The ABCs of Administrative Shortages

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A recent study by the Educational Research Service, on behalf of the National Association of Elementary School Principals and the National Association of Secondary School Principals, revealed that there is an increasing shortage of administrative candidates for leadership positions in schools. This was hardly a revealed truth to any school district that has had to seek administrative replacements lately. What was interesting was that while the shortage was most acute at the secondary level and in urban settings, it is a problem across the board in all kinds of schools and districts. In fact, had the survey gone on to deal with superintendents, I am confident that a similar pattern would have emerged.

I have received numerous examples in the last few years of districts looking for superintendents that received no applications at all. We have also seen reports of efforts to widen the pool by including "nontraditional" candidates in searches. While some of this stems from frustration at the continued existence of intractable problems in urban school districts, some of it comes from a recognition by boards and search firms that there are not enough viable candidates to fill the need.

There are those who may not see this as a problem because they do not see a need for administrators. Others think that anyone who has ever run anything can do the job. While most people in America have come to accept the proverb that "it takes a village to raise a child," not all have recognized that it takes a leader to create and nurture the village. Virtually every piece of educational research recognizes that effective schools and school districts start and end with strong leaders. Those who know this must worry about the current shortage and its implications. We must ask why this is happening. I believe the answer to that question is as simple as ABC.

A: Abuse and Accountability. The shortage of good people going into the professions of principal and superintendent starts, and often ends, with the abuse those in these positions receive. School leaders have become a pinata for the community and staff. People stand around beating on them with sticks, hoping a few goodies fall out. One of my first adjustments as a new principal was learning to live with seeing my name mentioned in the newspaper in less than flattering descriptions. In my first superintendency, I was given perhaps the best definition for my role by a sympathetic board member who reminded me that my job was to be a "quick-healing dartboard." And so it was.

While most people would accept and embrace accountability as a good thing, when responsibility is not accompanied by authority, accountability becomes a farce. Increasingly, school leaders are being asked to fix schools, and even the communities the schools serve, without having the resources to do so. It is similar to the pharaohs asking the Israelites to make bricks without straw. Further, it is one thing to demand higher standards and better test scores from the leader of an organization, but not giving him or her the opportunity to make the necessary changes that will lead to a new result is demanding the impossible.

Also, there are rarely incentives available for this accountability, beyond negative ones. I shall never forget a board I once worked for that asked me to design a "merit pay" plan for administrators. The plan would give administrators the same percentage increase as other staff members, if they made merit. Otherwise, they would get less. Since the current policy already gave them the same increase as the rest of the staff, I had to point out that we would be designing a "demerit" program. The board would not consider, and could not understand, that a negative merit system would not likely lead to improved results. It is like a sign I once had in my office which read, "The beatings will continue until morale improves."

B: Blame and Balance. Tied closely to abuse and accountability is the issue of blame. When things go wrong, the administrator usually gets the blame. When things go right, someone else often gets the credit. I know of few administrators who got into the business for the glory of it, but it is the rare one who enjoys the "gory" of it either. Administrators are the most visible and the most accessible, so they get shot. As a nation we are accustomed to the "baseball manager" syndrome. When the team is losing, you can't fire the team, so you dump the manager. This has carried over into schools, with disastrous results personally for individual school leaders who must pack up their families and move to friendlier climes, but it also dooms the organizations to constant churning at the top without any sense of constancy or direction. Then we wonder why education reform does not work.

A companion to the blame problem is the question of balance. Americans are increasingly aware of the need to have a balanced life--you need a sound mind and a sound body to function in a hectic and complex world. People want time for their families and friends. They would like to pursue their hobbies and take time to smell the flowers. School administrators often do not have the time to locate the flower bed. Teachers who may be considering the principalship, or administrators who may be considering the superintendency, look at those already in the role, see how unbalanced their lives often are and say, "Thanks but no thanks."

C: Compensation, Compression, and Cultural Confusion. Tied into the previous two problems is the one of compensation. School boards, and in some cases state legislatures, have often capped or suppressed the salaries for superintendents and principals while trying to raise the compensation for teachers. While no one would dispute that teachers should be paid better, this compression of salaries has led to a very small differential between teachers and principals and between central-office employees and superintendents. That means that when anyone is considering whether to move up and take the abuse, the blame and imbalance, they have to consider if it is worth it. In many cases, they answer no.

I have seen teachers move into administration who were shocked to find that they had to take a cut in daily rate to do so. Coupled with this problem is the lack of retirement portability. If candidates are considering taking a position in a different state, they find that they must start over in a new retirement system. The current system favors those who stay with the same district for their entire careers. This diminishes the potential pool of candidates. It can also lead to a narrowed vision of what might be possible for a district because there is less cross-fertilization of new ideas.

Finally there is the other C--confusion. We, as a nation, are not really clear in what we want our kids to know and what we want them to know how to do. We do not really know what we want education to be about. We do not even know who our customers really are (children, parents, community, business?). We cannot agree on how we might get to where it is we may want to go. However, we want school leaders to get us there. That is a dilemma.

We need to understand that leadership is important and that leaders need to have some sense of stability and support. We have to believe that leadership in schools is worth paying the same kinds of salaries that we reserve for private-sector managers.

But school leaders also need to understand that they can only do the job by opening up and reaching out for support, by sharing the responsibility and resources, and by creating and demanding a sense of balance in their own lives. If we can begin to do that, then maybe we can change the negative ABCs of administrator shortage so we can create an abundance of successful ABC learners in our schools.

Paul D. Houston is the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators in Arlington, Va.

Vol. 17, Issue 38, Pages 32, 44

Published in Print: June 3, 1998, as The ABCs of Administrative Shortages
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