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.
The Center for Teaching Quality (CTQ) has researched the impact of various “teaching and learning conditions” on student learning. The conditions researched include: facilities and resources, professional development, and school leadership.
According to the CTQ research, no other variable on this list has as powerful an effect on student learning as the school leader. Parents and teachers are the most immediate influencers of student learning results, but a great school leader can bring out the best in teachers and foster a great environment for learning. A poor leader, on the other hand, can destroy a school. Leadership matters.
This is very bad news for California, because it is uncommonly difficult to recruit principals in this state.
Under the best of circumstances, principals have a difficult job. In a small school, a principal oversees not just 400 students and some forty educators and staff, but also dozens of relationships with school district staff, parents, foundation staff, politicians, police, cranky neighbors, community leaders and leaders in other schools. The principal is also responsible for the school facilities, working with the district to provide for upkeep and remodeling when needed. All while conveying a loving openness and unflappable capacity to calm folks down when things aren't going the way they want.
In California, the circumstances for principals are far from ideal. For example, California ranked 47th in the nation in the number of students per administrator in 2014-15, according to a report from the California Budget Project. In 2011, the last year data were assembled, California's ratio was 312 students per administrator, compared to 202 nationally. These administrators, in turn, oversee teachers with some of America's largest classes.
It is uncommonly difficult to recruit principals in California.
What does that mean? As a practical matter, principals in California must do their job with one fewer leader in the office to help. 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. To recap: Leading a school is significantly harder in California than in other states, and it pays less.
Principal turnover in schools is tremendously disruptive. It is also very common. On average, principals remain at a school only three years before moving on.
Districts must address this leadership gap, which they sometimes do by attracting a successful principal from another district, which of course contributes to the churn. Successful principals generally find it easy to change districts, but this is a zero-sum game, and it can be expensive to attract a proven leader.
Some districts have followed the lead of San Diego, which invests in developing principals from within its teaching workforce. San Francisco Unified began a similar leadership initiative in 2006. These programs are not making a major dent in the overall shortfall.
Because leadership plays such a strong role in school success or failure, some nonprofit organizations focus on leadership development and placement, often recruiting principals from unconventional pools of talent. Oakland Unified has benefited from the support of two such organizations, the Broad Residency (which emphasizes recruitment and training of school district leadership) and New Leaders for New Schools (which recruits and trains principals). Both organizations, in turn, recruit extensively from Teach for America. These organizations (and many others) have developed thoughtful approaches to selecting and developing school leaders. The Rainwater Leadership Alliance collected information about their approaches in a report titled "A New Approach to Principal Preparation."
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.
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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