School & District Management

Why Good Principals Are Hard to Find and Keep

By Lesli A. Maxwell — June 27, 2014 2 min read
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For starters, it’s a grind of a job. Long hours with huge responsibilities that often aren’t matched with commensurate authority. And the pay is so-so.

Then there are the largely informal, decades-old ways that many districts still use to fill their school leadership positions—by word-of-mouth, when would-be principals already working in a district hear about an opening and apply; or through administrators urging veteran teachers or assistant principals to move into the principal’s office.

Those two factors—among others—have been, and remain, huge barriers to getting the best and brightest principals in the schools that most need them. That’s the crux of the findings in a new report from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, the latest outfit to delve into the school leadership issues that vex so many districts, particularly high-poverty, urban school systems. Fordham’s report—done with analysts at Public Impact—is the second one this week to focus on principals.

So what does Fordham’s close look at the practices of five urban districts (which are not named) reveal about the current state of principal hiring?

The short answer, as the authors of the Fordham report put it:

“Our primary finding is that principal-hiring practices—even in pioneering districts—continue to fall short of what is needed, effectively causing needy schools to lose out on leaders with the potential to be great. Our research suggests, however, that better hiring practices alone are only part of the solution. Districts must also re-imagine the principal’s role so that it is a job that talented leaders want and are equipped to execute successfully.”

Even though the five districts featured in the report have been focused in some ways on improving their recruitment and selection of school leaders in recent years, all of them still struggle with deepening their benches of strong principals and principal-candidates, according to the analysis.

And all of them fall well short of carefully weighing a number of factors to figure out which would-be principals are the best fit for individual schools.

The authors offer a number of steps they think districts should take to improve their candidate pools and roster of sitting school leaders. One, of course, is to significantly increase compensation for principals, who commonly make a similar, or even lower, salary than the veteran teachers they supervise. They also urge a much more aggressive approach to recruiting that extends beyond the internal roster of candidates to include high-quality would-be principals in other districts and even leaders in other fields.

But No. 1 on their list of recommendations: “Make the job more appealing and manageable.”

JoAnn Bartoletti, the executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, agrees that until the school leadership issues raised by the Fordham report are made a priority, widespread improvement in struggling schools will remain elusive.

“Our failure to identify the best candidates and support them once they’re in the principal’s chair dooms any effort at sustained school improvement,” she said. “It takes several years before you see any result in a comprehensive school improvement effort, But in many situations, there’s not enough continuity of leadership to see the initiative through. We need to create the conditions early on, starting with identifying the best candidates, to encourage them to remain.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.