Rethinking School Leadership
In May/June 2019, a column I published in the National Association of Elementary Principals Magazine highlighted the impact of inequity on principal longevity. For some time now, I have been concerned about the turnover rate among principals, especially those who serve high-poverty student populations. A recent report, Principal Turnover Insights From Current Principals, by Learning Policy Institute and the National Association of Secondary School Principals echoes my sentiment and highlights key considerations for principal support and retention;
- High-quality professional development
- Support from strong administrative teams
- Adequate school resources
- Competitive compensation
- Appropriate decision-making authority
- Evaluation centered in timely, formative feedback
The insights are from the most credible source: practicing principals. I think it is something every education leader needs to read. More concerning is the preliminary results of NASSP and LPI’s study of principal attrition which shows that 35% of principals never make it beyond their 3rd year of tenure. If we want to do a better job of recruiting and retaining principals, we must explore these insights fully, and where possible, take bold action to protect the future of the principalship as a critical professional position in our society.
High-Quality Professional Development
The school principal must serve as the instructional leader. It is imperative that each school leader possesses the scholarship, skills, and abilities to inform teacher practice in ways that advance student learning. We cannot rely on principal preparation programs to provide this level of readiness when it comes to instructional leadership. Traditionally, these programs have focused on operational issues: finance, personnel, and building management. What those entering the principalship need and those in it must have to improve student achievement includes knowledge of the teaching and learning process, specifically high leverage learning strategies, assessment literacy, and coaching skills to impact teacher practice in positive ways. Unfortunately, principals tend to experience professional development that focuses on the operational aspects of the job. Monthly principal meetings to review plans, budgets, and carry out mandates seem to rule the time and support they receive from district level leaders. As we move forward in public education, we must rethink how district and state level leaders provide principals with the kinds and quality of professional development that can support them in improving their instructional leadership capacity.
Support from Strong Administrative Teams
Work life balance is a challenge in many professions, but as a former principal, I tend to believe that this is especially challenging for school principals. Working with a strong body of administrators can help alleviate some of this challenge, but I have often wondered if it is time to restructure school leadership. Perhaps it is time for us to look beyond the traditional structure of school leadership: principal, assistant principal, dean of students, etc., and look toward a new organizational structure. Repurposing other positions might help districts better design supportive and strong administrative teams that can help principals focus on instruction. Operational Manager, Student Services Coordinator, and Assistant Principal are roles that come to mind. Each could take on the responsibilities related to facilities and maintenance, transportation, non-academic student needs (mental health, discipline, physical health, counseling) while the Assistant Principal works to hone his or her instructional leadership capacity in coordination with the principal. I would also venture to say that principals need coaches, in real time, who can give formative and timely feedback, but support them while in action.
Adequate School Resources
It is important to recognize that without access to a sufficient quantity of timely resources related to school improvement goals, principals face the incredible task of overcoming student achievement deficits and meeting the needs of teachers and staff. While this can seem simple in theory, in practice, this is something faced by many school leaders. When a principal’s effort to obtain the resources that teachers and students need to accomplish goals become more strenuous than accomplishing the improvement goals themselves, the focus of the leaders work shifts from improving the practices of students and teachers to securing needed resources. These things work in concert; in other words, principals must have access to adequate resources in their attempt to serve as strong and effective instructional leaders.
Principals have a variety of responsibilities: school safety, academic achievement, professional development, financial management, facilities management, and more. In comparing responsibilities of principals to that of other credentialed professionals who serve in leadership roles, it would be interesting to see the discrepancy between average principal roles and other supervisory positions in other fields. I do not have the figures or information to make an accurate comparison, but I am of the belief that a discrepancy exist and look forward to exploring this aspect further.
Appropriate Decision-Making Authority
I recently heard someone quote a superintendent of schools as saying, “We are moving from a system of schools to becoming a school system.” While I certainly can relate to the importance of addressing challenges in a systematic fashion, it is important to note that principals need to be able to consider their context when solving problems specific to the students and teachers they are serving. Knowing what to apply broadly (across all schools) versus what to apply in a more targeted, and specific way is the challenge of leadership. There are some universal best practices when it comes to teaching and learning, and those best practices remain so regardless of the demographic of students served or school type. Our challenge, however, is in helping school leaders learn how to contextualize solutions for the given deficiencies of their school so that they avoid replicating solutions that have worked in other contexts without adapting them for the context in which they serve.
Evaluation with Timely, Formative Feedback
One way to accomplish this is by restructuring of district level positions that support and provide services to principals. Instead of simply providing a supervisor of principals, providing principal coaches who can give real time formative feedback and support to principals has the potential to change the practices of principals in ways that help them center their efforts on instructional leadership. Following the traditional methodology of principal evaluation results in fragmented feedback, retroactive recommendations, and little that principals can act on immediately or put into practice in an action research fashion. When principals receive feedback about their performance after the school year has ended or at the close of the school year, it creates a tremendous gap between action and reflection and that often does not result in changed practice. A change in practice is most likely when action and reflection happen in close proximity to one another.
Principal turnover and retention is a real problem that needs real solutions. Instability of leadership has a multitude of implications on teachers, students, and parents. We need to rethink the organizational support structure for principals as leaders and critical elements to the success of teachers and students. Our failure to reorganize, restructure, and most importantly, rethink what is necessary for principal success has the potential to cause problems in the field of public education far beyond a high rate of turnover.
Until next time,