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Reporting on the state of education in your community and across the country.

The Process of Picking Principals


There's a laundry list of factors that can play into a school's success. A few of the most common are great teachers, engaged parents, and a supportive community.And one of the biggest contributors to a school's success is by placing the right candidate in their principal position.According to The Atlantic, productive principals can increase their students' achievement gains by up to seven months, while ineffective leaders can push their students' progress back by that same amount.But a recent report from a team of analysts from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an educational think tank, and education policy firm Public Impact points out schools may struggle to both find and retain the right talent for one of the school system's top spots."Far too many U.S. schools lack the leaders they need," the report's authors said. "Far too many principals lack the wherewithal--authority, resources, capacity, etc.--to lead effectively."The findings from Lacking Leaders: The Challenges of Principal Recruitment, Selection, and Placement are based on data from five urban districts throughout the country, spoken to on the condition of anonymity. School staff and principals were interviewed, and data from the district's hiring practices was analyzed.And the results? Well, the report begins by pointing out this isn't exactly a new problem. Finding and retaining successful school leaders has been a problem for more than a decade. There's been some progress over the past few years to develop leaders, according to the report's authors, but it's still not enough.A handful of the position's challenges are outlined in the study, including the following:

  • In a nutshell, the job's tough. It's a high-pressure gig that doesn't have a pay rate that correctly reflects the responsibilities, the authors said, so it's no surprise qualified candidates tend to skip over an open principal position when it's available
  • When looking for a new leader, searches typically don't extend very far out of school bounds, and are typically confined to a small regional area. Aside from that, districts seemingly aren't too apt to look at candidates who aren't state-certified public-school educators.
  • Districts tend to look internally to fill the spot, which can create a bit more of a laid-back application process. There's not a lot of strategy going into pinpointing talent, which typically results in administrators suggesting the promotion of an assistant principal or a teacher with seniority, or a mismatch of a principal's skillset to a specific school.

Here's more analyst-speak from the report's analysts themselves: "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. 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."So how can districts make a principal's position look a little more appealing? Well, of course, the report has a few suggestions:

  • Give principals a raise. The report suggests handing out each of the country's principals an extra $100,000, which authors say would roughly equal about 2 percent of the country's K-12 budget. They add that the role would look more attractive if principals have a compensation that's more in line with their background, along with perks that better reflect the demands and responsibilities of the job.
  • Schools should be develop better recruitment strategies, including a more proactive plan  involving seeking out both internal and external candidates.
  • Districts should collect hard data-- like background information or a school's improvement rates--in a more systematic way, and use that information to better identify potential leaders.