Help Wanted

April 01, 1999 7 min read

A shortage of principals could threaten schools.

Principals must be supervisors, disciplinarians, fund-raisers, public relations experts, and fiscal managers.

‘They treat me like a king here,” says Albert Bichner, striding down a corridor of Northeast High School, one of Philadelphia’s oldest and best-known schools. Even so, the award-winning principal has his résumé at the ready and recently received an offer to work in a neighboring suburb. The 48-year-old administrator knows he’s in high demand these days. And for him, the decision to stay at his current job or move on to something new comes down to money. “I’ve got to look down the road,” says Bichner, who earns a $78,000 salary. “I want to be loyal. But I’ve got to put three kids through college. Philadelphia has to at least be in the ballpark.”

Bichner is not unique in this attitude toward his job; Philadelphia is struggling to retain-and attract-top administrators. District officials estimate that the average number of applicants for each principalship open in the city is down from 40 in the 1970s to 10 today. And for the first time in years, the 215,000-student school system has had to advertise nationally to fill the spots. “We’ve had fewer applicants, so it’s been a struggle to maintain quality,” says superintendent David Hornbeck. “It’s going to get worse before it gets better.”

School officials nationwide are making similarly gloomy predictions. City, suburban, and rural systems alike are suffering a crisis in the principals’ ranks. In a survey released last year by the two national associations for principals, about half of 403 randomly selected districts around the country reported a shortage of qualified candidates for vacant principals’ positions. Good people are hard to find. The number one reason, according to the survey: too little pay for the responsibilities and stresses of the job.

This shortage could not have come at a worse time. Principals play the key role in creating an effective school. Yet as states and districts raise expectations for students and more kids arrive at schools with nonacademic needs, these pivotal players are often absent, close to retirement, or embittered about their jobs. 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. In Philadelphia, for example, superintendent Hornbeck expects to replace at least 10 percent of the district’s 259 school-level administrators each year for the foreseeable future, primarily because of retirements.

“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,” says JoAnn Bartoletti, executive director of the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association.

The situation may get worse in the coming years, as booming student enrollment will create even more need for school leaders. In the United States today, there are about 80,000 public school principals. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates a 10 percent increase in the employment of education administrators of all types through 2006.

The issue of compensation will be key to attracting applicants for these jobs. In 1997-98, the average principal’s salary was $69,258, well above the $40,133 earned by the average teacher. But the pay gap between new principals and veteran teachers-from whose ranks principals are usually drawn-is often much narrower. In Philadelphia, an experienced high school teacher who gets extra pay for coaching or supervising extracurricular activities can earn the same salary as an entry-level principal, according to Christopher McGinley, executive director of the district’s leadership development program. 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,” explains Patricia Luke, 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?’”

Money is not the only issue, however. Some districts like Philadelphia have created new leadership roles for veteran educators, giving them alternatives to the weighty job of principal. Teachers can now chair local school councils or coordinate small learning communities within a building. Often, they view such roles as a way to influence school policy without putting in the long hours that many principals devote to the job. “The time commitment,” says Luke, “is horrendous. Our new principals tell us they don’t have time for a life.”

Indeed, the duties of principals today keep expanding. They 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.

New district and state reform plans are also putting more pressure on principals. Under Hornbeck’s 10-point Children Achieving plan in Philadelphia, schools that reach their improvement targets get financial rewards; those that do not, 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.

Though many principals see these new responsibilities as a blessing, some complain that they feel left out on a limb, with little support or recognition from their school systems. In New York City, for example, 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,” says Jill Levy, 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.”

Adds Philadelphia’s McGinley: “I think that the challenges of school leadership and the issue of accountability have caused some people to shy away from stepping forward. The principalship is scary for a number of people, and high-stakes accountability has increased that.”

Such problems are universal, but urban districts are at a particular disadvantage when suburban systems offer higher salaries and better working conditions. New York City principals can raise their salaries as much as $30,000 by moving to the suburbs, according to Levy of the CSA. Suburban districts “are actively courting our members,” she says. “They are looking at people who have done well in New York.”

As the shortage in the principals’ ranks worsens, districts are starting the search for solutions. According to the survey by the NAESP and the National Association of Secondary School Principals, about one-fourth of districts polled had a program aimed at recruiting and preparing candidates from among current staff.

Last year, Philadelphia launched the LEAD program-Leadership in Education Apprentice Design-to prepare people for the principalship. The program, which focuses on instruction, includes two six-week internships under exemplary principals, an applied-research requirement, and a performance-based assessment of leadership skills. Karen Kolsky, acting principal at Taylor Elementary School and one of LEAD’s first 16 graduates, praises the program. "[It] really prepared us to be principals,” she says. “No college course really prepares you for the job.” Twenty-four more candidates will begin the program this spring.

The district also invites 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 an 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 tapped by principals as potential school leaders. It has also proposed that the state provide financial incentives for districts that hire administrative interns.

But most observers agree that more aggressive strategies are needed-and that help may come from right within the principals’ rank. The Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals has taken a novel approach: pocket-size “affirmation” cards for members to remind them of why they’re in the job and its importance.

“We recognized we’re kind of downtrodden,” says Jim Ballard, executive director of the group, “and we need to pick ourselves up.”

--Lynn Olson