they want. Sometimes the candidate is given supposedly hypothetical situations to solve, but not infrequently these scenarios contain a hidden agenda aimed at making a point to committee members and pushing the external candidate who is unknowledgeable about district politics into a minefield.

The candidate is seldom engaged in further discussion about any answer he or she gives, nor is he or she expected to take more than a second to start answering even long-winded three-part questions that took the questioner four minutes to read. The quality of the questions suggests that most members have little training in questioning strategies or taxonomies. The questioning procedure provides and requires little time or opportunity for the demonstration of the candidate's analytical skills or creativity. The committee wants instant answers.

Not only do committees spend little time selecting or developing appropriate questions, but they also spend little time discussing how they will evaluate the answers or even what the appropriate responses should be. Some committees use a response-rating sheet requiring them to grade an answer on a numerical scale, but there is seldom a rubric that suggests what an answer rated as 1 or 3 would sound like in comparison to one that was rated as a 7 or a 10. Rarely do committees discuss whether the better candidate is one who has a combination of tens and fours or one with all fives and sixes. This sort of rating system further assumes that all questions are equally important.

Sometimes the scores on the rating sheets are treated merely as personal notes by the members. In other committees, the rating sheets are collected and tallied. The total scores are then used to identify the semifinalists or finalists.

Using a numerical rating sheet doesn't make the process for determining the rating objective. There is no guarantee that a committee member won't give a higher rating to a female candidate who reminds him of his mother than to the woman who beat him out of a promotion where he works. Nor does it prevent members from rating an internal candidate they know higher than an outsider.

The inclusion or omission of discussion of the candidates after all the interviews are completed may also affect the committee's final decision. If the committee discusses the candidates before voting, persuasive or domineering members may cause some members to make a choice according to the political pressures, rather than to the qualifications of the candidates. On the other hand, an immediate vote after the last interview without discussion may increase the possibility that members might make their selection as a consequence of flawed reasoning or personal whim.

If a camel is jokingly referred to as a horse designed by a committee, then what can be said about administrators chosen by committees? Are the winners in the committee-selection process really the best candidates in terms of ability and experience, or simply the ones who are most skillful at marketing themselves or at conducting a mini-election campaign?

In an attempt to provide a more objective approach to the administrative-selection process, in some large districts the interview with a school committee may be preceded by a skills-assessment procedure to weed out unqualified candidates. This process usually consists of a series of simulation activities which may include presentations to small groups of local administrators who rate the candidate's performance on the tasks.

However, the scores resulting from these assessments depend on the skill level of the assessors. My own scores from assessment programs in several districts differed significantly despite the similarity of the tasks required.

Current hiring practices for entry-level administrators reflect the popular democratic belief that using a committee process will produce the right product. Decisions made by a committee are considered to be the best, simply because the procedure seems democratic.

Using a site-based-management council to choose an administrator is another example of the unproven assumption that pervades so much of education--that democratizing a process automatically improves the product. But there are dangers involved in such a narrow perspective. The administrator selected may well be the one who simply fits best with the prevailing ethos at that particular school, not the one who can initiate and implement change.

Returning to an autocratic selection process in which a superintendent or a principal unilaterally chooses an administrator she or he knows will conform, or will at least pose no threat to the selector's power or ego, is not the answer. What is needed is more research on the processes used in selecting entry-level administrators. If the committee approach to selecting an administrator is to be beneficial rather than detrimental to schools, more research on committee selection and composition, interview questions and questioning techniques, response-evaluation procedures, and group dynamics needs to be available and used by districts seriously committed to hiring the type of administrators needed to bring change to American schools.

Ann Hassenpflug is an assistant professor of education at Trenton State College in New Jersey. She was formerly a teacher and a school administrator.

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