The Principalship: Looking for Leaders In a Time of Change

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Years ago, the noted anthropologist Harry F. Wolcott wrote a book called The Man in the Principal's Office describing the day-to-day activities of one 1960s-era elementary school principal, Ed Bell. From his morning cup of coffee at home to the final ringing of the school bell in the afternoon, we witness the mundane routines of a schoolman.

History tells us that the past is prologue, or, in more colloquial terms, that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Today's public schools and those who lead them may be a lot like those of Principal Bell's day, but, at the same time, they are quite different.

The student population, for example, is more diverse now than it ever has been. Approximately 36 percent of the nation's students are categorized as members of minority groups (primarily African-American or Hispanic). Statisticians predict that by 2004, that figure will increase to 55 percent. In some schools, 90 percent or more of the students speak a first language other than English, often Spanish. Ten percent of the nation's schoolchildren are in special education programs.

While the student population is amazingly diverse, the ranks of the principalship are not. Today's typical principal is a 50-year-old white male who has been a principal for 11 years, works at least 10 hours a day, and plans to retire at 57. Forty years ago, in Mr. Bell's day, more than 95 percent of the principals were white males who earned their first appointment at age 35 and worked at least nine hours a day.

This Commentary was selected for inclusion in The Last Word: The Best Commentary and Controversy in American Education, published in 2007. Get more information on the book from the publisher.

In 1961, 31 percent of the teaching force was male, 68 percent was female. Today, more than 73 percent of all teachers are women, and women account for 35 percent of the nation's principals. Remarkably, this increase in the appointment of female principals has occurred only within the past decade or so. In the academic year 1987-88, only 2 percent of principals were female. Despite their representation in the ranks of the teaching force, few were called and few were appointed to school leadership positions.

Only about 13 percent of the nation's principals belong to a minority group. Approximately 11 percent are African-American, 4 percent are Hispanic, and less than 1 percent are Asian-American. These statistics are especially disturbing when we consider the credentials of those who do ascend to school leadership. African-American principals (and teachers) are more likely than their white peers to possess a master's degree and a doctorate. They also come to the principalship with more years of teaching experience than their white peers. Why, then, their tremendous underrepresentation in the ranks of leadership?

Though significant gains have been made by women, notions about who should lead still tend to support the white male stereotype. In education, typically viewed as America's most level playing field, the leadership remains astonishingly monolithic. Ninety-six percent of the nation's pubic school superintendents are white males; more than 80 percent of school board presidents and members are white males; and 60 percent of principals are white males.

Only about 13 percent of the nation's principals belong to a minority group.

These statistics prevail despite some striking realities, the foremost being education's long history as a female-dominated field. In addition, African-Americans who go on to graduate school are overwhelmingly selected into social science fields, with the highest representation in education doctoral programs. Approximately 60 percent of the doctoral degrees awarded to African-Americans are earned in education.

Among the apocalyptic news stories appearing about the schools, the media have begun to proclaim a new problem: the leadership shortage. Across the country, districts are scrambling to fill principal posts.

Several factors have converged to change the landscape of the principalship: (1) increasing ethnic and linguistic diversity of the student population and school communities; (2) decreasing public confidence in the quality of public schools; (3) the press for privatization; (4) increasing school violence; (6) waning desirability of the principalship and the concomitantly shrinking pool of principal aspirants; and (7) pressures from the accountability movement to link principals' tenures to students' performance on standardized tests.

The ranks of school leadership are graying, and those in the pipeline are either not interested in assuming the top post or have not been cultivated and tapped, as is often the case for female and minority educators. According to a recent study released by the National Association of Elementary School Principals and the National Association of Secondary School Principals, nearly half of urban, suburban, and rural districts, and more than half of elementary, middle, and high schools, reported a shortage of principal candidates. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that 40 percent of the country's 93,200 principals are nearing retirement, and that the need for school administrators through 2005 will increase by 10 percent to 20 percent.

Approximately 47 percent of the nation's public school teachers have master's degrees. Clearly, there is not a dearth of qualified educators. They simply are not seeking the position, preferring instead to acquire seniority in the classroom. Often, senior teachers earn more per hour than the principals under whom they serve, when the teachers' 10-month work year and principals' 12-month work year are factored into calculations.

From interviews with superintendents and principals, researchers have concluded that the top three barriers to acquiring sufficient quantity and quality of principals are these: insufficient compensation when compared with responsibilities; the job's generally high stress levels; and the fact that it requires too much time.

The principalship is not just another job.

Today, the school leader is expected simultaneously to be a servant-leader, an organizational and social architect, an educator, a moral agent, a child advocate and social worker, a community activist, and a crisis negotiator—all while raising students' standardized-test performance. Added to these demands is the day-to-day reality of the principalship. The principal must negotiate bureaucratic minutiae, district politics, and community interactions. He or she must be able to placate and soothe parents' concerns, while also serving as a plant manager who can get the bus schedule right.

It is important that the principal shortage be resolved in ways that preserve the role of professional educators as leaders of the schools. We need not look outside the ranks of educators to fill leadership positions in the schools. Many educators are well-qualified. The challenge districts face is to encourage the able to be willing.

The principalship is not just another job. It is a calling. How do we recruit new leaders for this important work? Where will we find young people willing to be leaders in a place where everyone has an opinion about how you can improve, but few regard your work with children as a worthy career choice?

In the final analysis, if we expect exemplary educators to aspire to the principalship, they must be offered more than encouraging platitudes, a slap on the back, and a set of keys.

Vol. 19, Issue 29, Pages 46, 68

Published in Print: March 29, 2000, as The Principalship
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