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The Quest for Qualified Principals

In recent posts, I focused on efforts to identify and remove teachers who are ineffective, incompetent or worse. The corollary is whether anything similar is being done with unfit principals. Or to frame the issue more positively, what steps are being taken to recruit and retain top candidates?

It's a relevant question because only about half of beginning principals remain in the same job five years later, and many leave the principalship altogether when they go. Interestingly, the rate is about the same as that for beginning teachers.

Recognizing the pressing need to replace these vanishing principals, Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2003 established the New York City Leadership Academy, which at the time was the most intensive and costly principal training program in the country. Teachers, guidance counselors and administrators who are accepted spend four days a week observing principals as they perform their duties.

But an analysis conducted by the New York Times found that schools run by the academy's graduates have not performed as well as those led by experienced principals or by new principals who came through traditional routes ("Principals Younger and Freer, but Raise Doubts in the Schools," New York Times, May 26, 2009).

Perhaps this conclusion was a factor in the Harvard Graduate School of Education's decision late last year to create a new doctoral degree in educational leadership. The three-year course, which will be tuition-free and conducted in collaboration with the Harvard Business School and the Kennedy School of Government, is based on the conviction that greater professionalism is necessary to transform public schools.

Both programs place heavy emphasis on field work in large urban districts as a way of developing the wherewithal to provide leadership. In this respect, they are on the right track. But so much of their success depends on skills and knowledge that cannot be taught. It's a little like asking if medical schools can teach their students a "bedside manner." They can try, and they are trying in some cases by using professional actors to play the part of patients.

Nevertheless, the two programs deserve a fair trial. In the past, most principals came from the ranks of teachers who sought new challenges and/or higher salaries. They often learned that the position was not what they thought it was from the outside. Giving them exposure beforehand through leadership programs can help reduce the disaffection that accounts for the high turnover rate.

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