It’s a widely held belief that a talented leader is the key to a successful school. Research shows that highly effective principals put a student’s achievement gains two to seven months ahead in a single school year—while weak leaders slow a student’s progress by the same amount.
But how can schools attract and retain good principals? One education-policy think tank suggests that part of the answer may be making the role more like an executive and giving each principal a $100,000 salary raise.
A new report, released Tuesday by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, says too many U.S. principals lack the capacity to lead. After tracking five urban districts across the country—nearly all of which had tried to improve principal hiring practices in recent years—the study concluded that being a principal is a high-pressure, grueling, and underpaid job, where responsibilities significantly exceed authority. At a time of intensifying testing standards, when U.S. students are falling behind their international peers, schools need top-rate leaders more than ever. But inadequate salaries and limited power over key hiring decisions make the job an increasingly tougher sell. Unsurprisingly, good principals tend to come and go.
Fordham’s solution: Stop viewing principals as “glorified teachers” and more as “executives with expertise in instruction, operations, and finance.” To that end, principals should earn considerably more than other school staff who have less responsibility. And like all effective managers, principals need the ability to build a leadership team, so their duties—from academics to discipline—don’t overwhelm them. Make principalship a “phenomenal career,” the argument goes, and great people will apply.
“Todays principals are in a senior management position,” says Dr. Chester E. Finn, Jr., a former assistant secretary of education under Ronald Reagan and president of the Fordham Institute. “Demands are placed on them 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. They are the CEO of the school. As in any other field, if you want qualified people, you are going to have to pay principals commensurate with the job that they currently have.”
Much has changed over the last 20 years, he explains. Above all, the principal is now judged by student achievement and faces cascading sanctions and interventions if a school doesn’t hit certain proficiency metrics. The data burden is huge, and the sheer number of decisions can be overpowering. Which child has to go to summer school? Which reading program needs to be replaced? Which teacher needs additional professional development?
“Layer on top of that, school choice. Kids and parents have a variety of mechanisms if they aren’t satisfied,” says Dr. Finn, who sees a talent problem particularly in small towns, where it’s hard to attract superstars in education. “So now it’s also the principal’s job to potentially market the school to various constituencies and then, given tight budgets, principals also have to be fundraisers with local businesses some of the time.”
However, he warns, raising a principal’s pay alone won’t attract a new generation of leaders. Giving each principal a $100,00 raise—something he believes the country can afford, as it will amount to less than 2 percent of the K-12 school budget—goes hand in hand with giving them more professional respect and autonomy. “Who wants to be a top notch leader in a low notch job?” he says. After all, private schools already compensate headmasters like executives, as do private and public universities.
Ironically though, in many districts aspiring teachers take a pay cut on their way to the principal’s office. “It’s not uncommon for principals to have to become an assistant principal first,” says Daniela Doyle, a senior consultant with Public Impact and co-author of the Fordham study. “Often it’s not that the base pay is lower, it’s that teachers are eligible for supplemental pay through special duties they can assume or national board certifications.” Above all else, Doyle found the five school districts struggled with principal placement because they don’t really recruit. “There are great principal candidates falling through the cracks,” she says. “Schools did very little to actively find people. They often just advertised a position, sitting back and waiting for the talent to come to them, which we know from other sectors isn’t usually an effective strategy.”