Principal perquisites

September 18, 2006

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Baltimore Mayor Martin O' Malley have come up with separate plans to produce more quality principals who can provide dynamic leadership at low-performing schools. Mr. O'Malley relies on six-figure bonuses, while Mr. Ehrlich stresses the need for additional training and support. The two gubernatorial rivals have clashed most vigorously and consistently over education, but on this issue they may both be right. Financial incentives can lure new principals and teachers to troubled schools, but making a difference also requires training and support.

As school leaders, principals are responsible for enterprises that in many ways - such as staffing, facilities maintenance and cultivation of community relationships - resemble corporations. So it's not surprising that some jurisdictions have offered bonuses and other financial incentives to attract more of the best and brightest to take charge of challenging schools.

At the same time, teacher shortages, especially in math, science and special education, have prompted school districts to offer similar incentives to classroom teachers. For instance, gift cards for school supplies and free computer software helped Baltimore schools open last month with nearly a full roster of teachers.

Mr. O'Malley is thinking of something similar for principals, proposing bonuses as high as $200,000 for top school leaders who take over low-performing schools around the state. The money would be spread out over four years at an estimated annual cost of $5 million. There are few details on where the money would come from or how success would be determined.

But the idea is similar to a 2002 state program that used bonuses to bring successful suburban principals and one from elsewhere in the city to five troubled Baltimore schools. After three years, test scores at two elementary schools improved tremendously (one principal had to drop out), but progress at two middle schools was modest.

That's why Mr. Ehrlich thinks it would be better to spend $1.6 million on a principals' leadership academy that would provide more skills training. And to fulfill their roles as instructional leaders, principals need adequate staff and other resources. Politics aside, it wouldn't hurt to offer financial rewards and better training and support to attract quality principals who can turn around failing schools.

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