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Help Wanted: Qualified Principals

School systems are finding fewer and fewer qualified applicants when they need to hire school principals, according to a new study by the NAESP and NASSP.

School systems will find fewer and fewer qualified applicants when they need to hire school principals, according to a recent survey. Approximately half of the school districts surveyed reported a shortage in the labor pool for K-12 principal positions they were trying to fill for this school year.

Long hours, too much stress, and too little pay for the weighty responsibilities required in running a school are the chief reasons, say those doing the hiring.

The survey and its resulting report -- Is There a Shortage of Qualified Candidates for Openings in the Principalship? An Exploratory Study -- were commissioned by the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) and the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP). The survey is the result of a random sample telephone poll of 403 rural, suburban, and urban districts with enrollments of 300 pupils or more. The survey was conducted by the Educational Research Service (ERS) in January 1998. Each district surveyed filled at least one principalship opening last year.

"We've been listening to warnings from state principals' associations about serious shortages," said Samuel G. Sava, NAESP's executive director. "The results of this poll point to a national shortage."

"Schools are going without principals, retired principals are being called back to full-time work, and districts have to go to great lengths to recruit qualified candidates," said Thomas F. Koerner, NASSP's executive director.

The results of the study point to the need for further study, Sava and Koerner say. They hope the data in the survey will provide some guidance to school systems as they do some long-term planning for the training and recruitment of high-quality leaders.


More than ever, strong school leadership is recognized as a key to school improvement. Strong leaders are needed to set school goals and to develop plans and motivate teachers to achieve those goals.

If statistics are any indication, the need for strong leaders will grow in the years ahead. The Bureau of Labor Statistics expects a 10 to 20 percent increase in the need for school administrators through 2005. Among the new positions, the number of assistant principals is expected to grow as districts hire additional assistant principals rather than open new schools to help with an increasing workload and expanding student enrollment.

But is there a sufficient pool of qualified -- and "quality" -- candidates to fill future openings?


About half of the districts surveyed for this report said they had encountered a shortage of qualified candidates for the principal positions they attempted to fill last year.

However, it is important to point out, survey respondents showed no dissatisfaction with the people they did hire. Indeed, most superintendents felt the candidates they hired were well-prepared and -qualified.

Shortages were reported in all types of schools -- rural, urban, and suburban.

Was There a Surplus, a Shortage, or About the Right Number of Qualified Candidates?
(by community type)
Surplus Shortage About the
Right Number
Rural Schools 8 percent 52 percent 40 percent
Suburban Schools 8 percent 45 percent 47 percent
Urban Schools 7 percent 47 percent 46 percent
All Respondents 8 percent 50 percent 42 percent

Shortages were reported at all levels -- elementary, junior/middle, and high schools.

Was There a Surplus, a Shortage, or About the Right Number of Qualified Candidates?
(by school level)
Surplus Shortage About the
Right Number
Elementary School 6 percent 55 percent 38 percent
Junior/Middle School 6 percent 55 percent 38 percent
High School 9 percent 47 percent 44 percent
All Respondents 8 percent 50 percent 42 percent


Many factors discourage potential principal applicants from applying for current openings, district administrators say. The most frequently mentioned barrier, according to the report, is compensation. Salary isn't sufficient to encourage applications for a job with such immense responsibilities. In addition, the stress and the time demands that come with the job were also mentioned frequently as large discouraging factors. Again, those barriers held across grade levels and community types.

What discourages candidates from applying for principal openings?
Compensation insufficient compared to responsibilities 60 percent
Job generally too stressful 32 percent
Too much time required 27 percent
Difficult to satisfy demands of parents/community 14 percent
Societal problems make it difficult to focus on instruction 13 percent
Fewer experienced teachers interested 12 percent
Testing/accountability pressures too great 7 percent
Job viewed as less satisfying than previously 6 percent
Bad press/PR problems for district add pressure to job 4 percent
Inadequate funding for schools 3 percent
Openings not well publicized 2 percent
Would lose tenure as a teacher 1 percent
No tenure associated with the position 1 percent
Note: This information is based on responses from superintendents who filled at least one principal position in the past year AND reported a shortage of candidates (n=188). Multiple responses were allowed.


Recruiting minority candidates was more often a problem than recruiting female candidates, survey respondents said.

Seventeen percent of all respondents said increasing the number of women in management positions has been an issue in their district; 86 percent said that qualified females were considered for the vacancy they filled last year.

Thirty-five percent of the superintendents indicated that increasing the number of minorities in management positions was an issue in their districts. Only thirty-six percent said that qualified minorities applied for last year's opening.

The great majority of principals are male and White (non-Hispanic), the study states. The percentage of minority principals in public schools, however, did increase from 13 to 16 percent between the school years 1987-88 and 1993-94, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). During the same time period, the percentage of female principals rose from 25 percent to 35 percent.

"Instead of waiting for individuals to self-select administration, educational leaders must be identified and groomed in a systematic way that facilitates the recruitment of potential leaders among women and minorities," concludes a 1992 report about a joint program of the New York City Board of Education and the Bank Street College Principals Institute (From Teaching to Administration: A Preparation Institute, by Crow, Mecklowitz, and Weekes, 1992, Technomic, Lancaster, PA).


According to the survey, very few districts -- about a quarter -- said they have programs to recruit and prepare educators to step into the principal's job. And slightly less than half have formal on-the-job training or mentoring programs for new principals.

John Goodlad addressed the issue of leader development in his 1983 book, A Place Called School. "It is simply not established procedure in the educational system to identify and groom cadres of the most promising prospects for top positions" he wrote. " There should be a continuous district-wide effort to identify employees with leadership potential." School districts must be "willing to make an investment designed to pay off in the future," he added.

A 1993-94 Schools and Staffing Survey did find, however, that more new principals had participated in a local aspiring principals program than had more experienced principals. "Participation in such programs has become increasingly important to the career development of public school principals," according to a 1997 NCES report.


The national principals' associations stress that this survey is a preliminary, or "exploratory," report on the shortage.

"The data collected in this study support the need for further and more intensive efforts to collect information about the availability of qualified applicants for the principalship," states the report's summary.

In addition, the report calls for a renewed effort by universities and school districts to encourage and train likely candidates to consider the role of principals, but it also points to a need for more mentoring programs in school districts, as well as increased pay and better working conditions for school leaders.

"America's public schools both need and deserve high-quality educational and administrative leadership," the report concludes. "If there are present or future problems with ensuring that well-qualified candidates for the positions of principal and assistant principal are available, the time to address the issue is now. Developing a more comprehensive source of information about barriers to attracting good candidates and about ways in which school districts, professional associations, and institutions of higher education can contribute to ensuring that these candidates are prepared and ready to move into leadership positions is an investment that would pay high dividends to our public schools and the children they serve."

The entire report, Is There a Shortage of Qualified Candidates for Openings in the Principalship? An Exploratory Study, complete with charts and graphs, is available online.

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Article by Gary Hopkins, Editor-in-Chief
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