Fewer teachers yearn to become principals

Long hours, high stress, and small raises make the jobs unattractive

April 06, 1999|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

As school systems scramble to find enough classroom teachers, many fear another looming shortage: principals and assistant principals.

In Maryland and across the nation, superintendents say they're finding fewer and fewer qualified teachers who want to become the next generation of school leaders.

And the problem could worsen in Maryland -- an informal state survey found that at least 75 percent of high school principals will be eligible to retire with full benefits in the next few years.

"We have such a need for people to become administrators," says state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick.

"But we find that you cannot pay people enough to be a principal, especially in secondary schools."

Many are put off by the increasing demands of the jobs: pressure from parents and superintendents, growing time demands and a relatively small boost in pay.

The problem is so severe that several area school systems already have proposed pay increases for next year, and Baltimore County recently began a leadership program to encourage and train potential administrators.

A state principals group also has formed a task force, hoping topropose solutions to the state school board later this year.

For example, despite an extensive statewide search last year, Carroll County school officials failed to attract enough candidates for the principal's position at North Carroll High School, forcing them to re-open the search.

National education newspapers are filled with advertisements from school systems large and small seeking principal candidates, but that still hasn't lured the kind of talent that schools need.

"We have a lot of applicants, but often we don't have a lot of qualified applicants," says Baltimore County schools Superintendent Anthony G. Marchione.

"It's been a struggle for a while.

Ten or 15 years ago, such a shortage was unheard of.

Sure, the job required extra work and longer hours. But principals earned a lot more money relative to even veteran teachers. They had little fear about job security and rarely faced serious challenges to their authority.

In the late 1980s and 1990s, all that changed.

The drive for higher scores by students on standardized tests and more accountability has put principals on the hot seat as never before.

School boards, superintendents and parents are demanding higher test scores -- and those results are published every year for all to see. Principals who don't deliver face transfers and demotions.

In the push to save money, school boards have cut back on staffing at central headquarters and foisted more tasks to the schools -- making principals responsible for such activities as purchasing cleaning supplies and scheduling bus transportation for sports teams.

At the same time, schools-based management teams have forced principals to share authority with parents and teachers on such instructional matters as class schedules and textbook purchases.

"There has been an escalation of responsibility that has made the job so much more difficult," said Jim Dryden, who retired last year after 24 years as an elementary school principal in Harford County.

"When you look at the demands, you can't blame teachers for saying this isn't what they want to do."

The problem is complicated by the shrinking difference in pay between principals and teachers.

While teachers have seen their salaries steadily increase, school boards and local governments have often been reluctant to give equivalent raises to principals for fear of being accused of spending too much on administration.

Though principals in some school systems are represented by teacher unions, most are not -- leaving them without much power to bargain for salary increases.

The average elementary school principal makes $67,438, and the average high school principal makes $76,769, according to recent salary surveys by the National Association of Elementary School Principals and National Association of Secondary School Principals.

While that is $20,000 to $30,000 more than the average teacher salary, it's only a few thousand dollars more than what teachers with 20 to 30 years of experience are making. Superintendents prefer to hire principals from the pool of teachers with such experience.

Appearances, fund raising

In the meantime, principals work year-round, rather than just 10 months. They're expected to attend every important school meeting, sporting events, plays and concerts, while making regular appearances before community groups.

They also must raise money by finding partnerships with businesses and applying for outside grants. Paperwork is often left for weekends.

"I look at the time involved, and I don't think it's right for me," says Paul Muller, chairman of Overlea High School's guidance department. "With young children, I'm not willing to make that commitment right now."

A 1998 survey by the two national principals organizations found that hours, stress and salary were the main reasons teachers were reluctant to move into school administration.

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