Special Report
School & District Management

For Principals, Continuous Learning Critical to Career Success

By Arianna Prothero — January 21, 2015 8 min read

The principal’s job has been called both the most important in a school building and the loneliest, and the stress it places on individuals is illustrated by its rapid turnover rates, especially in high-poverty schools.

School leadership experts say that robust and ongoing training can alleviate those issues and help keep principals on the job, but professional development for school leaders is often bypassed for other pressing needs such as teacher training. And the professional development that many principals do get is of questionable quality.

“Most [professional development] for principals is not consistent with our best understanding of how learning occurs,” said Joseph F. Murphy, the associate dean at the Peabody College of Education at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. “But if you can get the content and the structure and delivery right, it can be huge.”

Beverly J. Hutton, a deputy executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, sums it up this way: “I would say that there is a shortage of good PD.”

Research has consistently shown that after teachers, principals have the most impact on student achievement when it comes to in-school factors. And though principals’ effects on student outcomes may be more indirect than teachers’, their load-bearing role as a school’s instructional leader and the individual most responsible for fostering a positive climate is getting more attention from researchers, district leaders, and policymakers.

But even with a sharper focus on the needs of the profession, half of new principals quit by the end of their third year on the job, according to a 2014 report from the School Leaders Network.

The same report argues that administrators put too much emphasis on recruiting and preparing principals—and tend to neglect their development once they are on the job, especially past the first two years. The study also cites a 2013 report from the National Center for Education Statistics that shows that principals who didn’t get professional development the previous year were 1.4 times more likely to leave their school than leaders who did receive training.

That turnover in leadership has negative ripple effects on schools, and that churn ultimately means wasted money for districts.

Quantity and Quality

But the importance of principal professional development is often trumped by other issues or ignored altogether, say many in the field.

“If you go to a conference on education, of the 100 sessions on professional development, 98 might be on teacher PD and maybe one will be on principal PD,” said Heather Anichini, the president and CEO of the Chicago Public Education Fund, which recently started a principal-training program. “There’s just not a lot of attention on it.”

That tendency to overlook school leaders’ needs also plays out in academia—where there is relatively scant research on the needs of principals and what is needed to boost their retention—as well as in the federal funding arena.

“There certainly hasn’t been a lot of federal dollars designated for principal professional development,” said Ms. Hutton of the NASSP. “The professional-development money that comes into principals’ budgets, they use it on teachers because they know the teachers are right there in front of students.”

Of the $1 billion the federal government sends to districts annually for training programs, 91 percent goes to teachers, leaving 9 percent for principals, according to that same 2014 report from the School Leaders Network.

The NASSP and the National Association for Elementary School Principals are working to change those numbers. The organizations are pushing for the federal government to set aside some Title II funds from the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that are aimed at improving teacher and principal quality, and allocate it specifically for principal development. Congress tipped its hat to the need for more funding for school leader training in the spending measure it approved in December, directing the U.S. Department of Education to tell states to do just that.

And the Education Department under the Obama administration has diverted from previous administrations with some new grant-supported professional-development programs for principals.

‘Not One-Off Experiences’

But even when programs for principal professional development are better financed and more accessible, the quality and relevance of training remains a huge challenge.

Although the specific professional-development needs vary from rookies to veterans, the tenets of good career training remain the same, according to leaders in the field. It should be individualized and rooted in real-world, or real-school, problems.

“Job-embedded,” said Ms. Hutton. “Every piece of research we include in our programs has been translated into what does this look like on your job.”

Trainings should also be spread out over a longer period of time—say a semester versus a two-day workshop, according to Mr. Murphy.

“Great PD is not one-off experiences,” he said. “Good PD should promote higher-quality instruction and promote more powerful culture and climate in a school.”

It should also promote distributive leadership—or training teams of people in a school to help handle leadership responsibilities to better balance the load of demands. The perks behind that way of operating are manifold, including preparing staff members for handling school business during the principal’s absence so he or she can take part in professional-development opportunities, said Mr. Murphy and Ms. Hutton.

Finally, access to peer networks or cohorts is important, allowing principals at every level of experience to have a chance to bounce ideas or problems off colleagues, said Ms. Hutton. Such networks, as well as more structured training programs, can also help battle feelings of isolation—a major reason principals leave their jobs, according to the NASSP.

First-year principals are especially in need of guidance as they try to apply the theory they’ve learned in certificate or university programs to the realities of the job, leadership experts agree.

“I think one of the big challenges first-year principals have is setting their priorities and managing their time,” said Mark J. White, the principal at Hintgen Elementary School in LaCrosse, Wis., and the president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals. “There’s all these things coming at you.”

Mentorship programs, Mr. White said, are one of the best ways to start new principals out on the right foot. “Every school is unique, so it’s really helpful to have someone that can help you apply what you’ve learned on the job,” he said.

The Minneapolis district has four mentorship programs, including one in which recently retired principals are paired with a newly hired one. The mentors, who are paid, help their charges with everything from budgeting to communications, observing them at work and offering feedback.

Bernadeia H. Johnson, who recently announced she will step down as superintendent in Minneapolis at the end of this month, remembers the mentor who helped her navigate the cultural nuances of her new city when she first arrived. His practical advice to her was how to handle a popular fall holiday.

“He called me up and said, ‘Before you make this mistake, we don’t call it Halloween. You can have a fall festival, but don’t have a Halloween day,’ ” she said. “He called me up before I got in trouble.”

Minneapolis’ mentoring programs also help with recruitment. People want to come work in districts where they will be supported, Ms. Johnson said.

Needs of Veterans

Mentoring programs can also benefit veteran principals who serve as mentors by forcing them to think about what works and what doesn’t, and ultimately, what makes them successful in their position.

“That’s a professional-development experience for them to grow,” said Elisa Calabrese, the chief talent-development officer for the Broward County district in Florida. “There’s no better way to learn about leadership than to mentor someone in leadership.”

Her district has been a finalist three times for the Broad Prize—an annual award for urban districts that demonstrate improvements in closing achievement gaps—in part because of its training for principals at all levels of experience, according to Broad officials.

But as important as training is to new school leaders, it shouldn’t be squeezed into the first few years.

“We really do need that ongoing professional development all the way throughout our careers,” said Mr. White.

Principals who have already proved themselves as strong leaders are the focus of a new program launched in the fall of 2014 by the Chicago Public Education Fund, a philanthropic venture fund, for a select number of the city’s principals. The fellowship program was developed using feedback gathered through surveys and interviews with the city’s principal corps.

“They were being engaged as instructional leaders, the [Common Core State Standards] stuff, but they weren’t necessarily being engaged around leadership generally,” said Ms. Anichini, the fund’s CEO.

Principals said they wanted better customized training, and more of it.

To meet those needs, the Chicago Fund partnered with Northwestern University’s School for Education and Social Policy as well as its Kellogg School of Management to offer classes and mentoring to the fellows.

“Corporate America is actually pretty good at this: identifying their best and developing them,” said Ms. Anichini. But, she said, the university is still attentive to the fact that it’s dealing with a special group of people. In exchange, fellows agree to remain in the Chicago district for at least three years. The program has 20 participants this session, including Barbara Kargas, the principal of Goethe Elementary School.

“Learning how to lead when you have many built-in challenges is something that you need leadership and guidance to do,” said Ms. Kargas. “I wish that it was something that was going to be ongoing until I retired.”

Coverage of leadership, expanded learning time, and arts learning is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the January 21, 2015 edition of Education Week as Continuous Learning Key for Principals


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