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Supporting the Early-Career Principal

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By JoAnn Bartoletti, Executive Director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP)

At the risk of stating the obvious, a principal's job is pretty difficult. Volumes have been written about how complex the job has become and how many different tasks and individuals vie for a principal's attention at any moment. Fortunately, we have tens of thousands of principals who recognize that they have one of the most rewarding jobs in education. But to a new principal, the job can seem so daunting that the avalanche of to-dos obscures any potential reward.

A decade of research by the Wallace Foundation makes it clear that principals are second only to teachers in their impact on student achievement. And the higher the rate of student poverty, the more principal leadership matters. Further, effective principals are magnets for effective teachers. So it's no surprise that principal turnover has a devastating effect on school improvement efforts.

According to researcher Ed Fuller and his colleagues:

Despite frequent implications that one way to improve low-performing schools is to replace its principal and to do so with greater frequency, the evidence suggests that there are serious downsides: Rapidly turning over principals leads to more problems for the school in terms of greater teacher turnover, greater difficulty in recruiting well-qualified/effective teachers, and increased reluctance of staff to invest in reform strategies. All of these issues ultimately have a negative and long-lasting impact on the school's achievement profile.

The challenge for all of us in education, then, is to encourage principals to stay in the profession long enough to gain experience and maximize their capacity and, ideally, to keep them in schools long enough to have the greatest impact. If Fuller's analysis of Texas principal attrition is any indication — where on average half of high school principals are not around to see their freshman class graduate — we have a lot of work to do.

It's appropriate that we consider these issues now during National Principals Month. Certainly, we will be highlighting the principal's role in improving student performance during the month-long celebration. (Visit www.principalsmonth.org for details.) But we are also using the month as an opportunity to launch "Great Schools Have Great Principals," a campaign to identify and address the factors that obstruct a new principal's ability to maximize his or her effectiveness:

  • Preservice training that sometimes leaves them unprepared for the realities of the position
  • A sense of isolation when dealing with challenges
  • A gap between their level of accountability and their level of influence
  • A workload that sometimes seems undoable

Fortunately, the federal policy community has taken the first steps to addressing attrition among new principals. NASSP President Denise Greene-Wilkinson last month shared a podium with Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI) and Rep. Michael Honda (D-CA) as they introduced the Educator Preparation Reform Act, which calls for strong induction programs and ongoing mentoring and support for school leaders. That bill will create principal residency programs that provide residents with learning opportunities alongside a trained and experienced mentor principal. Once residents are hired as principals, they will continue to receive ongoing support for the next two years through an induction program, professional development, and regular networking opportunities. NASSP worked closely with the offices of each of the bill's sponsors to ensure that the final bill language reflected the skills, knowledge, and attributes linked to effective school leadership.

This bill's introduction is well-timed with the launch of NASSP's Center for New Principals. The center addresses the principal's role from daily responsibilities to school improvement and provides a safe community space for new principals who are seeking guidance and veteran principals who want to provide some.

Principals continually strive to improve. Ironically, although principals work tirelessly to create conditions that support learning for others, they find very little support for their own learning. During National Principals Month, let's resolve to provide them the support they need to lead the schools we all want.


Views expressed in this post are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning First Alliance or any of its members.

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