As principals come under more pressure than ever to improve underperforming schools, leadership experts say it’s time for the nation to emphasize recruiting and training the next generation of school leaders.
“There’s been a lot of emphasis on teacher quality and teacher development, but not nearly enough in the area of leadership development, and specifically, principal development,” said Daniel A. Domenech, the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. “You will have transformation of a school with strong leadership. It will not happen without it.”
Mr. Domenech’s Arlington, Va.-based association, which represents primarily district-level officials, and two groups that represent the nation’s principals are hopeful that a reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act will increase federal support for the recruitment and training of principals.
The $29.2 million that the U.S. Department of Education is spending this year on principal development through the School Leadership Program is a drop in the bucket when it comes to the nation’s 100,000 principals, said Gerald N. Tirozzi, the executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, based in Reston, Va.
“While at the national level we continue to pontificate about the importance of the principal, the instructional leader, the agent of change, there is no commitment to resources to help these people be prepared and improve,” he said.
And as the number of baby boomer principals who are retiring increases, Mr. Tirozzi said, a shortage of top candidates is likely, as educators will balk at taking on an increasingly high-stakes job.
“Regrettably, many teachers who wanted to go into administration are backing away from it,” Mr. Tirozzi said. “We will always find people to fill the position, but finding the high-quality people we need in an age of accountability who can be the instructional leader—that is the concern we have.”
Hopes for ESEA
The AASA, the NASSP, and the National Association of Elementary School Principals are supporting a bipartisan bill, introduced in both houses of Congress in December, that would create a grant program to help in recruiting, preparing, and supporting principals for high-need middle and high schools.
The proposed School Principal Recruitment and Training Act, which would be an amendment to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, was developed with the NASSP. Under the bill, which would authorize spending $200 million, aspiring principals would take part in a residency program before taking over low-performing schools, and would continue to benefit from professional development. In return for grant support, they would be required to spend four years at a school and improve school outcomes within three to six years.
For fiscal 2011, the Obama administration is proposing to spend $170 million on principals and school leadership teams as part of its group of “Excellent Instructional Teams” programs.
Even with such proposed increases, Mr. Tirozzi of the NASSP said, the amounts still would not equal the need, especially in light of state and district budget cuts.
Gail Connelly, the executive director of the Alexandria, Va.-based NAESP, said about half its 25,000 members have been part of the organization for five years or less, marking the influx of younger school leaders into the nation’s principal ranks.
The elementary principals’ group has long run its National Mentor Program, in which veteran and retired principals coach their less experienced peers across the country. And Ms. Connelly pointed to the success of programs like the New York City Leadership Academy, which prepares principals in the nation’s largest school district, and New Leaders for New Schools, a nonprofit group that trains principals for urban districts, in bringing new blood into the field.
But Ms. Connelly said that while those efforts are laudable, they are expensive and produce relatively few principals, which is troubling because guidelines for spending federal economic-stimulus money for education require that principals be replaced in school turnaround efforts.
“When you talk about the quantity of principals who will be ousted,” she said of the turnaround models, “the reality is there has to be a viable way to bring [principal-development programs] to scale. The system is going to be more stretched than it already is.”
School districts, she said, will also have to be careful about trying to fill in the gap by moving principals who were successful in improving one low-performing school to another school, without a real succession plan in place.
In addition to backing the legislation on recruitment and training now pending in Congress, the NAESP is calling for the new edition of the ESEA, which Congress began work on last week, to include mentoring programs for school leaders in their first three years on the job.
Gene Bottoms, the senior vice president of the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Education Board, agreed that more attention needs to be paid to developing the particular skills needed to turn around low-performing schools, especially high schools.
“We keep doing the wrong things better,” he said, “and it drives both teachers out of school and students out of school. You have to have leaders who can discern what the problems are, who can convene teachers and talk about the root causes of the problems.”
In an upcoming study, Mr. Bottoms said, his organization looks at how the actions and attitudes of district central offices help or hinder principals’ efforts to improve schools.
“Many districts do not have a vision of what a great high school ought to be,” he said, “besides getting the test scores up.”
Karen Webber-Ndour, the principal of the 340-student National Academy Foundation High School, a career-academy public high school in Baltimore, said aspiring principals need practical experience and top-shelf mentors to succeed.
Principal training “can’t be classroom-based exclusively,” she said. “The most striking differences happen when a budding principal who has not yet been placed works under a principal who has been successful.”
At a recent conference in Washington for grantees of the federal School Leadership Program, project leaders around the country shared their experiences developing the next generation of leaders.
As the 30,000-student Jackson, Miss., district has beefed up principal training, it has learned the importance of providing parallel training to teachers and principals,said Theresa Green, the executive director of its leadership project. “We have a cadre of teacher leaders who in turn support the principal in the building,” she said.
Melissa DeBartolo, the director of leadership talent management for the 408,000-student Chicago school system, said new principals are often placed in challenging situations.
“We expect them to not only learn how to be a principal, but to turn around a school at the same time,” she said.
In sifting through the 500 or so principal-candidates the district has each year, Ms. DeBartolo said, the challenge often is not finding good instructional leaders, but helping people with management skills, such as having tough talks with staff members.
“We’ve invested a lot in coaching,” she told the other federal grantees, “and it has paid dividends.”
Some districts and universities are teaming up to improve principal preparation.
In Richmond, Va., the school district has joined forces with Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Richmond to create Project ALL, or Authentic Learning for Leaders, a program that trains teacher-leaders who want to become principals.
Darlene Currie, the 24,000-student district’s director of professional development, said district officials wanted to deepen the experience and provide opportunities for more aspiring principals.
“There are some things that can be taught to a principal in terms of management and how to work with your community, but we really wanted them to have the knowledge of instructional strategies,” Ms. Currie said.
Coverage of leadership is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org.
A version of this article appeared in the March 03, 2010 edition of Education Week as Policymakers Urged to Promote Principal Development