Better Working Conditions Needed to Attract Quality Principals to All Schools

May 30, 2003


Better Working Conditions Needed to Attract Quality Principals to All Schools

A recent policy forum held by The Wallace Foundation and the American Youth Policy Forum in Washington, D.C., says the difficulty some schools face in attracting a quality principal is not due to a shortage of certified candidates, according to three independent research studies commissioned by The Wallace Foundation. The Wallace policy brief, Beyond The Pipeline: Getting the Principals We Need, Where They Are Needed Most, is a synthesis of findings from the three research reports.

Instead, researchers learned that prospective candidates need working conditions that will support them in improving student achievement and incentives to attract them to the most challenging schools and districts. “We are regularly warned that large numbers of current principals are nearing retirement age and that there are fewer candidates for job openings,” said Christine DeVita, president of the New York-based Wallace Foundation. “This sounded very much like a labor supply problem that would have supply-based solutions,” DeVita recently told some 80 educators and policymakers during an American Youth Policy Forum on Capitol Hill. “What we learned surprised us.”

The Wallace Foundation, one of the largest national foundations that focus on K-12 public education, with assets of approximately $1.2 billion, decided in 2000 to commit up to $150 million to find ways to develop and support effective school leadership that can drive improvements in student learning. The three studies, although different in focus, came back with unexpectedly similar results.


Susan Gates, an economist at RAND and author of one study, actually found no evidence of a shortage in the labor force and plenty of certified candidates. “There is remarkable stability – not what we would expect for a labor market in crisis,” Gates said. “The broad national picture looks good, but there still are local problems.”

Some high-growth regions, particularly the West, have a greater need for school administrators. There is also wide variation in the incentives offered to would-be school administrators at the state, regional and district level, Gates noted. Problems inherent in specific districts in attracting quality principal applicants won’t be solved by a single “broad brush of nationally based policies,” Gates said, but rather a closer look at barriers that might exist at individual school or districts.

Researchers from the University at Albany, State University of New York (SUNY), found hiring practices favored candidates with extensive education experience. Many educators become first-time principals after long teaching careers and retire by age 55 or 60, leading to short principal careers and high turnover. In 2000, some 66 percent of principals hired were at least 50 years old.

“There is a large pool of relatively young individuals who are certified to be principals but are not holding these jobs,” said Richard Laine, director of education programs at The Wallace Foundation and moderator of the panel discussion. “While ‘younger’ doesn’t necessary mean ‘better,’ we may be ignoring some capable leaders with less or different experience.” After analyzing data from 83 school districts, Marguerite Roza, senior research fellow at the Center for Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, found a disconnect between what superintendents are looking for and what human resources departments think superintendents are looking for in a principal. Often those in HR interpret the demand for improved leadership quality as a call for more experience in education – all but eliminating those with limited teaching experience who have other leadership skills, she said.

Roza, author of one of the studies, also found wide disparities in the number of candidates who applied for openings in various school districts. A school in wealthy Mountain View, California, attracted 40 applicants for its vacant principal slot, while just a few miles down the road a school in San Jose, a district facing far more challenges, had only one or two. “Candidates are avoiding certain districts, certain schools,” Roza said. “The districts with the fewest applicants were those with the most challenging working conditions, higher concentrations of poor and minority students, lower per-pupil expenditures and lower salaries for principals.”

In a follow-up to the New York study, researchers surveyed those certified but not currently working as principals. Some 85 percent said they would be willing and able to step into the position under the right conditions.


Rather than a supply shortage, the issue has become how to attract and retain qualified candidates to the schools that need them the most, Laine said. “How do we support them to succeed?”

The nation’s 12th largest school system, Fairfax County, Virginia, has moved away from the typical “advertise, interview and select” process of hiring principals, said Daniel Domenech, superintendent of schools. “We’re recruiting. We’re looking for people who can do the job and training them before we put them in the job,” Domenech said. “We don’t give them the keys to the school and say see you in three years when we have your review. We provide a support structure.” “As a superintendent, if a school is failing, I am failing,” said Domenech, whose school district is one of 12 across the country who receive funding from The Wallace Foundation as part of its Leadership for Educational Achievement in Districts project.

Among the supports in place in Fairfax are mentor programs where long-time principals and retired principals help new ones learn the job. They also use a team of people to help find solutions to problems within the school rather than placing it solely on the shoulders of new principals. The school district looks for every way to support its schools, he said.

Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of Great City Schools, a national organization that represents large, urban public school districts, agreed with the importance of support systems. “When we don’t support principals, we set them up to fail,” he said. “Then we wonder why it is we have a tough time finding them.”


The issue of money was raised – especially for disadvantaged schools. Several people attending the forum voiced concern during the question and answer period about inequality of resources and how poorer school districts can compete for quality principals.

Casserly acknowledged the difficulty, but added that systemwide success can occur if the focus on successful leadership, teaching and learning stems from the top. “Districts have considerable means at their command to ensure that disadvantaged schools get their share of principal candidates,” he said. But states share in the responsibility, too, he said. They must review policies and reallocate resources where there is an imbalance among districts. Another attendee wondered how universities could send student interns to learn about leadership positions in school districts. Who will pay them? It’s an area of ongoing support that needs work, Domenech said. “Where do we get the money from? Universities don’t have the money. Schools don’t have the money.”

The Wallace Foundation offered a chart of some key policy questions for federal and state government, school districts, schools, universities and national professional associations. “The questions focusing on defining effective leadership, getting the incentives right, certification and effective hiring and ongoing support are meant to move the conversation forward in a direction that will get the principals we need in the schools that need them the most,” Laine said.

Adding performance-based incentives into principal contracts was also discussed during the question and answer time.“We’re seeing more and more districts put performance in contracts,” Casserly said. But because standardized testing is seen as a key way to define success in school performance, Domenech said many of the decisions principals make are data-driven. “Standardized tests are here whether we like it or not,” he said, adding that it’s the principal’s responsibility to make sure the school succeeds. And in areas of the country where there is a high turnover rate among superintendents, Casserly suggested, leadership initiatives don’t revolve simply around one leader. “Where we see gains in student achievement is where we have continuity in agenda even if we don’t have continuity in people,” he said. Instead of increasing the number of certified principal candidates, it is now our nation’s challenge to create the conditions for leadership success, Laine said. “The stakes are high,” said Wallace President Christine DeVita. “Public education is our most important civic work.”