For Cost Effective School Reform, Go to the Principal's Office

Principal as an Academic Change Agent

Two teachers in school hallway

The school principal can be one of the most important factors in improving student achievement. A new focus on principals driving academic performance, rather than teachers, marks a shift from the traditional model of the school principal as a manager who supervises the school operations from an office.

In the past, the school principal had responsibility for managing teachers as they delivered curricula, and for supervising students in a safe facility and caring environment. But numerous studies under education reform efforts led researchers to conclude that the role of the principal had been left undeveloped when it was limited to managing and supervising.

Researchers now have evidence suggesting that school districts should make investments of time and money in recruiting and hiring competent principals who understand best instructional practices. Resources should be given to supporting principals to focus on improving instruction that can be tied to academic goals. Moreover, principals should be continuously improving their leadership role, supported with ongoing quality professional development. Oh, more thing. Effective principals should be awarded great pay!

Recruiting Effective Principals

Schools or districts should consider the evidence that assigns as much as 25% of student academic gain to an effective school principal. Finding that effective principal, however, for many school districts can be challenging. Recruiting an effective principal can be costly and take time, especially for high-needs schools. Recruitment of talent may be limited by geography or the support of the local officials. Additionally, while candidates may be reviewed on their competencies and skills, there may not be an evaluation rubric or data that measures a candidate's ability to affect student achievement.

Another path for recruiting is to establish a school or district’s faculty-to-principal leadership pipeline, a path that requires advanced planning and continuous review. In this pipeline, secondary schools would take advantage of low level leadership positions (unit leader, grade captain, department chair) in order to improve the leadership capacities. The more complex environments of a middle or high school are ideal for developing such an instructional leadership program for teachers who show promise as leaders.

Leadership training for principals is at the center of the 2014 report, Lacking Leaders: The Challenges of Principal Recruitment, Selection, and Placement. The report concluded that many U.S. current principals lack the capacity to lead:

"Our primary finding is that principal-hiring practices—even in pioneering districts—continue to fall short of what is needed, effectively causing needy schools to lose out on leaders with the potential to be great."

The authors noted that most new principals are unprepared and unsupported for the demands of the profession; they are abandoned too soon and forced to learn on the job. As a result, as many as 50% of new principals quit after three years.

2014 was the same year that the School Leaders Network released Churn: The High Cost of Principal Turnover pointing out the adverse academic and financial impact on individual schools and nationwide when a principal leaves a position. Churn also noted that at the heart of the principal search is the challenge of finding people talented enough to want the demanding job:

"Our research suggests, however, that better hiring practices alone are only part of the solution. Districts must also re-imagine the principal’s role so that it is a job that talented leaders want and are equipped to execute successfully."

Both Churn and Lacking Leaders reports offered several recommendations to districts that were looking to improve the role of the principal including changing the role, higher pay, better preparation, leadership training, and feedback.

Make the Principal Job More Appealing

Asking the question, “The Worst Things About Being a Principal” will get predictable responses. On the worst things list? Budgets, teacher evaluations, discipline, facility maintenance, and upset parents. Researchers in these reports added two more things: isolation and the lack of a support network.  

As a solution, professional development to better prepare candidates for the demands of the position and its isolation should include in-service workshops or conference opportunities. Either of these would strengthen a candidate’s professional knowledge in order to deal with the lengthy list of responsibilities. Principals should meet with other principals, in or out of district, to improve teamwork and establish communication networks to make the position less isolated. Another suggestion is to develop co-leadership models to support the principal.

Dramatic changes may be necessary for principalships since schools need principals who value learning and who implement policies and practices that positively impact a school’s performance, especially when new initiatives may take an average of five years to come to full implementation.

Pay Effective Principals

Many researchers have found that the salaries for principalship do not match the level of responsibilities for such a high-pressure job. At least one education think tank has proposed giving each principal a $100,000 salary raise, much like a CEO. While that may seem an exorbitant amount of money, the costs of replacing a principal can be considerable.

The Churn report references data on the typical (median) cost of turnover as being 21% of an employee’s annual salary. The Churn report also estimated that the cost of a replacement in high poverty districts was an average of $5,850 per hired principal. Extending that average to the national statistic on principal turnover (22%) results in “$36 million on just hiring costs, not on-boarding, and not training” for high poverty districts nationwide.  

Additional "soft" costs include a qualified substitute to cover a principal’s duties or overtime. There also may be a drop in productivity on the last days on the job or reduced morale when responsibilities are assigned to other employees.

Districts should consider that a large increase in salary may keep an effective principal in a school, and that increase may be less expensive than the turnover costs in the long run.

Principal as Instructional Leader

Looking for a principal means looking at a school's needs first and then matching these needs with a candidate's strengths. For example, some schools may be looking for candidates with good social-emotional skills; other schools may be looking for some educational technology expertise. Regardless of the skill set needed, the candidate for principal must be an instructional leader.

Successful school-level leadership requires good communication skills, but it also requires the principal to exert influence on teachers‘ classroom practices. Good principal leadership means motivating teachers and students by creating classroom environments that allow for best instructional practices.

Determining how well these best instructional practices are being implemented is done through teacher evaluation programs. Evaluating teachers may be the most significant area where a principal may impact academic performance. In the report, When Principals Rate Teacher, researchers showed that most principals score well in identifying teachers in the top and at the bottom of an evaluation performance criteria rubric. The category of teachers performing in the middle, however, was generally less accurate. Their methodology included ratings of overall teacher effectiveness, as well as "dedication and work ethic, classroom management, parent satisfaction, positive relationship with administrators, and the ability to improve math and reading achievement."

Good principals are important to the teacher evaluation process, dismissing weak teachers and replacing them with strong teachers. Effective principals can attempt to improve a weak teacher's performance with support or remove a weak teacher from the school entirely. Lefgren and Jacob make a case for the long lasting implications of a principal's leadership in teacher evaluation:

"Our findings suggest that ratings by principals, both overall ratings and ratings of a teacher’s ability to improve achievement, effectively predict a student’s future achievement gains"

Principals who can use student performance data in the evaluation process can be the agents of change that education reformers believe is necessary.

Feedback for the Future

Finally, a district administration needs continuous feedback on their principal selection process, leadership training, and ongoing professional development plan. Asking for such specific feedback can help all stakeholders review how successful or unsuccessful the efforts on recruiting, on hiring, and on supporting new principals have been. Information on past practices can improve future principal hires. This process takes time, but an investment in time may be less costly than losing an effective principal.