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Published in Print: March 3, 1999, as Demand for Principals Growing, but Candidates Aren't Applying

Demand for Principals Growing, but Candidates Aren't Applying

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"They treat me like a king here," said Albert H. Bichner, striding down a corridor of Northeast High School, one of this city's oldest and best-known schools.

Still, the award-winning principal has his resume at the ready and recently received an offer to work in a neighboring suburb. These days, the 48-year-old administrator knows he's in high demand.

Philadelphia currently has 20 acting principals, and Superintendent David W. Hornbeck anticipates replacing at least 10 percent of the district's 259 building-level administrators each year for the foreseeable future, primarily because of retirements.

Good people are increasingly hard to find. District officials estimate that, on average, about 10 candidates apply for each principalship, down from about 40 in the 1970s. For the first time in years, the 215,000-student school system has been advertising nationally.

"We've had fewer applicants, so it's been a struggle to maintain quality," Mr. Hornbeck said in a recent interview. "It's going to get worse before it gets better."

Philadelphia's situation is hardly unique. In a national study released last year, about half of 403 randomly selected districts reported a shortage of qualified candidates for vacant principals' positions. The shortages were in urban, suburban, and rural areas and at all school levels.

There are currently about 80,000 public school principals in the United States. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates a 10 percent increase in the employment of education administrators of all types through 2006. Most job openings, particularly for principals, will stem from the need to replace people who retire. Among K-8 principals alone, the National Association of Elementary School Principals estimates that more than 40 percent will retire or leave for other reasons over the next decade.

Difficulties in recruiting skilled principals could not come at a worse time, experts point out, because of the importance of principals in creating an effective school. With states and districts raising their expectations for students, more youngsters arriving at school with nonacademic needs, and schools undergoing unprecedented scrutiny, the pivotal players on the scene are often absent, verging on retirement, or embittered about their jobs.

"I think it's going to have a serious effect on the ability to lead schools in the future, when we don't have this broad and deep pool of folks that want to go into these school leadership positions," said JoAnn D. Bartoletti, the executive director of the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association.

'A Few More Dollars'

A confluence of factors contributes to the dearth of strong building-level administrators. The most important, according to the survey of districts conducted for the NAESP and the National Association of Secondary School Principals, is too little pay for the job's responsibilities.

In 1997-98, the average principal's salary was $69,258, far above the $40,133 earned by the average teacher. But the gap is often much narrower for new principals and veteran teachers, from whose ranks building-level administrators are usually drawn.

In Philadelphia, said Christopher McGinley, the executive director of the district's leadership-development program, an experienced high school teacher working as a coach or supervising extracurricular activities can earn the same salary as an entry-level principal. The same holds true in other parts of the country.

"Connecticut pays very high teacher and principal salaries, but the salary differential is not great," said Patricia B. Luke, the executive director of the Elementary and Middle School Principals Association of Connecticut. "So an experienced teacher in a classroom, who's certified as a principal, could very well look at the difference and say, 'Why would I take on all the responsibilities and time for a few more dollars?' "

Districts like Philadelphia also have created new leadership roles for teachers, who can now chair local school councils or coordinate small learning communities within a building. Often, teachers view such roles as a more manageable position from which to influence school policy, providing a further disincentive to move on.

The long hours associated with the principal's job also are scaring people away. Nationally, the typical K-8 principal puts in nine-hour days and 54-hour weeks, including evenings and weekends.

"The time commitment is horrendous," Ms. Luke said. "Our new principals tell us they don't have time for a life."

A Handy Scapegoat

Meanwhile, the job responsibilities keep escalating. Principals today are expected not only to be instructional leaders, but also disciplinarians, supervisors, fund-raisers, public relations experts, and fiscal managers. They have to worry about liability concerns as well as who picks up the garbage. "I think there's a lot of role confusion," said Richard W. Tyler, the executive director of the Maine Principals Association, "and there's not always agreement."

In Philadelphia, the 10-point Children Achieving agenda, adopted under Mr. Hornbeck, has meant major changes in the principal's role. Schools now have local school councils to advise the principal. Teacher coordinators oversee small "learning communities" at every site. Schools that reach their improvement targets get financial rewards; those that fail to do so receive assistance and, ultimately, may have the principal and other staff members replaced.

And there's a decentralized governance structure that gives principals greater freedom, but also more responsibility.

"To me, I've seen that as a blessing," said Mr. Bichner, who relishes the principal's role. But, he adds, "you really have to know which direction you want to go and keep people in the loop."

"It's much like being a baseball manager," he added. "It's a very precarious position."

For principals, more accountability has also meant more stress--and lots of it. Too often, they complain, they feel out on a limb with little support or recognition from their school systems.

