"Almost overwhelming." That's how one school principal describes his job. Still, 66 percent of the principals responding to a Public Agenda survey say they would choose the same career if starting out today. Says one, "I know we make a difference."
For district leaders, the challenge is to hire and develop principals who can make the sort of difference called for by NCLB--adequate yearly progress in achievement for all students, in all subgroups.
Three in five superintendents agree they must sometimes "settle" and take what they can get when looking for a principal, according to one survey. What's needed, say Lars Bjork and James Rinehart, is "a continuum of preparation and professional development to support the development of school leaders who can improve educational opportunities for all students."
They recommended increased collaboration between universities and school districts, internships for administrators, and purposeful professional development tied to state initiatives and standards. Some districts are considering alternate certification programs to increase the pool of candidates.
When Emily Feistritzer analyzed data from the National Center for Education, she found no evident trend toward bringing non-traditional candidates into school leadership positions. She did find 15 states with alternative certification routes for principals or programs for non-traditional candidates, although few people have taken advantage of them.
Others who have studied the matter say there is no shortage of qualified candidates (results from a 2003 study show, on average, 17 applicants exist for each job opening in school leadership positions). They say the problem lies in uneven distribution. "High-poverty, high-challenge, low-paying schools attract the fewest candidates," concludes Marguerite Roza and Claudine Swartz.
Three independent research studies commissioned by The Wallace Foundation suggest improvements in job conditions and incentives would bring more candidates. A summary report, based on the studies, recommends three actions: adjust incentives and working conditions to enable non-competitive schools and districts to attract qualified leadership candidates; bring local recruitment and hiring practices into line with heightened expectations for principal performance; and redefine the job itself in ways that allow principals to concentrate on student learning above all else.
What can district leaders do?
Identify school needs Transformational leadership (the ability to act as a collaborator and change agent) is especially important in low-performing schools. But some research suggests a bureaucrat-type principal who can "keep things on course" might be the best choice for schools where effective reforms have already been implemented.
Examine hiring practices It's possible, say researchers, that some of the best candidates are being "weeded out" by human resource directors who focus almost entirely on traditional criteria.
Offer targeted incentives Financial incentives are most needed in schools with challenging working conditions, in schools with higher concentrations of poor and minority students, and in high schools (which attract fewer applicants than elementary schools).
Develop leaders Relevant professional development can help current and potential principals develop leadership skills.
Be realistic Researcher Steve Ross urges reform-minded district leaders to keep expectations for school turnarounds in line with research findings. "Principals need time to develop a strong faculty and school organization. Educational reforms may take three to five years to produce increases on high-stakes tests." Ross recommends ongoing evaluation of a school's success in terms of school climate, program implementation and teaching practices in combination with test scores.
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