School & District Management

Report: How to Grow a Farm Team for Principals

By Lesli A. Maxwell — December 10, 2013 3 min read
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When a pitcher gets hurt and hampers a team’s starting rotation, Major League baseball managers have robust minor league rosters to tap for a well-prepared replacement.

What would it take for school districts to cultivate a similar bench of talent to draw from when they need new principals—especially principals to lead the most challenged public schools?

Bain & Company, the global management-consulting firm based in Boston, takes on those questions and more in a new report on school leadership released last week. Written by members of Bain’s education consulting division, the report outlines common barriers to grooming more high-quality school leaders and strategies for how districts and charter-management organizations can think and operate more like professional sports managers when it comes to developing principal talent.

“First, we don’t have enough people who want to [be principals],” said Chris Bierly, the head of Bain’s education practice and a coauthor of the report. “And then the roles that people are in that should be steppingstones to becoming principals aren’t developmentally rich enough to give them the skills they need.”

Appeal Lacking

Bain, which conducted surveys of teachers, teacher-leaders, assistant principals, and principals working in seven districts and in five charter-management organizations for its report, found that most teachers and teacher-leaders who responded have no interest in becoming school leaders. And even among the assistant principals surveyed—positions that should be obvious steppingstones to running a school—more than one-third said they didn’t want the top job.

Mr. Bierly said the survey also exposed a divide between how principals and teachers view school leadership positions. Most principals reported high satisfaction with their work and said they had been placed in a position where they could be successful. But when teachers were asked about the appeal of the principal’s job, they saw it as a much less attractive option.

“If you as a school system aren’t actively promoting the benefits and the appeal of moving down a leadership pathway, and your school leaders themselves aren’t the spokespeople for those jobs, you are leaving something very important on the table,” Mr. Bierly said.

Andrés A. Alonso, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, agreed that many school systems haven’t set up a “deliberate system” of developing school leaders and that much of the conversation about the work of principals is how hard it is rather than how fulfilling it can be.

“There is clearly a need to balance that narrative,” said Mr. Alonso, who was the chief executive officer of the Baltimore schools for six years, a position he left last spring.

But, he said, there needs to be more acknowledgement that successful principals now have to be political, managerial, and instructional leaders.

“To help leaders be all of those things requires much more purposeful and rigorous systems to get them there,” he said.

He also cautioned against an overreliance on the “heroic principal.”

“Leadership matters tremendously, but districts and schools need to think about developing leadership teams in every building and supporting all of them,” he said.

The Bain report makes the case that school districts can start building up an in-house cadre of talent to draw on through several steps that include filling more positions, such as those for assistant principals and teacher leaders, with people who have strong potential to become principals.

Mr. Bierly said he’s been sharing the report with “any superintendent who will listen.”

Bain’s education team works with numerous school districts, charter-management organizations, and other groups such as Teach For America and StudentsFirst, former District of Columbia Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee’s advocacy group. Mr. Bierly said the team does much of its education work pro bono, and gives away roughly $30 million in consulting services to the education sector annually.

This report, he said, is meant to be in that same vein.

“We did not do this to make a buck,” he said. “We want to be in a position to provide additional counsel on a pro bono basis for people who want to go to the next level on this important issue.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 11, 2013 edition of Education Week as Report Shares Strategies for Growing Principals

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