Education Opinion

Leaders Needed

November 01, 1999 3 min read
An unending stream of bad news, critical media coverage, and demand for change has made the principal’s office a stressful place.

One of the most daunting obstacles to school improvement is the shortage of outstanding leaders, particularly principals. Good schools and good principals usually go together, and when mediocre or failing schools are turned around, a strong, savvy principal invariably leads the way.

Demand for good principals always exceeds supply, but the situation today is more dire than usual, with demand rising and supply falling. This year, an alarming number of schools--particularly those in urban districts--opened with acting principals.

The shortage will get worse before it gets better. Experts predict an exodus of principals in the coming years, in part because the ranks are filled with educators nearing retirement. Among K-8 principals, more than 40 percent are expected to retire or resign over the next decade. Filling these spots won’t be easy: An unending stream of bad news, critical media coverage, and demand for change has made the principal’s office a stressful place. Moreover, the pay is lousy; in most districts, principals make only marginally more than veteran teachers--yet face many more hassles.

The problem is complicated by the need to find a new breed of principals--women and men who view the job differently than most of us do. For years, we have expected principals to “keep the trains running on time,” to maintain order and discipline. Those who do that well are esteemed and rewarded.

But research and experience tell us that schools need a different brand of leadership. Principals of successful schools give top priority to teaching, learning, and staff development. Originally, those who held the title “principal” were considered the “principal teacher.” In that role, they would spend most of their time working closely with teachers on classroom matters. Unfortunately, surveys show that principals today spend less than a quarter of their time on instruction and the rest dealing with the day-to-day operations of the school.

A few years ago, I shadowed the principal of an urban high school that had 3,000 students. We spent most of the morning prowling the corridors of its four-story, block-long, brick building that looked very much like the turn-of-the-century factory it was modeled after. Virtually every second of that principal’s day was spent in “real time,” dealing with an array of problems and events as they unfolded, much like a battlefield commander. He had no time for reflection or reading or substantive conversation; no time for planning or preparation or anticipation. During the few minutes of talk we squeezed in at the end of the day, the principal said he wished he had more time to work with faculty, observe classrooms, and generally strengthen instruction. But simply running the school was a demanding full-time job.

How do we redefine the job and make principals better leaders? First, it’s clear that principals are much more likely to perform effectively as lead teachers in small schools, where they get to know their fellow teachers and even the students. And principals must be given the tools they need to do the job. We need to free them from stupid regulations and authorize them to hire their own staffs and allocate their own financial and human resources.

But that’s not enough. We need to be far more creative about how we prepare people to be principals. Athletic coaches may have been aptly suited for the traditional role of school leader, but tomorrow’s principals should be outstanding teachers with the desire and ability to lead. Most college and university programs that train administrators are a waste of time and money; quick fixes are not likely to produce the leaders that schools need. Instead, districts and states should identify and recruit potential principals from the teaching ranks and give them the opportunity to learn on the job as apprentices to distinguished principals.

Here’s an old joke, especially popular in Texas. Question: “What does it take to be a successful high school principal?” Answer: “A graduate degree and a winning football team.” We’ll know we’ve solved the problem of leadership in education when that joke is not funny or, better yet, not understood.

--Ronald A. Wolk

A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 1999 edition of Teacher as Leaders Needed