Focus on Leader's Role Sparks Concern Over Training, Selection

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

Washington--Citing an accumulating body of research indicating that ''good principals make good schools," three legislators have introduced bills to develop a nationwide training program for school leaders.

The bills, HR 4775 and S 2275, would provide as much as $1.5 million for each of 10 federal regions to establish centers "to promote the development of the leadership skills of elementary- and secondary-school principals," according to Representative Thomas E. Petri, Republican of Wisconsin, who co-sponsored the House bill this month with William F. Goodling, Republican of Pennsylvania. The Senate version was introduced by Senator John H. Chafee, Republican of Rhode Island.

"The centers would become laboratories for training and research in effective school leadership," Mr. Petri said. "Seminars, internships, consultation, and a model administrative program would reach out to serve principals throughout the regions--much like agricultural experiment stations reach out to serve the farmer."

The proposal is one sign of a growing national awareness outside the professional education community of the significance of the principal in school-improvement efforts.

Principals, the bill's sponsors and others suggest, will play the key role in carrying out many of the education reforms now under consideration by legislatures, boards of education, and local school districts. Among the assignments proposed for the school leaders are raising student achievement, evaluating teachers as part of merit-pay and career-ladder plans, creating an environment conducive to learning, and motivating the school staff and the community.

The national focus on principals comes on the heels of attempts by educators themselves to respond to the voluminous research findings of the last few years indicating that the leadership characteristics of principals determine their schools' "effectiveness."

New York City and the state of Florida, for example, have moved to raise certification standards for principals by introducing written examinations. Some districts are devising internship programs for administrators to improve the applicant pool when vacancies arise.

And new assessment programs are being established across the country to ensure that the best candidates are selected for principalships.

In the words of Ernest L. Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the author of its recent report, High School: "What we seek are high schools in which the school community--students, teachers, and principals--sees learning as the primary goal. In such a community, the principal becomes not just the top authority but the key educator, too."

But moves to change both the definition and scope of the principal's job and the methods by which he or she is trained and selected face stumbling blocks, principals and other policymakers acknowledge.

The difficulties are suggested in part by statistics. The average school principal today is 45 years old. Elementary-school principals have served an average of about 21 years as administrators in the schools and an average of 15 to 19 years as principals, according to Samuel G. Sava, executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals. Mr. Sava polled 150 principals from three states at a leader-ship conference last summer and found that "70 percent planned to retire before the end of the decade."

According to Scott D. Thomson, executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, about 30 percent of principals are between ages of 50 and 59. The nation's 34,000 junior- and senior-high school principals, on average, have served about 9 to 10 years on the job, he said, while research indicates that the mode, or most commonly occurring statistic, for principals is between 10 and 14 years of service. About 10 percent of the principalships change hands each year, he added.

The figures suggest, for one thing, that many current principals must be helped--as the Congressional proposals intend--to adapt to the changing demands of their professional role. But that may not be easy.

"I'd like to spend more time on programming, curriculum planning, and observing teachers but I have to put more into maintaining discipline," said Richard A. St. John, principal of McTigue Junior High School in Cincinnati.

"As recently as 10 years ago, principals were chosen by how well they could manage a building," said Carolyn E. Felling, principal of Saunders Elementary School in Newport News, Va. "That's why you had a lot of high-school coaches." They were generally well-known, popular, willing to stay after school, and known for their ability to handle discipline, so they were made principals, she said. But now "research on effective schools has turned the focus from building administration and management skills to knowledge of instruction."

"In my school system," she continued, "a lot of the emphasis is placed on choosing individuals who can know and recognize good teaching and who can improve instructional skills in teachers where they are lacking."

"We need to be stronger people," said Ammon McWashington, principal of Garfield High School in Seattle. "Right now, we're so hesitant to make propositions. The community brings its proposals to us."

Selection Process

The current demography of school leaders also suggests another, and some say more serious, obstacle to assuring that principalships are held by "stronger people": the traditional selection process. Retirements and enrollment shifts will increase the demand for principals in the years ahead, but their ranks will not be strengthened if current selection methods persist, a number of policymakers warn.

In many cases, they argue, the choice of principals is not based on clear professional criteria, nor is the process accessible to new groups of potential school leaders, such as women and minority-group members.

"Most principals are judged by a set of local and custom-bound criteria that may be as cloudy as anything existing in the contemporary job market," writes Mr. Boyer.

"The selection process is fraught with "in-house fighting, deals, promises, and other factors that tilt the decision," said Roland S. Barth, senior lecturer in education at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education and the co-director of the Principal's Center there. "You like to think that best person wins, or the person who displays characteristics that will predict good principals will be hired, but in many cases this is not so."

"About half of all larger school systems do not use adequate selection processes for hiring principals," said Mr. Thomson of the principals' group.

'Old Crony' System

Large urban districts and small rural districts often refuse to look outside the system to fill new vacancies, Mr. Thomson noted. And many districts hire principals by using an "old crony system" that rates popularity, visibility, longevity on the job, and other factors as more important than qualities of effective leadership, such as decisiveness, judgment, and ability to analyze problems, he said.

