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Building a better school principal

A program to groom school leaders may help curb the high turnover rate.
Jody Spiro, Wallace Foundation’s director of education leadership, says the “Principal Pipeline” program allowed six districts to replace their retiring principals and assistant principals with graduates of high-quality training programs.
Jody Spiro, Wallace Foundation’s director of education leadership, says the “Principal Pipeline” program allowed six districts to replace their retiring principals and assistant principals with graduates of high-quality training programs.

In some districts, the principal’s office may as well have a revolving door for its high turnover rate.

According to one report, more than half of principals leave after three years, especially in urban areas.

In 2011, the philanthropic Wallace Foundation launched a $75 million initiative to help six urban school districts cultivate effective school principals.

The resulting “Principal Pipeline” program identifies and develops qualified educators to take on the rigors of the job.

Jody Spiro, Wallace’s director of education leadership, says the program has allowed those six districts to replace their retiring principals and assistant principals with graduates of high-quality training programs.

“Our goal is to address gaps in these programs and to learn what works and what doesn’t work,” she says. “Ultimately, states and districts throughout the country that aren’t part of the initiative can learn from the lessons of those who are."

How has the principal’s role changed over the years?

It has come almost full circle. Many years ago the position was called headmaster, and that person was the instructional leader. Over the years the principal became more of a facilities manager, someone who made sure the buses came on time and who served as a disciplinarian.

Now the principal, in short, is responsible for the culture of the building, for the high expectations for both students and faculty and everyone who works in the school, as well as being the chief, the convener of professional learning communities and, of course, being an excellent learner himself or herself.

It’s quite a mammoth job, but it’s also a job unlike any other, in terms of its potential to positively impact the lives of children and the adults that they will become.

Why is it so difficult for some districts to retain good principals?

Well, it’s a job with a lot of responsibilities and in many places you are not adequately prepared for the job and, more importantly, you’re not being adequately supported on the job when you get there.

Think of what, for example, a high school principal’s job entails. It is tantamount to being the CEO of a mid- to large-size corporation. If you’ve got a school that has 3,000 or 4,000 kids and 300 teachers, it’s huge, not to mention all the different disciplines that are taught and extra-curricular activities, and so forth.

There is very little to actually prepare you for what you’re going to face until you’re on the job. Having a mentor, having a coach, one-on-one support, is absolutely essential. In many surveys, this is the No. 1 complaint of principals around the country—they want that support on the job, and they’re just not getting it. That’s where the Principal Pipeline come in.

The Principal Pipeline sounds like an advanced program that identifies candidates early and then trains and supports them for leadership roles.

That’s right. And with our leader-tracking system we’re also able to identify the vacancies that will most likely be popping up in the next year, three years, five years.

For example, we know that four years from now we’re going to have three retirements in high schools—do we have enough excellent candidates in the pool? If we don’t, then we have to start that grooming process and work with our university partner providers to incent even more people into the Pipeline.

So it’s that mix of grooming people and knowing what your staffing needs are going to be several years out.

Where does the information for the leader-tracking system and vacancy forecasting come from?

It’s populated by the school districts. That often means making one integrated system out of a number of different systems throughout the district. In other cases, it has meant starting from scratch or taking Excel spreadsheets and getting the information into one central place.

Ultimately, it empowers the superintendent to be the leader of the hiring process. The superintendent receives resumes from people that the system has identified as the best possible match for a particular position. So, it’s a data-driven system rather than a who-you-know approach.

One of the things we’ve seen through the Pipeline is that three-quarters of the principals in these districts said they felt they were a very good match for the school they were assigned to. That’s really important. We tend to think a principal is a principal is a principal, but that’s not the case.

Every school is different, in terms of its students, its teachers and the community that it serves.

In the past we might have just put out a blanket generic job advertisement: “Principal position open, send résumé in here.” Now every school has its own description of the skills that specific principal needs to have, and the leader-tracking system can help identify people who have that skill set.

A number of universities offer leadership training programs that people attend not because they want to become principals, but because they want the credits to get the salary bump.

Right, and that can be a problem, because it doesn’t do anything to identify the potential principals. For example, in Illinois, a few years ago, there were 7,000 people in 26 of these programs at universities throughout the state. But then the state passed new, much tougher certification or accreditation requirements for these programs based on research into effective practices for training principals.

As a result, they created a brand new teacher-leader program, so if you don’t want to be a principal—but you want the salary bump—there is now a program for you. The principal’s program could then be more specialized.

So, they went from 7,000 people in those general programs a couple of years ago, to about 600 people in those specialized programs. The other 6,400 people can enroll in the teacher-leader programs, which is a better fit for their career ambitions.

How specific is that to Illinois? Can any state apply those ideas?

We hope they do, but it takes political will and lots of collaboration and coalition building, because you are upsetting the apple cart for a lot of university programs that depend on the revenue from their enrollees.

The more people who take the program, the bigger the revenue.

The main criticism they fought in Illinois was, “Look how many fewer candidates you are preparing.” But the state needed only maybe 300 principals and they were producing many thousands of credentialed people. They have lots of people who are certified to be principals, but the question is, are they qualified?

So while Illinois has increased the selectivity of its training programs, the candidates who are there are more highly qualified to fill the positions. So, yes, other states can certainly do this, but again, it takes political will.

Was there anything that surprised you in creating these programs?

Yes, and it came not from the principals but from the people on either side of that position. For example, one big realization for us was the importance of the role of the assistant principal. What we didn’t quite recognize is that it’s fairly unusual for someone to step directly into a principal’s job. Almost everywhere, after you’re trained to be a principal, you go into an assistant principal’s job first.

So the AP job is one that, if it’s used well, can be its own cost-free internship for a principal’s position. Most districts do not use that position that way.

So just because you’ve been an AP for six or seven years doesn’t mean you can step right into a principal’s job. Getting the AP position right is really important.

On the other side of the equation, we learned quickly that the principal supervisor role is also of critical importance—so much so that two years into our Principal Pipeline work, we actually created another initiative for principal supervisors because we recognized the value of that position. The principal supervisor has to be completely on board with the Pipeline and the standards and become a real coach and support for principals.

You can do everything right in creating the Pipeline and in hiring people and supporting them, but if your supervisor is evaluating you on something totally different, it doesn’t matter how well prepared you are in all these other things.