Which school do you want to support?
Leadership does not always spring to mind as a key element of the learning environment of a school. It should.
For schools to work well, a lot of things have to work well at the same time. The job of a school principal is to take all of the frenzy of a school and align it with purpose. Even under the best of circumstances, it's a difficult job. In a mid-sized school, the principal is an executive leader responsible for some 600 students, thirty educators and a similar number of other staff. Principals are instructional leaders, and their central job is to support effective teaching and learning.
But principals cannot focus on instruction alone. Principals bear responsibility for a school's safety and the health of students and employees. They juggle relationships with school district staff, parents, foundations, politicians, police, cranky neighbors, community leaders and leaders in other schools. They handle disputes, scrapes and scuffles. They usually don't handle payroll or have control of much of a budget, but that means they have to be good at getting what they need from the district.
All while conveying a loving openness, a keen focus on student learning, and unflappable capacity to calm folks down when things aren't going the way they want.
In 2018, a team of researchers with the Leadership Policy Institute (LPI) conducted a deep study of educational leadership in California as part of the Getting Down to Facts II project (GDTFII). The study focused on success — it examined the leadership conditions associated with successful schools and school districts.
This is very bad news for California, because it is uncommonly difficult to recruit principals in this state.
In California, principals face bigger challenges than school leaders in most states, and they must face those challenges with less help. California ranks well below other states in the number of students per administrator. (See chart below.) These administrators, in turn, oversee teachers with some of America's largest class sizes.
It is uncommonly difficult to recruit principals in California.
What does it mean to have fewer administrators in a school? As a practical matter, principals in California must do their job with one fewer leader in the office to make the school work. The school district cannot fill the gap, either — districts in California have about half as many administrators as is typical in other states. To top it off, California’s relatively high salaries for teachers are not matched with similarly high salaries for principals, though the math of the pension system helps draw teachers toward school leadership in their final years. To recap: Leading a school is significantly harder in California than in other states, and it pays less, but the retirement benefits can help.
Plenty of people have the necessary credentials to be principals in California, but the LPI study points to a harder problem: There's a shortage of people who want the job. Principal turnover in schools is very common — four years at a school is typical — and very distruptive. The LPI study found that student achievement tends to fall after a principal leaves a school, and it can take 5 years after a new principal is hired to fully rebound. The harm is particularly great in high-poverty, low-achieving schools.
To support schools in disarray, district superintendents know they need effective principals. Hmmm… where can they find them?
The quickest solution is to recruit talent from other districts. According to the LPI study, "Principals have become more mobile in the last decade. In 2004–05, the typical California principal had been the principal at their current school for almost 10 years, compared to only 4 years in 2016–17."
Poaching makes sense as a hiring strategy, but it's a zero-sum game. It contributes to the churn in the system and tends to put less-well-off districts at a disadvantage because they tend to pay less.
To address the chronic shortage of effective school leaders, the LPI study recommended that the state develop a new pipeline of principal leadership programs, taking inspiration from programs in Tennessee and Chicago as well as from the California-based Aspiring Principals program.
Some nonprofit organizations have brought resources to the challenge, recruiting principals from unconventional pools of talent. The Broad Residency emphasizes recruitment and training of school district leadership. New Leaders recruits and trains teacher leaders and principals.
In the best cases, school leaders remain in place for many years, growing more effective with time, experience, and deep relationships with faculty and community. To help principals develop "in place," the LPI research suggests that districts set aside funds annually to provide principals with ongoing training, coaching, and support. Does investing in training for principals make a difference in student learning? According to the report, the benefits are real and measurable: "One effective professional learning program estimated that the $4,000-per-candidate cost of the program equated to approximately $117 per additional student achieving proficiency."
If your school is looking to hire a new principal and you have been included in the search process, GreatSchools offers a list of interview questions to ask. The toughest type of questions, and sometimes most revealing, are simulation interviews in which you ask a candidate to play-act how they would handle a difficult leadership scenario.
While the most important elements of a work environment are human factors such as leadership, the more mundane physical considerations can also make a difference. The next lesson will explore these considerations.
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