A recently released study on principal selection conducted for the National Institute of Education indicates that although most school boards contend that they choose administrators on the basis of merit or equity, the process is typically "ridden with chance" and unrelated to any established promotion policy. (See Education Week, Jan. 25, 1984.)

The 65-page report, written by researchers D. Catherine Baltzell and Robert A. Dentler, argues that appointments of principals are subject to the influence of local politics, local cultural factors, and economic conditions--constraints that work against selection on the basis of merit and equity. The report, "Selecting American School Principals: A Sourcebook for Educators," was based on the researchers' study of 10 randomly sampled and geographically diverse school districts with more than 10,000 students each.

Among other recommendations, the study urges school districts to advertise widely for candidates and to create and up-date a large applicant pool in which requirements for access to the principalship are clearly defined. The pool, the researchers said, should welcome women and minority candidates, "who lack the informal channels of access to information shared by most white men."

A five-year follow-up survey of women in administrative and supervisory positions in the New York City Public Schools released last month indicates, for example, that only 26 percent of supervisory or administrative positions in 1983 were held by women--essentially the same proportion as in 1978.

According to statistics cited in Mr. Boyer's study of high schools, the average high-school principal is male (only 7 percent are female), white (fewer than 5 percent identify themselves as members of minority groups), and between the ages of 40 and 49 (only 25 percent of principals are under 40).

The situation for women and minorities is not much better in elementary schools, said Mr. Sava of the naesp

In the nation's larger cities, minority-group members tend to hold the majority of elementary-school principalships, Mr. Sava said, but in suburban areas they constitute only 5 to 10 percent of all principals.

About 25 years ago, he said, 90 percent of elementary-school principals were women, but today, because more men were hired during the "baby boom," "the situation has reversed"--about 30 percent of elementary-school principals are women.

But about 50 percent of the principals appointed in the 1960's or 1970's will retire in the 1980's, he noted, and that, together with a projected rise in enrollment, will open up many principal vacancies. "Elementary-school enrollments have bottomed out at 30.9 million, but the projection is that they will rise to 34.5 million by the end of the decade," he explained.

But the need for principals could result in even less rigorous selection procedures, in Mr. Sava's view. He warned that it would be damaging to continue using the current selection methods, which he characterized as a series of events beginning with a vacancy announcement that creates a crisis situation solved by a committee that names a principal, often on the basis of criteria that do not "relate to what is needed to accomplish the job." Districts must "begin now to conduct studies of future principal vacancies and also work to create an applicant pool that can be built up over the next four or five years," Mr. Sava said.

Standard Procedures

Although districts follow standard procedures for filling a principal vacancy, observers say, the ways in which the procedures are followed vary widely and often limit the quality of the search.

When vacancies are publicized in newsletters, circulars, and newspaper advertisements, according to the nie study, "the search is typically limited to the local area (the district and perhaps contiguous systems). Search boundaries may extend to include the state and perhaps even contiguous states on special occasions, but are virtually never seriously expanded beyond this."

"One of the major reasons that the appointment of principals gets ingrown within a school system is that the vacancy announcement does not extend beyond the local area," said Mr. Barth of Harvard. "My sense is that only suburban systems announce their vacancies nationally. Urban districts do not."

In addition to being narrowly publicized, the nie report says "the specific openings are seldom clearly identified" and "the volume of applicants is often rather small compared with the great numbers of educators who have state certificates."

Increasingly, superintendents say, they do not even consider a national or even a regional search because they have a ready-made pool of candidates that consists of principals who lost their jobs when schools were closed.

According to Alonzo A. Crim, superintendent of the Atlanta Public Schools, enrollment declines in the city have forced the district to fill new vacancies with some principals who have been displaced by closings. This strategy can be troublesome, Mr. Crim said, because each school has its own climate and ethos, and "principals who performed well in one situation may not work out in a different situation."

Organizational Problems

Some contend that the selection process often breaks down at the interview stage because interviews, which have a strong influence on the hiring decision, are poorly conducted.

"Topics for screening range from carefully constructed, standardized questions that are put to every interviewee by the same committee member each time, to free-wheeling, extemporaneous topics raised by any member of the committee who can get the floor," the nie report says.

"The substance of the questions is usually quite general and tends to concentrate on the educational philosophy and attitudes of the candidates." The questions are basically designed "to test the interviewee's reflexes in areas of poise, confidence, self-presentation, and 'fit' with the local image of what a principal should be," according to the study.

Aiming to make hiring decisions less arbitrary by helping officials devise ways to judge candidates on clearly defined skills, the secondary-school-principals' group has established 19 principal-assessment centers nationwide. The centers help districts rate candidates on the basis of skills demonstrated in rigorous two-day evaluations.

The assessment centers simulate "real-life" situations (such as committee meetings and school-board presentations) and rate a candidate's job skills in 12 areas, including problem analysis, judgment, organizational ability, decisiveness, leadership, personal motivation, educational values, range of interests, sensitivity, stress tolerance, and written and oral communication, according to nassp officials. (See Education Week, Nov. 9, 1983.)

