The principalship needs to be redefined to become a magnet for education leaders, a new report argues. But to be successful, it warns, they will need very different types of preparation.
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The report, prepared by a panel of educators and policymakers, underscores growing concern about a leadership crisis in public education.
“At risk is nothing less than the success of U.S. schools,” it says in calling for broad public attention to the issue.
The panel was convened by the Institute for Educational Leadership under its School Leadership for the 21st Century Initiative. With funding from the U.S. Department of Education and private foundations, the nonprofit, Washington- based institute put together four panels this year to study school leadership issues and recommend strategies for improvement.
Many of the ideas in the report on principals echo current calls for retooling the profession and rewriting the rules for college-based training programs. Future reports in the series will help broaden the discussion by focusing on teachers, state schools chiefs, and local school boards.
“We feel the issue is too important to be a food fight within the education world,” said Michael D. Usdan, the president of the institute and the director of the two-year initiative.
The panel on principals that wrote last week’s report was chaired by Paul Schwarz, a former New York City principal and past national principal-in-residence at the Education Department, and Joseph Murphy, the president of the Ohio Principals Leadership Academy and a professor at Ohio State University.
The task force calls for principals to be focused on leadership for student learning and asks communities to “reinvent the principalship.” Individuals in such jobs, it says, should be knowledgeable about instruction, understand the school’s role in the community, and have a vision for where the school is headed.
The report includes questions community leaders should ask themselves as they determine the types of school leaders they want, such as “What are the expectations of principals at the local level?” and “What should they know how to do?”
Part of the concern about the principalship stems from the typical building leader’s long list of duties, the task force notes.
Principals are faced with performing age-old managerial roles such as coordinating buses, attending events, and handling discipline. At the same time, however, they are expected to play an expanded role in monitoring instruction, guiding teachers, and planning for effective professional development.
“The leader’s role is about instruction, about leading their community, about being a visionary,” said Bobbie Eddins, a member of the task force and the executive director of the Texas Principals Leadership Initiative, an Austin-based nonprofit organization formed to coordinate principals’ training in the state.
The panel believes that one person can’t handle all those roles well, and that schools must find different ways of handling the variety of leadership duties.
“Is it reasonable to expect one person to be this Renaissance man or woman?” Mr. Usdan said.
Some schools in Texas are trying to distribute duties, such as budgeting and community-leadership roles, among teachers and others in the building, Ms. Eddins said. Some high schools have even hired business managers to oversee budgets of large schools, leaving principals “to be leaders of learning,” she said.
Another major concern is the shortage of well-qualified candidates for the principalship, the report says, since some candidates have been scared away by its responsibilities. The report says, for example, that three out of four principals will retire in Minnesota within 10 years, even while public school enrollment expands by 10 percent.
The problems with recruiting principals are related to the job’s long list of responsibilities, said Doris Alvarez, the principal of the Preuss School, a 400-student charter school on the campus of the University of California, San Diego, in La Jolla, Calif.
Ms. Alvarez, a task force member and former high school principal in San Diego and National Principal of the Year, said the salaries paid to principals don’t match the time and energy spent on the job.
In addition to the many tasks that fall under principals’ job descriptions, she said, the heavy burden of current school accountability measures could deter people from entering the profession.
“So many people are reluctant to get into that situation,” she said.
Shared accountability with teachers, parents, and district officials would be more effective and attract more highly capable candidates for principals’ jobs, Ms. Alvarez said.
Too many principals are limited by superiors who force them to hire teachers they wouldn’t normally want, she said. And she suggested some schools might wish to split administrative duties such as budgeting and building management away from instruction, although she believes all school leaders must be involved in student activities.
That approach has been popular, for example, in England and Wales, where some school heads work in tandem with business managers called bursars. ( “British ‘Heads’ Reign With Broad Power,” Sept. 20, 2000.)
In releasing the first report on leadership, Mr. Usdan said one goal was to spread the information to business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to help broaden the discussion to those outside the education community. “This issue is too important to kind of be the issue of the year,” he said.
And while the challenges of improving the job as a whole must be made apparent, role models exist almost everywhere, Ms. Alvarez stressed.
“There are good examples of leadership and the principalship in our country,” she said. “We have good examples throughout— certainly not enough.”
Other members of the task force on principal leadership include Richard Barbacane, the principal of Buehrle Alternative School in Lancaster, Pa.; David Domenici, the director of the Maya Angelou Public Charter School in Washington; Karen Dyer, a manager at the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, N.C.; Libia Gil, the superintendent of schools in Chula Vista, Calif.; and Jane Norwood, the vice chairwoman of the North Carolina state board of education and an education professor at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C.