School & District Management Opinion

Greening the Next Generation Of Principals

By Robert A. Klempen & Cynthia T. Richetti — December 12, 2001 6 min read
The nation's reservoir of experienced principals is about to become seriously depleted.

School reform is on the run, and for good reason. The nation’s reservoir of experienced principals is about to become seriously depleted, leaving reform to the rookies. Forty percent of our elementary, middle, and high school principals are about to retire, according U.S. Department of Labor statistics.

Passing the leadership baton to the next generation of principals is not necessarily bad. After all, fresh blood can bring fresh approaches and bold new solutions.

But here is the difficulty. In a growing number of districts, superintendents and school board members report that the number of qualified candidates who are motivated to become school administrators is dangerously low. Not a big surprise, considering the overwhelming demands placed on principals, the marginal respect given to them by the broader school community, and the skimpy resources and inadequate support available for changing instructional practices.

If nothing is done to correct the situation, we undoubtedly will be adding “school leadership crisis” to America’s current litany of education woes.

Consider three challenges facing principals and their schools:

Districts are awash in new initiatives, giving rise to ‘initiative fatigue.’

1. Over the last several years, districts have become awash in new initiatives, from curriculum reform to school safety. Initiative fatigue is setting in, even among veteran principals, who spend much of their time fighting pitched battles with faculties and communities reluctant to change current beliefs and practices. While the number of new initiatives has skyrocketed, successful implementation remains a rarity.

2. The locus of authority is shifting radically in districts throughout the country. School-based management has become the latest hurrah, and with it decisionmaking responsibility has been pushed downward. Issues that were once resolved at higher district levels now land on the doorstep of those closest to where the issue originates.

Given the trend toward decentralization, how do principals set parameters, and how should they involve increasingly diverse and demanding stakeholders? How can they better anticipate and avoid potential problems that inevitably accompany change, especially when principals are expected to act at “the speed of thought”? And how can they move reform forward without leaving a trail of change-weary teachers and administrators in their wake?

3. Experience is no longer the valuable teacher it once was. Many of today’s principals have followed the same training track as their predecessors. They have come up through the ranks, counting on experience as the ultimate skill-builder. But unrelenting, rapid change has become the new status quo. In such an environment, experience can take us only so far. Too often, the skills our principals are acquiring by experience are inadequate to meet the complicated demands placed on school leaders today.

To meet the challenge, the “greening” process for developing the skills of our nation’s rookie principals must be rethought. And incidentally, veteran principals could also benefit enormously from retooling. Here is a case in point:

J.S. is a freshly minted principal in a Midwestern middle school with 1,000 students. When he assumed responsibility for the top leadership position, he knew it wouldn’t be a cakewalk. The school was in the throes of a budget crisis. Enrollment was down, and the school population was shifting to a more diverse mix of students. New union contract negotiations were looming, and there were mounting concerns about school safety. The list goes on.

The first thing J.S. did was to do nothing—but think. Task one was to set priorities, which he did by asking which issues were most serious, urgent, and growing. Some of the issues he labeled “problems.” Something had gone wrong, no one knew why, and he had to find the root cause of trouble. Other issues were “decisions": Tough choices had to be made between competing alternatives. Still other issues he labeled “potential problems and opportunities.” These issues appeared dimly on the horizon and had to be dealt with before trouble arrived or an opportunity evaporated.

J.S.'s next move was to involve all relevant parties. But rather than risk the usual free-for-all, he decided to develop the problem-solving, decisionmaking, and planning skills of those shouldering the responsibility for resolution. School administrators and teachers attended a workshop to learn and practice a process that would enable them to attack issues in the same, systematic way. J.S. wanted everyone talking the same language and thinking through issues in a similar manner.

To green tomorrow's principals, begin by giving them the fundamentals.

He knew that one of four different kinds of thinking strategies needed to be applied to each situation. A discrete analytical process—"situation appraisal"—was required to set priorities. “Problem analysis” was needed to find the cause or causes of trouble. “Decision analysis” was the process needed to make choices. To protect a plan from going awry, he knew a leader should use “potential problem analysis.” And finally, to take advantage of opportunities in a timely fashion, “potential opportunity analysis” was the relevant thinking process.

J.S.'s approach proved successful. And his success is instructive. He realized, first, that problem-solving and decisionmaking are too important to be left to chance. These are thinking tasks that need to be honed in order to handle issues effectively and master change.

J.S.'s experience points to a critically important but often overlooked tool in a principal’s arsenal: the use of a shared, systematic approach or process to cut through the tangle of divergent elements, opinions, priorities, possibilities, and needs. A process is a step-by-step approach to asking questions, processing information, making judgments, and taking action.

To green tomorrow’s principals, begin by giving them the fundamentals. Since everything they do requires some combination of setting priorities, solving problems, making decisions, and planning, encourage them to acquire the process skills needed to carry out these mental exercises.

When principals apply a systematic problem-solving and decision making process, they maximize their ability to set priorities and address the problems, decisions, and issues that confront them and their schools.

By converting problem-solving and decisionmaking from an act of intuition and gut feeling to a conscious capability, a systematic process allows experienced and rookie leaders alike to improve their own capabilities and sharpen the decisionmaking skills of other key players. When everyone uses the same systematic process to attack issues, involvement becomes meaningful and effective. While experience remains important, a systematic process enables rookie principals to ask the right questions and assess information, even in those situations where the past is no longer instructive.

A systematic problem-solving and decision making process may not be a panacea, but it is fast becoming an ally in the effort to green tomorrow’s leaders. For both rookie principals and veterans, the surest path to managing schools and implementing reform rests on their ability to zero in on priorities, ask the right questions, examine all the options, assess risk, and involve those around them in a focused search for solutions.

Robert A. Klempen is the executive director and Cynthia T. Richetti is the vice president of the Tregoe Education Forum, a nonprofit foundation based in Princeton, N.J., that specializes in developing the capabilities of school administrators, teachers, and students. Ms. Richetti is the co-author of Analytic Processes for School Leaders, published this year by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. The authors can be reached at info@tregoe.org.

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A version of this article appeared in the December 12, 2001 edition of Education Week as Greening the Next Generation Of Principals


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