School & District Management

Principals Seen as Key for Recruiting New School Leaders

By Debra Viadero — May 11, 2010 4 min read
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Principals may play a key role in retaining teachers, “tapping” teachers for the administrative pipeline, and helping good teachers get better, according to new research on schools in Miami-Dade County and New York City.

The studies, presented here on April 30 at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, add to a growing body of research illuminating the role of principals in schools.

“There’s been a surge in demand for a new type of principal,” said Eileen Lai Horng, a research associate at the Institute for Research on Education Policy and Practice at Stanford University. She presented a paper written by her Stanford colleague Jeannie Myung.

“It’s no longer enough to just have administrative certification, so we wanted to examine the informal mechanism for tapping teachers to be principals,” she said.

Zeroing in on the 380,000-student Miami-Dade district, researchers found that 72 percent of elementary school principals said that, as teachers, they had at one point been tapped for the principal pipeline by their building principals. Districtwide, 9 percent of teachers said they had been tapped by their principals.

“It could be a casual remark in the hall or something more formal like release time to do administrative coursework,” Ms. Horng said.

The researchers said principals tended to choose teachers who were more experienced, who already had played leadership roles, who said, in surveys, that they felt more prepared to assume leadership roles, and who were interested in the job. Black and Hispanic, male, and upper elementary-level teachers were also more likely to be tapped in Miami-Dade, the analysis showed, as were teachers of the same race as their principals.

“Principals do seem to be good at identifying leadership potential,” Ms. Horng said, “however, they also may be tapping based on some characteristics unrelated to leadership abilities.”

The study also found that principals rated high for their organizational management skills—such as budgeting or personnel decisions, as opposed to instructional matters—were more likely to tap new administrative talent.

Good or Bad?

Whether the practice of tapping is the most effective way to groom new leaders is difficult to tell from the study, said Michelle Reininger, an assistant professor of human development, social policy, and learning sciences at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.

“Principals also might selfishly be saying, ‘I need to keep that person who is great in the classroom,’ ” she noted, in commenting on the study.

Building a “deep bench” of good principals may be important, researchers said, because principals may be the single most important reason why new teachers stay in schools or leave.

That seemed to be the case, at least, in Marsha M. Ing’s analysis of new elementary teachers in the 1.1 million-student New York City school system. Of the 4,360 first-year elementary teachers in that system during the 2004-05 school year, 386 had left by the time the researchers did a follow-up survey in 2006, and more said they had considered leaving. For better or worse, 40 percent of that overall group mentioned administrative support as a key factor in their deliberations, said Ms. Ing, an assistant professor of education at the University of California, Riverside.

Likewise, said Susanna Loeb, an education professor at Stanford, a value-added analysis of teachers, principals, and schools in Miami-Dade suggests that more-effective principals tend to influence good teachers to get better.

“We don’t have a great measure of the actual contributions of the principal,” said Ms. Loeb. It could also be that solid teacher teams are making the difference for teachers. But, even if that’s the case, she added, “it suggests that superior personnel decisions happen within the tenure of more effective principals.”

The problem, which is highlighted in a third paper at the session, is that good principals may be unevenly distributed among schools, just as good teachers are. In her study of Miami-Dade schools, Demetra Kalogrides and her Stanford colleagues found that schools with higher concentrations of low-achieving students and those in poverty tended, on average, to have less-experienced principals, fewer principals with master’s degrees, and more temporary principals.

A key driver of that imbalance, the researchers found, were high turnover rates among principals in the most challenging schools.

Only 60 percent of principals who start their administrative careers in low-achieving schools remain on the job six years later, the study found. That compares with 40 percent of the principals who started in higher-achieving schools.

The study also found that principals who transfer move to schools where the poverty rate, as measured by the percentage of children getting federally subsidized meals, is on average 12 percent lower.

When researchers asked principals to describe schools where they preferred to work, most cited safety, security, higher achievement, and good resources as important characteristics, said Ms. Kalogrides, who is a research associate in the Institute for Research on Education Policy and Practice.

Principals’ transfers “could reflect a preference for better working conditions rather than an aversion to poor, low-achieving, or minority children,” she said.

Turnover of Assistants

Looking at statewide data in Texas, Ed J. Fuller and Michelle Young, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin, found that churn among assistant principals is greatest in schools with higher concentrations of poor, low-achieving, and minority students. The study also found principals were less likely to leave the job if they had been assistant principals.

“That speaks to the need to give principals more clinical experience than we do now,” Mr. Fuller said, “and the importance of recommending to people that they become assistant principals before they become principals.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 12, 2010 edition of Education Week as Principals Seen as Key for Recruiting New School Leaders

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