Opinion
School & District Management Commentary

We Need a New Approach to Principal Selection

By Ronald J. Bonnstetter & Bill J. Bonnstetter — May 13, 2013 6 min read

In charting a course to sail your boat around the world, you don’t hire a navigator who still believes the Earth is flat. Yet we continue to ask those vested in our present education system to create a new vision for educating our children. We must move away from the biased opinions of the past to create a new, more effective job description for principals who can turn around failing schools.

While the investment in current principals is significant, it may not necessarily be able to provide the new direction needed. This is because it is based on a paradigm reliant on outdated geography. As W. Edwards Deming, an American scientist who won the National Medal of Technology in 1987 and who helped create the Japanese manufacturing and innovation boom, reportedly said when asked for his view of American education, “If you continue to do what you’re doing, you will continue to get what you’re getting.” We believe, based on experiences working with groups of education leaders and analysis of the skills of educators over the last 30 years, that the present system is fraught with old-school, flat-earth-style methods and self-serving practices.

Let’s look at the facts.

The current American educational system does not work for many. Dropout rates are high. Job satisfaction among teachers remains low. Employers and universities complain students are not adequately prepared. Compared with international students, American students are falling further behind, according to the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment test results. What we have is not effective in the 21st century.

Like other stakeholders, we believe meaningful educational change can only come from effective and visionary leadership. Those charged with reforming education in the United States must identify truly reform-oriented leaders if valid and effective change is to occur. How do we find these people?

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We believe business is one place to begin looking for ideas. Despite the economic recession of recent years, the American economy has been wildly successful and remains the world’s largest. (In 2011, The Economist reported that the state of Michigan had a larger and healthier economy than the country of Taiwan.)

Using ideas from business to reform education disturbs many, but business and schools have much in common. For instance, both require accountability to shareholders, board members, parents, teachers, and governing board members. Business demands profitability; schools demand learning outcomes. In addition, both attempt to put the right people in the right job. In business, this is done using complex systems and large and powerful human resources departments, as well as corporate headhunters who doggedly pursue the most talented individuals. What might happen if we looked to business models to ensure visionary education leadership?

While teachers remain the single largest factor influencing student achievement, strong leadership has an impact on teacher development and retention, as well as student outcomes. Research conducted in 2004 for the Wallace Foundation found 25 percent of student achievement can be traced to the school leader. With such high stakes, hiring the right principal is a key ingredient to the future of education.

Identifying an effective principal requires a clear vision of the job duties, expectations, and required personal attributes. While most selection committees would agree with these criteria, the present selection system ends up being filled with personal biases and status quo mentalities. That’s why we recommend using benchmarking.

Benchmarking is an objective process that surveys stakeholders, team members, management, and employees to determine the key accountabilities of the position. Job benchmarking saves time and money by hiring the right people the first time and reducing the learning curve with new employees who are strategically matched to fit the company.

Simply put, the process of benchmarking allows for a job to “talk” and describe itself, free of the prior constraints of how any one person would do the job. In the process, soft skills, behaviors, and motivators required to be successful in the job are also identified. Once this job is clearly identified and clearly described, applicants can be compared to that benchmark to produce a list of best-fit individuals for consideration.

The concept of benchmarking has been used in business since the 1990s and has been applied to thousands of specific business-related jobs.

In the fall of 2011, working with six nationally recognized reform-oriented educational leaders, we tested this idea of a job-benchmarking strategy for a large philanthropic foundation interested in identifying and funding the training of a new generation of principals.

Encouraged by the potential of applying the concept to education, we were surprised when things took a negative turn. The group with which we worked seemed unable or unwilling to let the job of principal “talk.” Again and again, they could not describe the job without embedding how they would do it. In other words, they carved into the benchmark their own personal biases, and the resulting benchmark was a match with the traditional job of principal.

After reflecting on the failed process, a new group of nationally recognized educators and a business representative was once again convened. This group was also knowledgeable, but not as invested in the present educational system. Drawing from our experience with the first group, we were able to drive home the need to remove self from the discussion and let the job talk. What we found was surprising. Instead of a resistance to change, the assembled school leaders freely talked about new ideas—ideas that could open the doors to professional growth. The benchmark results were very different and quite revealing.

Together, this group generated 37 separate job-related areas, including 23 competencies needed from the new-generation principal. It also revealed six motivations unique to this position, as well as eight particular behavioral traits that the job of an effective school leader demands. For example, the key competencies include: personal effectiveness, leadership, interpersonal skills, goal orientation, futuristic thinking, continuous learning, decisionmaking, persuasion, and creativity/innovation.

We then turned to our database of assessments of over 74,000 employed adults. We extracted and reviewed the results from the subset of those educators and found K-16 educators typically emphasize a very different set of competencies. The new, objective benchmark provided a novel job description that may translate into greater job effectiveness and a much-needed new approach.

We recognize hiring leaders with the right qualities still may not be enough for education reform to take hold. But rethinking the roles of principals and creating a new criterion that reflects an openness to change and an ability to execute will be a positive first step. If armed with a solid benchmarking process, schools, including university schools of education, can screen applicants and ultimately hire a new generation of more effective leaders, who are not basing their work on the beliefs of the past. Building a program with candidates who possess these job-related characteristics has proven to be crucial for success in many fields outside of education. We believe it is worthy of a chance within education.

A version of this article appeared in the May 15, 2013 edition of Education Week as We Need a New Approach to Principal Selection

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