We Read the NASSP Report: Supporting A Strong, Stable Principal Workforce, and Here’s What We Have to Add

The NASSP report on principal retention addressed one of the major barriers to ongoing school improvement – the problem of retaining effective principals in place. As a company that works with schools or districts that have been identified as “needing assistance,” Ed Directions has experienced almost all of the data points included in the report. In our experience, it is possible to raise a school’s scores even if the principal is ineffective as an academic leader. If the ineffective principal doesn’t get in the way, problems can be identified and solved at the micro level, and scores can improve.

What cannot happen with an ineffective academic leader at the helm is the intentional development of a school that can deliver “success for all.” Planning, implementing, and monitoring a school-wide improvement plan and institutionalizing the successful elements of the plan requires an effective academic leader to initiate, implement, and institutionalize. What’s more, this academic leader (or an effective replacement) needs to be onsite for the duration of the process.

When Ed Directions works with a district for more than a year or two, we attempt to work with district leadership to re-frame their perception of effective leadership. We help them think about the way they select principals for schools and how they decide to move principals from school to school. Unfortunately, these discussions are constrained by contract provisions, superintendent perceptions, district policies and procedures, community (especially school board community) expectations, and local university priorities. Our contribution to these discussions has been to focus attention on a sequence of clarification:

  1. Define an effective principal/effective academic leader. In Ed Directions’ experience, we have found that most committees identify details they didn’t like about the last principal and try to ensure that the next principal doesn’t have these negative attributes.

    In the United States, we select principals in a variety of different ways – superintendent selection, school board selection, site-based council selection, etc. Usually the selecting agent will have a set of “best characteristics” or “best practices” that they will used to identify the “ideal” candidate. Some states provide training in selecting instructional leaders (superintendents or principals). This training provides some structure for weighing candidates to identify the best match for a position.

    When Ed Directions has access to the process, we try to help the selecting agents identify the characteristics or practices that they look for on both the management and academic sides of school leadership. When you introduce this to the discussion, you move the selection process away from the typical discussions (i.e., balances the books, controls the buses and the classrooms, has good discipline, gets along with parents, etc.) This doesn’t replace these items – they are critical – but they aren’t enough to adequately inform the selection process. We must add selection criteria that focus on characteristics such as establishing academic vision, developing optimum behaviors, engaging students in quality work, monitoring student growth in confidence and competencies within specific content areas, etc. These criteria change the nature of the data that the selecting agent collects on candidates, and it changes the nature of discussions that committees will have as they evaluate candidates.

    In the best-case scenario, the selection process begins with an analysis of the school to determine what type of principal will get the best results from all the stakeholders in the school – parents, teachers, students, and administrators. This will drive the discussion of what effective academic leaders will look like and enable the generation of school-specific “best practice” characteristics. The selection process can then evaluate all the candidates in terms of the school’s specific needs and make a school-specific “best choice.”

  2. Training and preparation. Many states require certification in administration for principal candidates, and most require some classroom experience. However, identification of likely candidates is usually handled informally by word-of-mouth or on-the-job experience. When you review the professional development requested by the principals, most of the topics deal with academic leadership issues on both the teacher and the student sides of the equation. In Ed Directions’ book, Turning Around Turnaround Schools, Volume 2 – The Rhythm of the Learner Year, we make a point that without a strong base in education research – especially in the Rhythm of the Learner Year – principals will not be able to facilitate effective strategic planning for a school; evaluate teacher effectiveness; or provide informed, targeted support for teachers or students who are at risk.

    Ed Directions recommends districts develop a “pipeline” preparation program that identifies likely academic leaders and provides them with a cognitive base for best practice teaching and learning, and then an experience base that introduces the candidate to the different avenues they might want to pursue within the field of academic leadership. Almost all of the professional development items on the list in the NASSP report would fall into this type of pipeline program, and principals would be prepared for the job that they had to face.

    We also have recommended that potential leaders acquire a variety of different experiences – different socioeconomic schools, different programmatic schools, and specialty schools – much like nurses and doctors do in their internship rotations. This would give the candidates a chance to find their best comfort zone, and it would give superiors a chance to identify best-fit niches for the people who are going to be the next generation of leaders in the schools and districts.

  1. Compensation and evaluation. In the report, much of the data relates to factors that were causing rapid turnover in the principal ranks. At Ed Directions, we refer to this as principal burnout. The article identifies many areas that can cause principals to simply wear out because of stress and job responsibilities. There was also discussion of what we at Ed Directions refer to as the “dead end effect,” meaning a principal can have just one career option. There are few moves for principals that allow them to stay in a school but move up in terms of their career.
    In Kentucky, as a part of the Education Reform Act, the legislature tried to address this issue by creating “levels” of the principalship from internship, through practitioner, to mentor level. This allowed principals to advance their careers but remain in their school and contribute to the development of new candidates for academic leadership positions.

The NASSP analysis is a good beginning of a discussion about principalship in the 21st century. If we are serious about education reform that enables all students to increase their potential and then reach that potential on tests in real-world situations, we must have academic leaders who possess the ability and willingness to seek positions in challenging schools and stay with those schools through the arduous task of changing/reforming teaching and learning. 

At Ed Directions, we believe that the report is a wakeup call for school reformers. It won’t be possible to achieve the types of reforms that schools of education and state legislators are demanding of schools without some serious and aggressive changes. If we want to improve education for the long-term, we believe that the things that we take from the report must be considered. We have to more clearly define academic leadership and develop processes for identifying, preparing, and selecting candidates for leadership roles. We must accept that not all certified candidates are appropriate for a given school, and we have to find a way to provide growth opportunities for effective principals that will allow them to continue to move forward.