How to Fix the Coming Principal Shortage

July 20, 2001

Andrew Goldstin on what schools need to do to attract and keep the next generation of administrators:

Jennifer Henry has a goal: to run an inner city school where all the students go to college, to prove that it can be done, that “you can’t just blame the kids and the neighborhood.” She’s got an impressive educational résumé: During high school and college she taught for Making Waves, a California-based non-profit that targets low income kids at risk of falling behind grade level. At 22 she became the program’s executive director, and turned what was a mostly mushy, feel-good enterprise into one with real instructional rigor. She also taught high school history, unpaid, at a nearby prep school. This year Henry, 28, graduated from Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management. But when she began looking for a job in Chicago, she faced a harsh reality: to become a principal she would need six years of experience in a Chicago public school, and she had no teaching or administrative credential. At job interviews, school administrators saw business school on her résumé and doubted her commitment to education. Crede
ntialing courses could cost more than $10,000. “It’s amazing to me,” says Henry, “how high and wide the barriers are to becoming an educator.”

Within the next five years more than 40% of the nation’s 93,000 principals are expected to retire. Districts across the country are already feeling the crunch: a San Jose superintendent had to take 33 trips across the country last year to find four principals he was satisfied with; New York City’s schools began last year with 163 temporary principals; 39% of Chicago’s principals are already eligible for retirement. So Chicago, along with a handful of other districts and states, has decided to lower its barriers and open the doors to people like Jennifer Henry.

On Wednesday, New Leaders for New Schools, a public-private partnership dedicated to recruiting and training inner-city principals, announced Henry and 14 others as members of the “first ever national corps of urban school principals.” (The program hopes to grow rapidly). The principals-to-be get seven weeks of tuition-free training in educational leadership, a one-year paid “residency” under the tutelage of a master principal, and, once in charge of their own schools, two years of intensive professional development. Chicago and other cities have agreed to waive many of their experience requirements for New Leaders fellows. School districts in Alabama, North Carolina and Ohio have begun their own similarly structured leadership programs, and the Senate’s version of the President’s education bill includes $50 million a year for principal recruitment and training.

It’s about time. It’s hard to overestimate how important a strong leader is to the success of a school. When TIME picked six Schools of the Year in May, the one thread they had in common was dynamic, dedicated principals who inspired teachers, parents and students to do more than anyone thought possible. But there simply aren’t enough people in education right now who are this good.

And that’s going to be even more of a problem when the Bush education bill becomes law. The cornerstone of the bill’s accountability provisions is a threat: schools that continually fail will get “reconstituted” — the principal will be fired, a new administrative team will come in and all teachers will be forced to reapply for their jobs. But this can only work if there’s a superior principal out there willing to take on the challenge. And even then, who will take over the school deserted by the super-principal? Without a new, expanding corps of highly competent leaders, failure at American schools will never go away, simply getting shuffled from one school to the next.

But for districts around the country to embrace innovations like New Leaders, they will have to reevaluate their barriers to entry. In theory, certification requirements exist for good reason: how else to guarantee that the people who will lead our schools and teach our kids are qualified to do so? And shouldn’t education, like law and medicine, be a considered a profession? Nobody complains about forcing lawyers to pass the Bar Exam or doctors to slave through at least four years of training before being given the license to operate.

But there’s no shortage of lawyers and doctors today, no doubt because these professions pay salaries that make the years of training worthwhile. Until we raise the salaries of teachers and principals high enough to attract more of the nation’s best and brightest, districts need to consider hiring principals like Jennifer Henry who are highly qualified but may not have gone to education school. And then, as New Leaders does (and as most businesses do), pay for their training and development. That’s the way to build a profession.