A Lack of Principals

There's a crisis in our public schools. Fewer and fewer administrators are stepping forward to lead. More than 98% of California superintendents reported shortages of qualified administrators in a survey conducted last year.

The problem is so severe that it has become the focus of attention by the state Assembly and Senate (K-12 Master Plan Committee), the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, school boards and local communities.

This year, the commission conducted public forums in six cities around California to gather information on the reasons for the shortage and investigate possible solutions. Our institution, Cal State Fullerton, prepares more than 100 new administrators annually. Demand to employ these graduates is strong, with more than 25 school districts attending a job fair on the campus in March. Overall, California has an annual "production" of 2,000 to 3,500 newly licensed and prepared prospective administrators. This is an abundant and continuous supply from which to hire. There are, and will be, sufficient quantities of licensed administrators. The problem isn't the number of leaders available. The problem is the job.

Currently only 38% of qualified school administrators actually assume leadership positions in California schools. The overwhelming majority (62%) choose to remain in the classroom or change professions entirely. This is a staggering loss of leadership potential. No other profession can claim such a high loss of interest after professional preparation.

The principal's job has changed significantly during the last 20 years. The job has been negatively affected by changes including more students per facility, shortage of qualified and experienced teachers, increased instructional standards and accountability, rapid changes in curriculum, decreased support staff (counselors, school nurses, instructional aides and librarians), and other significant school reforms and trends.

School principals and potential candidates report finding the job increasingly difficult if not impossible to do well. Current principals say the job is simply not "doable." School superintendents report the greatest impediments to recruiting qualified school administrators include intense job stress and excessive work hours.

Other factors that influence job disillusionment include the changing demands of the job; inadequate time to satisfy parents, teachers, students and community; social problems in the school that make it difficult to focus on instructional practices; increased accountability with no matching authority to make the required improvements; and inadequate salaries that don't match the time invested. (Most candidates are well aware that top-paid teachers can earn more per day than administrators, and avoid intense job responsibilities for similar compensation.) It's no wonder the number of candidates for some administrative vacancies has dropped to catastrophic levels.

So job openings for principals will get harder to fill unless a solution is found. And ideas for solutions include ill-advised recommendations such as lowering standards for principal preparation, increasing training requirements for administrators or allowing school districts to "grow their own" (training teachers to be principals without comprehensive preparation programs like the ones already in place).

There are even suggestions to treat principal preparation like a "business" and license more agencies to flood the marketplace with candidates. None of these solutions addresses the very heart of the problem--the principal's job. An overwhelming number (90%) of current aspiring candidates report they would take the job if it were made "doable."

The problem will remain unless courageous action is taken to reinvent the role of principal. Until we can assure candidates that their efforts and talents will be respected and effectively utilized, we won't have adequate numbers of high-quality candidates available for our schools.

Instead, we will have jobs going unfilled or filled by individuals ill-prepared to lead California's schools in the 21st century. And those ill-prepared administrators will continue to be placed where they have historically been placed in the past: in poor, minority neighborhoods that need and deserve the best leaders we can provide.

We must ensure that all schools are an appropriate size for leading and learning, that resources in and out of the classroom (human and material) are effective and that the leader's job accountability will be matched by appropriate authority. This will be good for attracting the talented and successful leaders we need to enhance student learning. And isn't that what education is all about?

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