Education Opinion

Good Principals Are Hard to Find

By Walt Gardner — February 11, 2011 3 min read
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Although the preponderance of criticism of education today is aimed at teachers, principals don’t have diplomatic immunity. In fact, principals are increasingly in the limelight because of President Obama’s emphasis on leadership to turn around the nation’s worst schools.

In a front-page story on Feb. 8, the New York Times reported that about 44 percent of schools receiving federal turnaround funds in eight large states still have the same principals who were at the helm last year (“U.S. Plan to Replace Principals Hits Snag: Who Will Step In?”).

Why have these principals not been replaced? The short answer is that the job has become so demanding that few talented candidates want the responsibilities. This is not anything new. In Dec. 2002, then New York City Chancellor Joel Klein recognized the need to recruit and retain top principals. He announced his intention to create the New York City Leadership Academy for this purpose. In Sept. 2004, the first graduating class sent its alumni to head up schools.

Despite being the most intensive and costly principal training program in the U.S., the results have fallen short of expectations. Questions immediately arose whether the younger principals were up to the task. Nothing in their studies prepared them for the daily challenges they faced, although this criticism was not limited to graduates of the academy. It was also seen in the remarks made by graduates of the nation’s 1,200 schools, colleges and departments of education.

The questions raised are reminiscent of those posed during World War II about recruits called 90-Day Wonders. Faced with the urgent need to turn out more officers, the army graduated second lieutenants with just three months of training, rather than the usual four years. For the most part, these newly minted officers were looked down on by officers who achieved their rank through traditional routes and by enlisted men who were not accustomed to such fast-track superiors.

Which leads to another question: Is it possible to teach leadership in school? According to Arthur Levine, former president of Teachers College who wrote a 2005 study of principal training, only a “tiny percentage really prepare leaders for school turnaround.” His conclusion is not surprising. In “The Accidental Principal” (Educationnext, Summer 2005), Fredrick Hess and Andrew Kelly wrote: “Most worrisome, perhaps, some 96 percent of practicing principals say that colleagues were more helpful than graduate studies in preparing them for the job.” They went on to note that two-thirds of principals polled by Public Agenda reported that “leadership programs in graduate schools of education are out of touch” with what principals need to know.

Yet despite the doubts raised, the Harvard Graduate School of Education at the end of 2009 announced a new doctoral degree in educational leadership. It is the first new degree offered by the school in 74 years. The three-year program will be tuition-free and conducted with faculty from the Harvard Business School and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Its goal is to develop leaders with the creativity, intellect and professionalism to help transform public education.

Despite the publicity, the only worthwhile part of the program is the third year, which involves field placement in an organization or agency. This practical experience will be the basis for an education reform project in lieu of a dissertation. Although this requirement is an improvement, I still say there is nothing like working up through the ranks of teaching to prepare candidates to become principals.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.