More than 1,500 educators have gone through the assessment program since 1975. Maine's statewide assessment program has been in operation for more than a year, and North Carolina, Oregon, South Carolina, and Wisconsin are launching similar projects this year, according to Mr. Thomson of the nassp

The elementary-school-principals' association is currently "collecting data and information" to move in the same direction. "In the very near future we will develop evaluation centers," Mr. Sava said.

Selection Committees

Although some districts leave principal selection up to their senior staff members, many others have encouraged broad participation by teachers and parents (and even high-school students) on selection committees.

"When a new principal is hired without teacher involvement, faculty get in an uproar and make the life of the new principal miserable," said Peter Greer, superintendent of the Portland, Me., public schools. "They won't help the principal because they have no stake in seeing that he does a good job. They didn't select him; he was thrust upon them."

Mr. Barth, who has worked as a principal in three school systems, said that when parents and teachers are not involved in the selection process, the principal is "inflicted upon others like a foreign body" and may have problems establishing his credibility. "When there is responsibility for hiring a person, there is responsibility for seeing that the new person works out," he said.

But sometimes allowing for wide representation leads to conflicts that are resolved by selecting compromise candidates--often "familiar faces from the old-boy network," Mr. Barth and others noted.

"Those candidates who take a strong position and have vision, integrity, and commitment inevitably rub somebody--whether it's on the school board or people on the selection committee--the wrong way. Those candidates that say, 'We'll set up a committee and study it,' and are cautious and uncontroversial" often do very well, he said.

School-Board Politics

Another kind of problem arises when a superintendent is not getting along well with the school board, according to Gordon L. McAndrew, superintendent of Richland District 1 in Columbia, S.C.

The Columbia board has had little influence on his selection of principals other than exerting "a little pressure now and then to support the candidacy of a relative or friend or fellow parishioner," Mr. McAndrew said. But he recalled that before being fired from his job as superintendent in Gary, Ind., (following "a personal falling-out" with the school-board president), there was "a constant tangle over my administrative affairs, including hiring principals."

A school board "has every right to inquire about credentials and references," Mr. McAndrew noted, but it has no role in making selection decisions. A superintendent must "make it fairly clear" to the local board that selecting principals is his or her territory. "If I can't choose the principal, I can't provide the program," he said, adding that when a board is not satisfied with the people a superintendent selects, it is time for the board to hire a new superintendent.

"A superintendent has to take responsibility and be willing to stake his reputation on the quality of people his staff helps select," said Mr. Greer of Portland. "If the principals foul up, if my people choose bad people, they should get rid of me."

That is one reason, Mr. Greer said, that he takes such pains in investigating candidates. "I act like a private investigator, calling, visiting, checking. I've gone into barbershops to see what they say about a man."

Internship Program

Mr. McAndrew said that his district, like a few others across the country, has established an internship program for promising candidates that also improves the chances that women and minority-group members will be seriously considered. The program trained 30 people over a three-year period. Some 25 of the former interns--half of whom were black and 40 percent of whom were women--now have jobs as principals in the district, he said.

The internship program, which had to be eliminated this year for fiscal reasons, assigned "carefully selected" personnel to work with one or two principals for a year. The interns--mostly bright young teachers--were paid teachers' salaries and received course credit from the University of South Carolina for their work.

The program, run in cooperation with the university, was initially funded by a $100,000 grant from the U.S. Education Department's Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education. The start-up funds provided travel money to conferences and to observe schools in other districts and for the development of workshops, Mr. McAndrew said.

In his recent report, Mr. Boyer of the Carnegie Foundation advanced the idea that all candidates for high-school principalships serve for a year as administrative interns, working closely with an experienced and successful principal, after which they would be eligible for employment as assistant principals.

Mr. Boyer also suggested that candidates be required to serve as assistant principals for at least two years before assuming a full principalship; that they possess licenses as teachers and complete at least two years as "associate teachers"; and that their strengths and weaknesses in such administrative skills as decisionmaking, organization and planning, and written and oral communication, be assessed.

Certification Standards

According to the nie report, all states require those who wish to qualify for principalships to have from six to 20 hours of college credit in courses in educational administration; some states also require a Master of Education or Master of Arts degree in that field along with a practicum or an internship. And some districts and states have further attempted to improve the quality of principals by introducing tests and raising certification standards.

But Mr. Sava of the naesp argues that these attempts to improve principals by certification processes may be unsuccessful because administrative-certification programs at universities are "notoriously poor." He also contends that written tests are of little value because "there has never been a paper examination that relates the competence of an individual to what he or she scored on the exam."

And according to Mr. McWashington of Seattle's Garfield High, higher certification standards and more graduate courses will not help principals obtain the funds they need to provide adequate programs or deal with declining community support. The job of being a principal is a complex and difficult one that demands maturity, he said. "The most intelligent person may not be able to handle the pressure."

Vol. 03, Issue 22

Notice: We recently upgraded our comments. (Learn more here.) If you are logged in as a subscriber or registered user and already have a Display Name on, you can post comments. If you do not already have a Display Name, please create one here.
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories