Practices for hiring school principals fall short, study says

Fordham analysis suggests job needs an overhaul

Principals are a guiding force in schools, so how do school districts in the U.S. attract leaders who are right for their district, and retain them? 

“Lacking Leaders: The Challenges of Principal Recruitment, Selection and Placement,” a study released today by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, examines five urban school districts that have sought to improve their principal-hiring process in recent years.

The study unveils three key findings — principals matter enormously, the job needs an overhaul and processes for hiring also need an overhaul.

The five urban school districts featured in the study opened up their “back door,” so to speak, and were candid regarding their practices in exchange for anonymity.

According to Chester Finn, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, the decision to take on the study was an easy one for the institute.

“We’ve been interested in school leadership issues for a while, and have looked at whether principals have the autonomy and authority to run schools well, governance issues and we believe principals may be the most important part of an education,” Finn said.

Though after 40 years in the field Finn is “hard to surprise,” he said it was evident that urban school districts in America do not have a good way of selecting school principals, and even more so after the study was completed.

“The extent to which the job itself may not be worth having is striking,” Finn said. “In order to really attract top-notch education executives, we may need to redefine, reshape, restructure the principal’s job. It’s as important as the selection process for jobs that exist today.”

The study found that principals often have high responsibility but limited authority, and that is a hard position to attract good candidates for, without providing the tools for leading and changing.

“The job frankly doesn’t pay very well, it’s a very different job than being a teacher, and yet doesn’t pay much more,” Finn said. “It’s part of the rethinking that needs to occur around the job.”

Gillian Locke, consultant with Public Impact and one of the study’s authors, said education researchers have paid most attention to the classroom teacher, but principals are really important when it comes to hiring.

“We knew little about how great leaders were recruited, developed and placed, and wanted to unveil a little bit of that mystery,” Locke said.

The impact of hiring a principal that is a good fit for a school district can be profound, according to Locke.

“Research shows that leaders matter a lot,” Locke said. “There is a direct correlation that about one-fourth of a school’s impact on achievement can be attributed to that school’s leader.”

Locke said the study’s primary finding is that principal hiring practices, even in pioneer districts, are falling behind, and needy schools aren’t getting the leaders they need.

However, hiring practices are not the entire solution.

“Being a principal is a tough responsibility,” Locke said. “Districts need to re-imagine the principal’s role in order to attract people to the job and pay leaders what they’re worth. The study’s evidence shows that this is a hard job to staff.”

The study makes the following recommendations for hiring and retaining great leaders at schools:

1. Make the job more appealing—and manageable. Give principals the power to lead, including authority over key staffing decisions, operations, and resources.

2. Pay great leaders what they are worth. Compensation must be commensurate with the demands, responsibilities, and risks of the job—and should reward success in this challenging role.

3. Take a proactive approach to recruitment. Develop criteria to identify promising candidates both inside and outside of the district and actively seek them out. At the same time, identify and prepare internal candidates systematically and early—and eliminate barriers that might discourage high-potential candidates.

4. Insist on evidence of a candidate’s prior success in boosting pupil achievement.

5. Evaluate candidates against the competencies and skills demonstrated by successful principals.

6. Design the placement process to match individual schools’ needs with particular candidates’ strengths.

7. Continually evaluate hiring efforts. Collect and analyze all relevant data, and then develop metrics by which to assess each stage of the process, particularly in relation to the school results that follow.

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