"Everybody needs to have a scapegoat for a problem, and it tends to be the building principal," said Jim Ballard, the executive director of the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals.

In New York City, principals have been working without a contract for three years. The probationary period for new principals has been extended to five years. And both the superintendent and the governor have proposed eliminating principals' tenure.

"More and more responsibility is heaped on principals and less and less support," said Jill Levy, the executive vice president of the Council of Supervisors and Administrators of New York. "With that, people are looking to get out of the system. They can no longer handle the pressure."

"I think that the challenges of school leadership and the issue of accountability have caused some people to shy away from stepping forward," Mr. McGinley of Phila-delphia added. "The principalship is scary for a number of people, and high-stakes accountability has increased that."

A study conducted by the Connecticut principals' association found that 91 percent of districts surveyed reported that experienced teachers were not interested in the job.

Urban Problems

While suburban, rural, and urban areas have all been affected by the shortage of candidates, the urban districts, in particular, often find themselves at a disadvantage.

The first difference Nancy J. McGinley noted when she moved from her job as a middle school principal in Philadelphia to the principalship of a suburban junior high school was a $20,000 salary increase.

And that was just the beginning. The contrast in funding levels between the city and suburban schools created significant disparities in programs, materials, resources, and staffing levels, all of which affected her ability to do her job, said Ms. McGinley, who is Christopher McGinley's sister.

In Philadelphia, where her 1,000-student school had an 85 percent poverty rate, she was assigned one assistant principal, a part-time nurse, two counselors, three secretaries, no instructional aides, and a security officer.

"My role as instructional leader was often secondary to the daily demands of supervision, issuing medications, dealing with discipline, cluster and central-office priorities, and parent concerns," Ms. McGinley, who now directs the Philadelphia Education Fund, wrote in a paper she prepared about her experiences.

In contrast, at suburban Abington Junior High School, where only 9 percent of the 1,600 students were poor, she had three assistant principals, two nurses and a health-room clerk, seven department chairmen, six counselors, a psychologist, 14 secretaries, and 11 instructional aides. She also had the luxury of hand-picking her teachers, a process made all but impossible in Philadelphia by rigid seniority rules.

In New York City, principals can raise their salaries as much as $30,000 by moving to the suburbs, Ms. Levy of the CSA said. Suburban districts "are actively courting our members," she added. "They are looking at people who have done well in New York City and plucking them."

There's no easy answer to increasing the supply of top-flight administrators.

One solution is programs to help identify and groom prospective school leaders. According to the NAESP-NASSP survey, about one-fourth of districts polled had a program aimed at recruiting and preparing candidates from among current staff members.

Grow Your Own

Last year, Philadelphia launched the LEAD program--for Leadership in Education Apprentice Design--to prepare people for the principalship, with a strong focus on instruction. The program includes two six-week internships under exemplary principals, an applied-research requirement, and a performance-based assessment of the candidate's leadership skills.

Karen Kolsky, the acting principal at Taylor Elementary School and one of the program's first 16 graduates, said it "really prepared us to be principals. No college course really prepares you for the job." Twenty-four more candidates will begin the program this spring.

The district also has invited assistant principals to participate in its assessment center. It has begun helping individuals pass the written and oral exams required of school leaders, and it offers monthly seminars for new principals.

In addition, Greater Philadelphia First, a coalition of 31 corporations, plans to launch a regional Academy for Leadership and Learning to help improve leadership training throughout the metropolitan area.

Many of the state associations that represent school administrators have begun their own recruitment efforts.

The School Administrators Association of New York State, for instance, has a half-day program called "Look Before You Leap" for teachers whom principals have tapped as potential school leaders. It's also proposed that the state provide financial incentives for districts that hire administrative interns.

But most observers agree that more aggressive strategies are needed. "I think that ought to be everybody in the system's job, to look for talent and nurture it," said Jolley Bruce Christman, a researcher at Research for Action, a nonprofit research organization in Philadelphia.

In Michigan, the principals' association has printed pocket-size "affirmation" cards for its members to remind them of why they're in the job and its importance. "We're trying to get principals to look down their hallways and see who they can talk to about becoming a principal," Mr. Ballard said. "We recognized we're kind of downtrodden, and we need to pick ourselves up."

But in the end, many admit, money talks. That means providing better working conditions in schools, restoring the salary differential between principals and teachers, paying principals for a 12-month work year, and offering signing bonuses and other incentives.

"It boils down to money," said Mr. Bichner, whose base salary this year is $78,000. "I've got to look down the road. I want to be loyal. But I've got to put three kids through college. Philadelphia has to at least be in the ballpark."

Vol. 18, Issue 25, Pages 1,20-22

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