Leadership Deficits: Part of the Education Problem

High-profile programs like Race to the Top and Common Core have brought education reform again to the front of the national agenda. Discussion, however, settles over class size, teacher certification and teacher compensation because they seem like the most important issues related to student achievement. Significantly less time is spent on discussing the role of the principal. With increasingly complex duties, higher accountability and only modest pay increases, the principal’s job has become frustrating and unappreciated. Nevertheless, new studies are shedding light on the substantial impact that principals, as a part of institutional leadership, have on student performance.

Recently, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute released a report, “Lacking Leaders: The Challenges of Principal Recruitment, Selection, and Placement,” by Daniela Doyle and Gillian Locke. The study analyzed five urban districts from across the country, most of which were improving their principal hiring processes. The study sought to assess both the opportunities and challenges that accompanied the principal selection process by evaluating procedures and results.

The first section of the paper focused on the recruitment efforts of the various school districts in the study. It is impossible to have a great principal without attracting great candidates; the recruiting process is therefore intensely important in obtaining the most attractive talent. Analysis of the recruiting processes of the five districts led to several key findings:

  • Recruitment practices are passive. For the most part, public schools have not established specific marketing and recruiting strategies, which can require substantial resources, time and manpower.
  • Focus falls on internal sources out of convenience. Budget and time constraints led most schools to develop internal leadership pipelines. All five districts studied have created various forms of programming intended to develop and groom internal staff to take on the principalship. Examples of these programs include year-long fellowship programs, increased certification and on-the-ground administrative training.

The complexity of the job position also is not comparable to principal salaries. Increasing teacher salary movements are growing in popularity, especially for experienced teachers with higher certification. Therefore, those teachers and assistant principals with the competencies to take on the principalship are often only facing modest, if any, pay increases when they take on the new positions. Mismatches in requirements to benefits of the job are a leading difficulty in the struggle to recruit qualified professionals.

The second section of the Fordham report delved into the strategies that schools and district use to select the best candidates once they have been recruited. A strength that the study identified was a new wave in the use of research-based practices in the selection process. Four of the five districts identified crucial competencies and skills they believed successful principals possessed:

  • Instructional Expertise: Schools looked for candidates that could differentiate between excellent, average and poor levels of teaching, and knew how to work with teachers at varying levels of instructional skill. Hirers also sought candidates that demonstrate how they could improve teacher instruction and give constructive teacher feedback from observation.
  • People Management: Studies show the most significant impacts of principals are how they directly impact teacher capacity development and workforce environment. Schools specifically looked for candidates they believed could create a positive and collaborative team environment.
  • Cultural Leadership: Along with increasing the skills of teachers, the impact of principals’ leadership are most significant when they create common goals, a shared vision and motivate their teacher. While this was a common theme of priorities in candidate selection throughout the five districts, there are no examples of how districts quantitatively assess a candidate’s success in culture development and promotion.
  • Problem Solving: Logically, principals need to be able to assess a problem and implement a solution quickly and successfully. Every district focuses on administrative and problem-solving capacities.

While the districts all intended to assess a candidate’s hard and soft skills, rarely did the districts use any sort of data to evaluate past student achievement of candidates. Hiring leaders looked into references from past supervisors and asked questions during the interview that related to student achievement. Only one of the five districts explicitly asked for numerical evidence of improving student achievement in past roles. Finally, in regard to selecting candidates, districts focused too often on personal traits and characteristics that are less predictive to success when hired as opposed to evidence supported skills. The report suggests this can be improved by the wider use of data driven interviews and hiring rubrics.

The third component of the study is principal placement. Of the five districts, there was a mix of hiring practices involving both district and school level involvement, but ultimately principals serve a specific school community. Assigning principals to specific schools within the district is complex, because schools have diverse needs, populations and cultures; the study has identified various aspects of the principal placement process which further complicate the manner:

  • Varying levels of community involvement: Each district has a slightly different structure when it comes to principal selections. Most districts involved teachers and parents, but two of the districts also included non-teaching staff—such as administrators, counselors, etc. —and non-parent community members in a committee interview process. While committees with diverse participants provide the opportunity for local investment and involvement, they also come with some complications. For example, those not involved in the everyday workings of the school may not completely understand the skills necessary for the job and may rely more on personal traits and perceptions. It may also cause bitterness, tension or anger when districts do not give schools their first choice.
  • Informal and inconsistent placement process: District leaders in charge of hiring are often hiring for multiple schools across the district. High level of turnover and the variability in the needs of individual schools makes it nearly impossible to create a uniform placement system. The study also identifies the need to assess “fit.” None of the schools identified any measures intended to evaluate how a suitable a candidate was for their campus, yet four of the five districts identified differences in culture and “not a good fit” as reasons for high principal turnover.

The Fordham study pointed out many sources of school variability in principal recruitment, selection and placement, but it also indicated a few clear solutions. The study’s recommendations boil down to a few suggestions. First, make the job more appealing by increasing salaries, adding more autonomy or advancing career growth opportunities. The study also makes a strong argument for making more active recruiting efforts paired with more data driven and specific candidate selection procedures. Finally, it suggests that districts must assess the needs of schools and compare them against principal competencies. According to the author, these recommendations will vastly improve the principalship and its process.