Back to Skills

How Can Districts Find and Keep Effective Principals?

Back to Skills

Effective school principals are hard to find and to keep, and turnover is a serious challenge.

But school districts that put their minds to it can create a sustainable leader pipeline. Students score higher, and principals stay on the job longer in districts that make diligent efforts to select, prepare and mentor principals, according to a multi-year study, released in April, by the RAND Corporation, a public policy research firm.

The research found that the efforts that six large urban districts undertook are “feasible, affordable, and effective,” said Susan Gates, a senior economist at RAND and the chief author of the report. She summarized the findings during a panel discussion at the Education Writers Association’s National Seminar in Baltimore in May.

Also at the session, titled “How Districts Get and Keep Effective Principals,” two veteran principals shared insights about their jobs. What they said was surprising.

Mary Beck, the principal of Chicago Public Schools’ Nicholas Senn High School, and Robert Motley, the principal of Atholton High School in the Howard County Public School System in Maryland, agreed that the job of principal has become more complex and demanding – but also more interesting and invigorating. Both attributed the change to a shift from holding principals responsible for raising test scores – the emphasis under the federal No Child Left Behind Act – toward judging principals as instructional leaders and builders of school culture. (No Child Left Behind was replaced in late 2015 by the bipartisan Every Student Succeeds Act.)

“One reason I haven’t burned out yet is my district’s change in what they were looking to evaluate me on,” said Motley, a former French teacher who has been a middle school and now high school principal for 13 years. “It was stressful to be always under the gun as to why kids aren’t performing better.”

The Cultivation of Learning

Now, Motley said, he is evaluated on what he is doing to cultivate learning among his staff and students.

“That has allowed me to grow as an administrator,” he said. There is still pressure to improve test scores, according to Motley, “but not to the extent it was. So it doesn’t feel daunting to me.”

The role of principal as teacher evaluator has changed, too, said Motley. The process is “more collaborative now to improve student learning together, not about a gotcha.”

Beck, who has been a principal for four years, after six years as an assistant principal, said that additional responsibilities have included more autonomy to determine her school’s budget, to choose her staff of 108 teachers, and to align resources “to goals we want to achieve” – all of which is “empowering.”

But the flip side in Chicago is answering to multiple masters, including a local school council of parents, teachers and community members who evaluate her yearly and approve her employment contract, and answering to the members of the board of education and the local alderman, whom Beck meets with periodically. “I’m not sure people realize how political the job of principal can be,” she said.

Beck mentors her assistant principal, as she was mentored during a residency year – a key element of Chicago’s pipeline to fill administrators for 600 schools.

A formal program to mentor novice principals was one of the common elements that RAND found in its 5-year study of the large districts: Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Denver, New York City, Gwinnett County, Georgia, Hillsborough County, Florida, and Prince George’s County, Maryland. The six districts all agreed to create a comprehensive principal selection and development system with four components:

  • Defining standards and expectations for principals;
  • Preparing them with high-quality preservice programs;
  • Being selective in hiring and placing principals in schools well-aligned to their skills; and
  • Ensuring ongoing support and on-the-job evaluations.

RAND found that five of the six districts were able to fully implement all or all but one of the four elements. Comparing the outcomes in 1,100 schools with new principals in the six districts with new principals from other districts in the same states, RAND found significantly higher test scores, more in reading than in math, after three years in the pipeline study schools. By 8 percentage points, the new principals in the six participating districts were also more likely to remain in their schools for at least three years.

Setting up and sustaining the pipeline system didn’t cost a lot of money: about $42 per year per student or 0.5 percent of the districts’ budgets, RAND found.

“Don’t ever let anyone tell you nothing ever works in education. This appears to be effective,” observed the session moderator, Matt Barnum, a national reporter for Chalkbeat.

Getting the School Culture Right

Motley said that not only training but also matching a new principal with the right school is critical.

“You have to know the skill set of the individual and how they will fit in the school that is open,” he said. For example, if a school has a lot of “helicopter parents,” then a new principal must be adept in “parent discipline,” he said.

Asked what constitutes a bad principal, Beck said “not addressing issues immediately. If you let things slide with teachers and students, then that becomes part of the culture.”

Motley, who takes to the hallways with a rolling desk, to interact with students, said “a bad principal is disconnected from a school. … I will say to a kid wearing a hood, ‘Brian, take your hood off. The day I don’t say anything to you is the day you should be concerned.’”

“If you get the culture right,” Motley said, “learning will follow.”