Opinion
School & District Management Commentary

Chat Wrap-Up: Finding and Keeping Good Principals

August 08, 2006 6 min read

On July 19, questions concerning the training, hiring, and retention of principals were answered by Richard A. Flanary, the director of professional-development services for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, in Reston, Va., and Richard Laine, the director of education programs at the Wallace Foundation, in New York City. Below are excerpts from the discussion.

Read a full transcript of this chat.

Question: What is your definition of a “good” principal?

Laine: A principal who can build a team that creates a school where all students and adults learn can be considered “good.” More specifically, an effective principal and his or her team share the responsibility and accountability to communicate high expectations for every student; engage teachers, students, parents, and community members in the work of meeting those expectations; use data to plan strategically and drive decisionmaking; allocate resources (people, time, money) to address priority needs; provide professional development for themselves, teachers, and leaders that improves performance; and build a culture of success for all children.

To not just be considered “good” but actually perform as such in schools where they are needed most, effective principals must also be able to dramatically improve high-needs schools; close the achievement gap; and continuously improve the achievement of all students to meet high expectations.

Question: What qualifications are hiring districts seeking when searching for an administrator with no prior experience?

Flanary: In this situation, school districts generally are looking for a person who can lead people, lead instruction, manage the business of the school, and manage his or her own personal growth. Specifically, the ability to be a collaborative leader, the ability to set the instructional direction in the school by establishing and communicating a vision about teaching and learning, the ability to ensure that the business of the school is conducted in an efficient manner, and the ability to continually build one’s own capacity as a leader.

Question: How can you prove that you are the ideal candidate for an administrative position, particularly when you are dealing with a system that seems to promote and train only those with connections, regardless of others’ potential?

Flanary: Unfortunately, the “good ol’ boy” system is still alive and well. Take advantage of leadership opportunities that you already have in your current position. Create new opportunities for yourself by volunteering for special assignments and advocating for instructional improvements. In addition, consider taking an introspective look at your skills and abilities through assessments that give you an analysis of your strengths and improvement needs. An independent analysis of your strengths provides you with data that furthers your candidacy for a job by allowing you to illustrate how your strengths compliment the advertised position.

Question: What changes are being made to preservice programs to improve how we train future education administrators and instructional leaders?

Laine: Across the country, a great deal more attention is being paid to clinical experience in preservice programs; that is, getting prospective administrators into the field early in their preparation, allowing them to gain real-world knowledge of what the job entails and learn from those in the profession.

Additionally, more and more universities are viewing districts as their customers and collaborating closely with them to ensure that new leaders are both prepared and qualified to meet the demands of the jobs they will face. As one example, Springfield public schools, a district in Massachusetts that Wallace has been working with for five years, took advantage of a state policy that enables districts to certify principals so it could more clearly define the leaders it wanted for its schools, and then changed its relationship with the local universities to make their programs more responsive and relevant to its needs.

I encourage you to read “Developing Successful Principals,” a Wallace-funded research project conducted at Stanford University that reviews important findings on high-quality training for principals.

Question: What are effective ways to provide support for new principals?

Laine: Support that is essential for any new principal includes on-site mentoring during the first one to three years and a network of colleagues. Mentors must understand the context new principals are working in and be trained in their role—an excellent principal is not necessarily an excellent mentor. To make principalship less isolating, many districts are creating cohorts or networks of principals that go through training together and have ongoing opportunities to learn as a group, so they know others in the same position whom they can turn to for assistance.

Beyond additional support in the ongoing development of leaders, it is important for the district to ensure that a principal’s priorities are focused on improving instruction and learning. Oftentimes that is just one of a thousand priorities for a principal. So districts need to reconsider the roles and responsibilities of the principal and other school leaders, align the principal’s authority with priorities, and make certain that the district and state create the conditions or systems that enable school leaders to be successful in improving student achievement.

Question: How important is continuity? Is there a minimum number of years a principal should be given to improve a failing school? And if a strong principal is well-liked and succeeding at one school, should the district leave him or her there, or transfer the principal to a struggling school?

Flanary: Continuity is important not only in principals but also throughout school staffs. Principals and their teams need time to successfully implement programs and strategies to improve student achievement. Districts often move successful principals to struggling schools because these principals are able to institutionalize programs that will remain as catalysts for performance after they are gone.

Question: Seymour Sarason has said, “Place a good person in a bad system, and the system will win every time.” What can states and districts do to improve conditions for leadership?

Laine: That is a powerful statement, and one that influences the thinking behind Wallace’s education leadership initiative. More and more leaders at the state and district levels are finally coming to the realization that we cannot train our way out of the current issues facing public education. Better-trained leaders should not have to beat the system for their kids to succeed.

I encourage leaders at the state and district levels to focus on the policies that influence who leads, the required training of these leaders, and the conditions within which leaders work. And they have to understand that they are part of the same system—they need to do this work in alignment. In terms of some of the conditions, higher-level leaders should focus on having assessment and data systems that provide credible, actionable, and timely data; having accountability systems that concentrate incentives on improving learning; ensuring that school leaders have the authority to align resources to meet student needs; and creating the opportunity for relevant partners at each level of the system to contribute to students’ success and be held accountable when success for all students is not achieved.

A version of this article appeared in the August 09, 2006 edition of Education Week as Chat Wrap-Up: Finding and Keeping Good Principals

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