When the principal shortage hits home

October 25, 1999|By Amy Bernstein

ARE COMPETENT public school principals a vanishing breed? A report released by the Maryland State Department of Education a few months ago suggests the answer may be "yes."

Sadly, I must agree. My daughter's school, Mount Washington Elementary in Baltimore, has been searching for a new principal for the past six months.

When our search began, we quickly discovered that the pool of available, interested candidates in the city was quite limited.

Applicants from outside the city system were slightly better, but not much. Meanwhile, the city school administration has assigned Mount Washington a series of interim principals to keep things going until the search resumes next spring, the traditional hiring season.

Our struggle to find an outstanding leader for one of the city's best schools reveals that local and state education officials must put in place policies that are designed to help schools attract the best and the brightest. The most serious problems are these:

In Baltimore, compensation packages for principals are not competitive with many nearby counties or other states. (Nationally, inadequate compensation is a top reason many would-be principals have lost interest in the job.)

Yet neither the city, nor the state legislature, has taken recent steps to improve pay for principals -- though such efforts have been made to attract better teachers. Moreover, the city has rejected offers from private organizations to award signing bonuses, and other perks, to entice the very best principal candidates.

The upshot: Many great principals are not interested in working in Baltimore schools.

City and state school officials are not dealing proactively with a looming principal shortage. Principals around the country are retiring in great numbers. (In Baltimore alone, nearly every principal is eligible to retire within the next three years.)

At the same time, fewer people are applying to become principals. Yet city school administrators continue to advertise and recruit narrowly (ignoring the Internet, for example).

Even Mount Washington's Parent-Teacher Organization's offer to conduct a broad, independent job search for its own school was rebuffed.

City and state officials are not doing enough to provide adequate training, mentoring and continuing professional development for a generation of new recruits, who must tackle a job that is more complex and difficult than ever. The scattered mentoring programs and week-long seminars now available to new and aspiring principals are simply not robust enough.

As the Maryland Association of Secondary School Principals reports, "few local efforts exist in the state to identify, train, and coach potential administrators . . . This oversight could contribute to the dearth of qualified, interested administrator candidates in Maryland."

Why all this fuss over principals, when there's so much else to worry about in our schools? The answer is clear. Principals drive school improvement. A strong principal can turn around a failing school, just as readily as a weak principal can force a school to lose ground.

For example, consider Kinsey/Palmview Elementary in West Palm Beach, Fla., where the principal transformed a desperately poor, low-achieving school into a high-performing magnet school. Test scores as Kinsey/Palmview now exceed state norms.

Teachers are part of this success story -- but it's the principal who sets the pace for performance.

Still, despite such clear evidence, city and state education officials in Maryland seem to forget just how essential the principal is to the big picture. In recent months, the Maryland State Department of Education has raised the achievement bar, announcing new curriculum content standards, achievement tests for selected grades, and in the near future, high school assessment tests.

Principals -- and the teachers held accountable to them -- will be responsible for meeting these commitments. Yet where will we find these top-notch principals who will turn these goals into reality?

Demoting incompetent principals, as the city has recently done, is the first step on a long road to upgrading school leadership. Our policy makers have to do much more to train, motivate and compensate the very best leaders available.

Until the principal's potential is fully understood, many of our schools will continue to flounder because the second- or third-rate principals who preside are unable to meet the considerable demands placed on them.

As for Mount Washington, we are confident we will eventually hire an outstanding principal. It is regrettable, however, that our school system's lackluster recruitment efforts, combined with our relatively uncompetitive position, have forced us into a holding pattern.

Amy Bernstein is a free-lance writer and president of the Mount Washington Elementary School's Parent-Teacher Organization.

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