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Looking Beyond Schools for School Leaders

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Since many think the traditional ways of training and finding new principals are not producing enough qualified candidates -- or enough who want the jobs -- a study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute recommends looking to the outside for the next wave of school leaders. Included: The potential benefits of expanding the pool of school leaders.

School administrators should come from the educational arena, since working through the teaching and administrative ranks is the best preparation for the job, so conventional wisdom goes.

Not necessarily, according to a study, Better Leaders for America's Schools: A Manifesto, published by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

The traditional methods of finding principals and superintendents -- recruiting them from other districts, or from among certified people within a district -- simply are not yielding enough candidates with the necessary skills, said Terry Ryan, program director for the Ford Foundation and Fordham Institute.

"Why can't we expand the pool?" Ryan asked. "Why does the training have to go through an education setting? We're advocating that principals become more like CEOs. In too many settings, they are not given the resources, responsibility, or authority they need."


States and districts should expand alternate routes to certification programs, and make it easier for retired business executives and military officers, or those looking for a career change, to become school administrators, the report said. Many in the private sector and the military have the leadership and management skills today's administrators need.

More districts are open to the idea of hiring superintendents from another field than principals, since superintendents often are viewed as CEOs, Ryan noted.

While the number and scope of principals' responsibilities have grown tremendously over the past few years, their training, authority, and salaries have not kept up with those changes. Most principals put in the same amount of hours as a business executive, but they don't make nearly the amount of money or have close to the decision-making authority a CEO would have, according to the report.

The bulk of training for administrators recruited from other fields could come from mentoring programs in which new principals work with seasoned ones to get the experience they need, Ryan said.

"Then give them the authority to manage the school as if they were a platoon leader or CEO of a small business," he added.


While agreeing that more needs to be done to prepare, recruit, and better compensate solid administrators, leaders of principal organizations are reluctant to open the door too wide to other professions.

Dick Flanary, director of professional development services for the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP), agreed that traditional preparation programs are not always adequate for administrators, but he still thinks it is important for principals to have that training.

"Universities traditionally have been the institutions responsible for preparing school leaders, and the school districts have been responsible for readiness -- and there is a gap between preparation and readiness," Flanary told Education World. "The proponents [of recruiting administrators from outside of education] say good leaders are good leaders, no matter where they work. Certainly, schools need good leaders. But they all need a key understanding of teaching and learning. That is potentially a huge gap to make up.

"I just think because someone is a successful leader in business, industry, or the military, that doesn't mean they will be successful leaders in education."

Rosemarie Young, president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP), and principal of the Watson Lane Elementary School in Louisville, Kentucky, also would like to see the existing preparation programs improved before looking to other professions.

"Most principals I know say their university programs did not prepare them adequately," Young told Education World. "They wanted more hands-on experience and more of a chance to try out the job. We need to set up more mentors and support -- and we need to do it before and after they start their job."

Still, the university programs give candidates valuable background, she said. "I probably would not go outside of education unless you really have to," Young said. "Especially with younger children, you need someone well-grounded in instruction and child development. Businesses and schools are different. I understand filling the role is difficult in a lot of cases, but I'm not sure that [recruiting from other fields] would be a solution because the job is so demanding.

"There are two parts to being a principal: management and instruction. If you don't have someone in place with an instructional background, you need someone on board who has those skills, or it needs to be stressed in alternate certification programs," she continued. "I think most principals like dealing with the instructional component. They are not as comfortable with the management part. In the best of both worlds, you have someone grounded in both."


Ryan, though, said that educators and communities have to relinquish the idea of hiring administrators who have experience in all aspects of education and management.

"What we're advocating is to get away from the super hero," he told Education World. "Just have a leader. A school leader need not be an expert on everything, like technology and curriculum development. He or she has to know something about these areas, but needs to know how to hire good people."

Much of the traditional thinking about what principals need to know simply has gone unchallenged, he added. "The belief that there is a knowledge set of curriculum and assessment that principals must have is not backed up by any research -- it's an act of faith."

Also, treating principals more like CEOs would mean giving them the authority to make changes to get the results they want and need in an era of greater accountability.

"If we are going to hold principals accountable for schools, then we need to give them more authority for running the schools," Ryan said. "Most school leaders either resist assessment and accountability or don't know how to use data to improve instruction. You can't think of that as another burden for the principal. A principal can learn quickly to hire someone to oversee curriculum and assessment."


Another critical piece in administrator recruitment is making the job more attractive, by increasing salaries to reflect principals' many responsibilities and long hours.

"It's no wonder we have difficulty attracting people to the job," Flanary said. "The level of responsibility has increased tremendously. I left the principalship in 1985. It might as well have been a century ago.

"The [higher] level of accountability about student learning is there now. Now people are more concerned about what teachers are doing. What gets measured, gets done."

Another problem is the disparity between the number of certified people and those who actually become administrators.

"There are lots of people with certification who don't become principals," Young said. "Maybe we need to talk with them to see why they are not applying for the jobs."

Teachers receive a salary increase when they earn administrative certification, but many don't apply for jobs because they don't see the slight pay increase as adequate compensation for all the extra duties, the study noted.

"If you look at teachers at the top of the salary scale, and look at the hours administrators put in, it's not equal," Flanary said. "Salaries certainly are an issue. A lot of principal candidates say slightly higher salaries are not worth the responsibility. These are people who oversee transportation, food service, safety, and staff. In the business world [someone with those responsibilities] would be compensated at a much higher level than what we pay principals."

Districts may have to reconsider the practice of automatically increasing teachers' salaries when they complete certification, he added.

"A lot of teachers go on the books as certified, but never have any intention of becoming a principal," Flanary said. "Yet, they get the salary bump. Maybe they will be better teacher leaders.

"But I think we should look at not rewarding teachers who get degrees out of field. Maybe we should be more careful about rewarding teachers who are taking courses that don't affect kids."


As a follow-up to "Better Leaders for America's Schools: A Manifesto," Ryan said the Fordham Institute is planning a study designed to answer the question: What hinders the ability of school leaders to take real control of their schools? That includes control of staffing -- the ability to hire and fire and the ability to control one's budget, provide varied pay to teachers based on things other than years of experience, provide performance pay, and set the school's academic calendar.

"We are working to do a study that will help us better understand if the constraints principals feel are real, based on things like collective bargaining agreements, state and federal laws, or if they are more culture/myth based -- that is, 'this is the way we've always done it, so why change now?' There even could be a simple misunderstanding of what's possible because principals don't know all the rules and regulations."

Whatever the approach, Young and Flanary agree that more needs to be done to attract quality administrators. "I think we are closing the gap between preparation and readiness," Flanary said. "What we really need are some champions of the principalship."

Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Education World®
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