Principal selection methods matter

Common Core implementation means human resource managers should update principal selection methods
By: | Issue: August, 2015
July 7, 2015

Principal selection has not significantly changed since the 1950’s and is often unsystematic. While the role of the principal has evolved greatly over the last 60 years, the methods used for selection have remained stagnant. In the 1950’s, principals’ duties centered primarily on staffing and facility management. Today, school principals may be responsible for tens of millions of dollars between facilities, personnel, and discretionary funding. Most importantly, principals are responsible for the student achievement of hundreds to thousands of students at any given school across the United States. As school districts continue Common Core implementation, District human resource managers should consider updating their principal selection methods to ensure the most-qualified principals are leading their schools.

Despite a principal’s significant responsibility as instructional leader, personnel manager, community leader, and facility manager, a résumé, interview, and reference checks are far too often all that stand between a principal candidate and the principalship. Interviews, which are a staple of the selection process, are well known for their weaknesses since interview questions are often vague, unanswerable, and have low predictability of actual performance. While it is understandable many principal candidates come from within districts and may not seem to require additional processes, a significant number of candidates are also hired from outside of districts. Regardless, districts should consider rigorous selection processes to ensure the most-qualified principal candidate is selected. Can your current methods be strengthened? Are there more reliable methods that can be added to your current processes of selecting principals? The answer to these questions is an unequivocal yes!

The Importance of the Principal

Despite the über scrutiny of public schools since NCLB in 2001, principals have largely gone unnoticed by the public for their school’s performance, even though districts often hold principals accountable as measured by student achievement. Principals are considered by numerous researchers to be the second biggest factor in a school’s performance (i.e., student achievement), and can affect a school both positively and negatively. Yet principal selection methods are often an afterthought. If the principal is of second importance to the success of a school, why are the methods of selection not commensurate with that importance?

Brief History of Principal Selection

Principal selection has seldom been the focus of research over the last sixty years. Based on a review of previous research, the golden age of principal selection may have occurred more than half a century ago during the 1950’s. Early principal selection researchers catalogued methods that often supersede the most common methods used today. In addition to resumes, interviews, and reference checks, selection committees in the 1950’s would often visit the site of a prospective principal candidate and observe and score potential principal candidates. Principal candidates were rated by visiting selection committees based upon their performance of daily duties such as holding meetings or interacting with students, staff, parents, and/or community members. It was also not uncommon for principal candidates to undergo written testing for selection committees to base their decision on as much information as possible. One early researcher noted the following in 1954: “Recent years have seen efforts to improve methods of selecting supervisory-administrative personnel in industry and in schools. Methods of selecting school supervisors are likely to advance further as the changed nature of supervisory positions in modern schools and the desired characteristics of schools supervisors are further clarified and as resources become available for inquiry and experimentation with existing and new methods.” This brave new world of principal selection never came to fruition. As the role of the principal evolved, it appears the methods for selection did not. Principal selection researchers reported over the following decades that principal selection remained unchanged and continued to rely on the most unreliable and least predictive selection methods. Principal selection research culminated in 2007, with an article titled Call to Action for Superintendents: Change the Way you Hire Principals from the Journal of Educational Research in which the subject superintendents were unable to articulate how the selection methods they employed measured the attributes they felt were important for principals to possess. Improvement in principal selection is needed and there are many best practices and strategies districts can use to strengthen principal selection processes.

Updating Principal Selection Procedures

There are many best practices and strategies districts can use to strengthen principal selection processes. Two simultaneous approaches can be taken by district leadership to enhance principal selection processes. First, school districts can improve their current practices. Second, superintendents should encourage experimentation with methods not currently in use.

Strengthening current methods could include:

During screening, include blind reviews of submitted materials with rubric-based scoring to avoid bias.
Determine selection criteria (what knowledge, skills, and abilities you are looking for) prior to beginning the selection process and adhere to the selection criteria throughout the selection process.
Form large initial candidate pools considering both internal and outside candidates from large geographic areas, even nationally if necessary. Consider professional development for selection personnel so they can better adhere to protocols and avoid biases.
Have wide-stakeholder involvement in selection proceedings (i.e., screening, interviews, decision making).
Ensure interview questions elicit the selection criteria sought by the district and that candidate responses can be measured by a scoring rubric.
Decisions are rendered based upon determination of the most-qualified candidate as measured by the protocol. Network with adjacent district’s Human Resource/Personnel Departments to collaborate and share best selection practices.

Experimentation may include:

Performance tasks measured with scoring rubrics. This could include a response(s) to a prompt(s) based on a real school issue or situation by a candidate’s written statement or presentation. See: Applying Standards for Leaders to the Selection of Secondary Schools in the Journal of Educational Administration by Wildy, Pepper, and Guanzhong, 2011, for an excellent example of a performance task procedure with a rigorous scoring protocol.
Develop protocols and scoring rubrics for site visit(s) to the current school of a principal candidate by selection panel members. Written tests which enable selection personnel to ascertain the type of person a candidate is or what their strengths and weaknesses may be. Another alternative for Superintendents to consider experimentation with to better select principals is to extend the evaluation period of a candidate.
Long before interviews even take place, comprehensive principal induction/intern programs can be used to develop and mentor principal candidates so they are well prepared for the rigors of the principalship. Broward County Public Schools (BCPS) in Florida has previously developed an intern principal program and also had been recognized numerous times for exemplary practices in principal selection methods. Additionally, BCPS was awarded a Race to the Top Grant in 2011 in partnership with Florida Atlantic University for the development of an intensive principal preparation program. BCPS’s rigorous intern principal program included assessments, field experience, monthly seminars, professional development, and an action research project in order to prepare candidates for the principalship. Similar programs have also been used in other school districts across the United States. Superintendents wanting to implement an intern program should consider modeling their program after BCPS’s Intern Principal Program or Denver Public Schools, Lead in Denver program.

The superintendent’s role in principal selection may vary depending upon many factors. However, superintendents are ultimately responsible for their district and its schools, therefore great diligence should be taken to ensure the most-qualified principal candidates are selected for principalships through rigorous selection processes. It is important for school districts to take it upon themselves to strengthen and experiment with principal selection methods for two important reasons. First, the call to place more importance on principal selection methods may not come from anywhere else. Second, the student achievement of school children demands it as principals are significant factor in determining the success of their schools.

Brandon Palmer is a National Board Certified Teacher and conducts research on principal selection through the Doctoral Program in Educational Leadership Center for Research and Publication at California State University Fresno.