Recruitment & Retention

Debate Heating Up On How to Lure Top-Notch Principals

By Jeff Archer — June 04, 2003 6 min read

Fears that the nation faces a shortage of principals are giving way to deeper concerns about how best to improve the quality of school administrators.

Foundations and education policy groups, in papers and roundtables this spring, are arguing that while there are plenty of people who could become administrators, few possess the skills or knowledge needed to succeed at a time when expectations for student performance have never been higher.

“Well- meaning educators often find themselves in charge of an individual school, or as a school system CEO, with the required credential, but without the appropriate training or experience to successfully transform these complex organizations,” Dan Katzir, the managing director of the Los Angeles-based Broad Foundation, said at a recent forum in Washington sponsored by the foundation.

In the past two weeks, the Wallace Foundation and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute have weighed in with their own policy recommendations for improving school leadership.

Emerging from the chorus is some agreement on what needs to be done. Multi-pronged approaches that include better working conditions and greater financial incentives, particularly to lure strong leaders to weak schools, are in favor. Many analysts also say districts must play a more active role in identifying and training potential administrators.

But philosophical rifts also are beginning to open. Proponents of deregulation, led by the Washington-based Fordham Institute, propose that states strip down licensing rules for administrators to the bare minimum to allow experienced leaders from other fields to work in education. Other experts fear opening the floodgates to candidates who lack an understanding of student learning.

And some observers doubt that leaders from outside education can fare any better in schools than administrators with more traditional backgrounds if nothing else changes about the job.

Richard Laine, the deputy director of education programs at the New York City-based Wallace Foundation, formerly known as the Wallace Funds, said: “We just think states need to be focused on creating the environment for leaders to succeed.”

Competing Prescriptions

Perhaps the greatest consensus is on whether there’s a scarcity of people eligible to serve as principals. Most experts now say there isn’t—a contention supported by three separate analyses sponsored by Wallace.

One analysis, for example, found that the number of people in New York state who are certified to become principals—and who also are under age 45—is 50 percent greater than the number of principalships in the state.

The surplus of credentialed candidates doesn’t mean that districts aren’t finding it hard to fill such positions. Not everyone, for instance, who holds a license to be an administrator wants to work as one, especially in districts that give teachers a salary boost for merely earning the credential. Likewise, not everyone with an administrator’s license is someone districts want to hire.

A Wallace-financed study that surveyed 70 superintendents across the country found that nearly 40 percent agreed that getting qualified principals was “a major problem.”

For the Fordham Institute—an offshoot of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation—a crucial part of the solution is to cast a wider net for potential administrators. With financial backing from the Broad Foundation, which also supports coverage of leadership issues in Education Week, Fordham has drafted what it terms a “manifesto” calling on states to pare down licensing rules for principals.

“It seems to me there’s a problem,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Fordham Foundation. “We don’t have enough good leaders for schools, and we are only looking for them in the same places where we have looked in the past.”

By requiring only that a principal hold a bachelor’s degree and pass a background check and a basic test of school laws, states would free districts to hire individuals who, though they may lack experience in education, are proven managers, the manifesto argues.

Nearly all states require that administrators have prior work experience in education—typically three to five years as a teacher, according to a new survey of state policies conducted for the Fordham Institute by C. Emily Feistritzer, the president of the National Center for Education Information, a private research organization based in Washington.

“There is no general move for bringing people from other careers, or people who’ve held management positions in other occupations, into school leadership positions,” said Ms. Feistritzer, who also favors programs that bring nontraditional candidates into teaching.

Supporters of deregulation say that the growing number of urban superintendencies held by people from outside of education suggests that leaders from other fields could be successful as principals. Fordham’s manifesto also argues for deregulating state licensure rules for district leaders.

Fordham’s approach sharply contrasts with efforts in recent years to improve, rather than scrap, the credentialing process for principals. Many states have sought to align their requirements for administrators with the standards developed by the Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium, or ISLLC. Drafted under the auspices of the Council of Chief State School Officers and adopted in 1996, the standards stress the importance of understanding both pedagogy and organizational change.

A group of professional associations representing administrators also has said it plans to launch a process of national certification to recognize especially accomplished administrators. Proponents of stronger credentialing procedures generally contend that knowledge of teaching and learning should be a prerequisite for leading a school.

“I think the person who can really do this job well, who has not been a school teacher, is very few and far between,” said Marc S. Tucker, the president of the Washington-based National Center on Education and the Economy, which completed its own study of the principalship last year.

Despite the licensing debate, broad areas of accord over how to improve school leadership are evident. Many experts say the financial rewards for becoming a principal are lacking, particularly in schools serving large concentrations of needy students.

‘Job Redesign’

Wallace officials say states should introduce incentives to attract high-caliber leaders to the schools facing the most challenges. Fordham proposes that principals’ base salaries be pegged at 50 percent above what experienced teachers in their schools make.

Another common concern is that principals, although held accountable for their schools’ results, typically have little control over hiring, instructional programs, and budgets. Many experts further argue that the duties of principals have become too varied for one person to handle.

“The first question is: Who would want this job?” Mr. Tucker said. “And so it’s partly a matter of job redesign, and partly rethinking this business of aligning accountability and authority.”

There’s also little disagreement about the need to improve the way school leaders are groomed for the job. Even many of those who favor hiring leaders with education experience say the field can learn from the corporate world, in which businesses often actively seek out people with managerial potential and then put them through training programs geared toward their needs.

Too often in education, Mr. Tucker noted, the pool of recruits is “self-defined.”

“They’re people who decided they wanted to be school administrators,” he said, “and then presented themselves to schools of education.”

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