School & District Management

Study Finds Good Supply Of Principals, But Not for All Types of Schools

By Jeff Archer — April 16, 2003 3 min read
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A group of researchers who set out to gauge the scope of the national shortage of principals has come back with a surprising finding: There is none.

Read the report, “A Matter of Definition: Is There Truly a Shortage of School Principals?,” from the Center on Reinventing Public Education. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.) An executive summary is also available.

Despite worries about a scarcity of school leaders, the country has a more than ample supply of principals, say the authors of a new report from the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Rather than a general dearth of administrators, the report contends, the real challenge facing the nation is getting the right leaders to the right schools. Districts tend to draw far fewer applicants for vacancies at schools serving the most needy populations, it says. And many of those applying for principalships appear to lack the some of the key skills that district leaders now view as important.

“There are plenty of certified people that are out there to fill all the positions in the country—way more than there are openings,” said Marguerite Roza, a senior research fellow at the center and the study’s lead investigator. “The problem is not that there is a shortage. It’s that there are certain places where candidates are not interested in working.”

The report’s conclusions draw on surveys and telephone interviews with officials in 83 school systems across the country. Researchers picked the districts—most of which are in large metropolitan areas—because of their location in regions that had been thought to be having difficulty in filling principal positions.

What they found is that, on average, districts get 17 applicants for each opening for a principalship—only about two fewer than seven years ago, according to estimates. At the same time, however, one-third of the districts studied reported getting six applicants or fewer, while another third said they got 21 or more.

Further, this gap in applicants’ interest seems to be widening over time. Most likely to report declines in their applicant pools were schools at the secondary level, those in the fast-growing Southern and Sunbelt regions, and those in low-income areas.

Policy Lessons

Ms. Roza said the results point up the need for policies that target the schools having the hardest time recruiting leaders. She suggested paying more to principals at the most challenging schools.

A few districts have begun to do just that, including the 737,000-student Los Angeles school system and the 161,000-student Palm Beach County, Fla., schools. (“Challenges Will Help Decide Principals’ Pay,” March 26, 2003.)

The report’s authors also make the case for recruiting more nontraditional school leaders. Although many of the superintendents surveyed stressed the importance of leadership qualities—such as the ability to motivate a staff—human resources officials who were interviewed for the study seemed to put greater emphasis on teaching experience in hiring principals.

Some experts, however, caution that opening the field to more people with less education experience, by itself, isn’t likely to solve the problem.

If principals avoid certain schools and districts, then something must be done to improve the working conditions for administrators in those places, said Kimberly Jinnett, the senior evaluation officer at the New York-based Wallace Funds.

“I do think it would be a big mistake if the only thing taken away from this was, ‘Let’s hire nontraditional candidates,’ ” she said.

The Wallace Funds, which sponsored the study, is paying for two other research projects aimed at better understanding the labor market for principals. A synthesis of findings from all three is slated for release at the end of next month.

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