School & District Management Opinion

The Principalship? No Thanks.

By Philip A. Cusick — May 14, 2003 7 min read
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Why teachers won't trade the classroom for the office.

Effective school leadership, in the form of a dedicated, skilled principal, is a key element in creating and maintaining high-quality schools. Improving school leadership is particularly important for poorly performing schools. The federal “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001 brings these tenets front and center by raising the stakes for schools and principals across the country. The legislation allows for the removal of principals if their schools and students fail to meet new standards for adequate yearly progress. Similar provisions in my state’s new school accreditation initiative also put Michigan’s principals in the spotlight of these tough new accountability policies.

This focus on principals comes at a time when the pool of people ready and willing to serve as principals is shrinking. Although the average age of building principals has risen steadily over the past 20 years, and increasing numbers of principals are retiring, the large number of retirements alone does not explain the shortage of candidates. That’s because the position— particularly in secondary schools—has increasingly opened up to women, a significant source of potential candidates who formerly had not been considered.

The pool of principal candidates is shrinking because fewer teachers—who represent the vast majority of principal candidates—are willing to take on the job. This phenomenon is not limited to Michigan. In a recent national study, 60 percent of superintendents said their districts faced a shortage of qualified principal candidates. Another study of teachers who hold principal certification shows that fewer than half are willing to consider the job.

To learn more about how this issue is playing out in Michigan, we at the Education Policy Center at Michigan State University talked to superintendents, human-relations directors, principals, and one administrative team. What we found raises important issues for legislatures, school boards, and professional educators across the country.

With the exception of respondents from the wealthiest districts, everyone we asked said there is a shortage of candidates, with most saying that the number of candidates applying for principal positions is now about half to two-thirds the number it was 15 years ago. A suburban Detroit principal told of getting only four applicants to fill two assistant principal spots. Superintendents across the state echoed the story: Fewer people are applying, and many of those applicants are unqualified.

School boards and superintendents are responding to this decline in the quantity and quality of applicants in different ways. Some are recruiting more actively—for example, drawing recruits from the teachers serving on their school improvement committees. Other districts, often working together and with universities, are developing internship programs in which promising teachers are released to learn about administration. When a large suburban district realized that turnover in one of its high schools stemmed from the principal’s being overburdened, it assigned an additional administrator to the school to take care of curriculum.

Managing a problem is not the same as solving it, however. So, what are the root causes of the decline in the pool of candidates for principalships? One is money.

While principals earn $10,000 to $25,000 more than teachers in annual salary, they also work between 20 and 40 more days per year. A teacher, married to another professional, may not believe that the extra $10,000 to $25,000 per year is appropriate compensation when it is accompanied by extra workdays, longer hours, more responsibilities, and increased stress on the family.

It may be that there is no financial solution to the issue of principal shortages—it may not be practical to raise salaries enough to make the position attractive to veteran teachers already at or near the top of their pay scales. However, one solution may be to hire younger people, for whom the pay differential is significant. Thirty years ago, younger people were being called on to fill Michigan’s administrative slots. In fact, the youngest Class A high school principal in Michigan at that time was 26 years old.

Many would-be administrators, particularly those raising children, look at the time required and decide not to apply.

Another reason given by our respondents for the decline in qualified candidates is that changes in the job itself have made it less attractive. For principals, days are often 10 to 12 hours long, starting between 5:30 and 7 in the morning, and going into the evening with activities and events. Principals neither shirk nor resent the demands. But many would-be administrators, particularly those raising children, look at the time required and decide not to apply. The female vice principal of a 1,750-student high school, recounting her 12-hour workdays, admitted to telling a group of would-be administrators that if they have young families, she would advise them not to apply.

Legislated expectations, increased parental demands, and the expanding number of things schools are expected to do increase the number and kinds of responsibilities that fall to the principal: school improvement, annual reports, accountability, core curriculum, student safety, gender and equity issues, mission statements, goals and outcomes, staff development, curriculum alignment, high-stakes state testing, and accreditation. Some of this increase in activity can be attributed to the way Americans think about schools—that they can be all things to all students. Since there is no discernible limit to students’ needs, schools are constantly adding events, activities, electives, and options, and the principal is expected to attend, or at least show up for a part of, all of them.

One complaint often repeated in our interviews concerned the rules that govern how administrators treat minor disciplinary issues. In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Goss v. Lopez that schools must treat discipline with due process. Perhaps as a result, what used to take the principal 15 minutes now takes days, weeks, or even months.

I should point out that the principals to whom we talked enjoy their jobs, their centrality in their communities, the interaction, activity, and busyness. They do not see the regulations as wrongheaded or harmful. But increased expectations and demands have made the job less appealing to teachers, who see what principals do and decide not to follow in their footsteps. Even in one of Michigan’s premier high schools, a vice principal said, “I see what my principal does, and I don’t want to do it.”

Now add to this list of challenges the idea advocated by state and federal reforms that, in addition to everything else, principals are responsible for student achievement. Many principals understand the logic behind the state’s accreditation standards and the No Child Left Behind Act, and may even endorse the idea that their leadership is a critical factor in whether schools improve learning opportunities for students.

Add to the list of challenges the idea advocated by state and federal reforms that, in addition to everything else, principals are responsible for student achievement.

What seems to make the job less attractive is a lack of coherence between the responsibilities placed on principals by these and other proposed reforms and the more immediate tasks of running the school and attending to parents, who are less interested in test scores than in the way the school treats their children. When it comes to the public’s expectations of principals, superintendents put it plainly: “The community wants the halls clean, the kids in order, the grounds picked up, the place running smoothly.”

President Bush and state officials want no child left behind. The community wants a clean, orderly, and smooth-running organization. Parents—armed with choice, charters, and their children’s state foundation grants—want their children to have a good experience. These overlapping and sometimes conflicting obligations make the principal’s job more burdensome and less appealing to teachers who might otherwise apply.

President John F. Kennedy once remarked that the Chinese word for crisis is made up of two smaller words meaning “dangerous opportunity.” As the quantity and quality of the principal-candidate pool heads toward crisis, policymakers and the education community have an opportunity to rethink how schools operate and redefine the role of the principal in ways that will attract more and better candidates. Whatever they do, policymakers must resist the temptation simply to continue adding to the list of things they expect from school leaders.

Philip A. Cusick is the chairman of the department of educational administration at Michigan State University, in East Lansing, Mich.

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