ERIC Identifier: ED436815
Publication Date: 1999-12-00
Author: Hertling, Elizabeth
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Educational Management Eugene OR.
Conducting a Principal Search. ERIC Digest Number 133.
Educators know that a principal can make or break a school. The job is a
difficult one, and filling a vacancy can be "as elusive as the search for the
Holy Grail" (Jones 1995). School districts are struggling to complete that
elusive quest nationwide in the face of a shortage of administrative candidates
for the principalship. In 1998, fifty percent of 400 superintendents surveyed
reported trouble filling principal vacancies (Educational Research Service and
Why does this shortage of candidates exist? One reason is that an increasing
number of school administrators are retiring. The U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics
estimates that over the next decade, 80,000 principals will either retire or
leave the profession (Jones). Others cite low pay, demanding hours, and stress
as reasons fewer are attracted to the principalship. The growing demand for
accountability and the increased influence of parents also turn off some school
leaders. "It seemed like I spent all my time fighting," says Jim Ford, a
standout principal who left his position (Williams 1999).
This Digest addresses the steps school boards and district officials can take
to find qualified applicants for vacant school leadership positions.
HOW CAN SCHOOL DISTRICTS INCREASE THE CANDIDATE
Preventive measures to increase the pool of qualified candidates for
the position can simplify a search. Anderson (1991) recommends developing a pool
of qualified candidates inside the school by creating career ladders. For career
ladders to work, he says, districts must give the individuals who occupy these
positions sufficiently diverse experience to qualify them for the principalship.
For example, assistant principals should not be treated as "single-facet
administrators" good only as disciplinarians or directors of activities
Recruiting teachers through internships and training programs is another way
of increasing the pool of qualified principal candidates. Barker (1997) tells
districts to be aggressive: identify the professional and personal benefits of
the principalship and then sell those benefits to talented teachers. Districts
should also make sure the salary differential between the two positions is
sufficiently large to motivate teachers to take on the responsibilities of the
At California's Oxnard Union High School District, the staff-development
coordinator meets monthly with a hand-picked group of classroom teachers to
discuss leadership and other topics essential to the principal's role. These
teachers are given opportunities to shadow principals and to learn about
credential and degree programs in educational administration (Adams 1999).
WHERE DOES THE PRINCIPAL SEARCH BEGIN?
The first step in
conducting a principal search is to announce that there is a vacancy. Seyfarth
(1996) recommends first preparing a job model or job description. Because the
duties differ from district to district and school to school, Seyfarth suggests
interviewing those who currently hold the position. Ask staff members, parents,
and students to describe what they believe the school needs from their
principal, Jones adds. The list of duties can then be converted into an
inventory of results sought, and finally, descriptions of the job environment
and priority actions can be included (Seyfarth).
By completing a job model, district officials may avoid a common problem:
vacancy announcements that are too vague, often not even specifying the
particular school where the opening exists (Anderson). An announcement that
lists the special needs and characteristics of a school is more likely to
attract good candidates, as well as increase the chances of selecting the right
person for the job.
Elements in vacancy announcements include the required tasks to be
accomplished by the person filling the position; important characteristics of
the staff; students' family backgrounds, cultures, and feelings about the
school; as well as information about other executives in the school system
Once the vacancy announcement is written, where should administrators
advertise? Many districts announce all vacancies to current employees.
Publications such as Education Week and newspapers should be considered, as well
as state and national professional associations.
Anderson argues that having a set of criteria for selection before beginning
the screening process is vital to the success of the search process. He cites
Baltzell and Dentler's study (1983), which found that districts that put off
establishing a list of criteria often did not hire based on skill or merit, but
on how a candidate would fit into their district, thereby maintaining the
existing system. All these elements of advertising a principal vacancy involve
one very critical step: Know your school (Jones).
WHO DOES THE SCREENING?
Typically, screening is a two-step
process. First, the personnel office screens resumes and applications for
candidates who meet specific certification and experience standards. Next comes
the more formalized step of paper screening of those candidates who pass the
initial screening. Anderson suggests that this is where many districts begin to
fail in their search process. What is needed, he says, is a standardized ranking
system by which screeners can systematically rank applicants. As well, it is
important to include others besides senior administrators in the screening
process: teachers, principals, parents, and even students.
There are many different options available to districts in this step in their
search. One is the use of an assessment center to screen potential candidates.
The candidates participate in simulations that help districts to pinpoint
potential principals' specific strengths in such professional areas as problem
analysis, judgment, decisiveness, and leadership (Anderson).
Another option is the use of written assessments. Writing assignments help
screeners assess not only the candidate's beliefs, but communication skills as
WHAT CONSTITUTES AN EFFECTIVE INTERVIEW?
interview is the most widely used and most influential tool in hiring decisions,
it is neither valid nor reliable if used incorrectly. Anderson notes that the
typical interview is unstructured, lasts less than one hour, and is highly
influenced by first impressions. Studies suggest that interviewers may decide to
hire or reject an applicant within the first five minutes of an interview
How can interviews be made to work? The first step is to determine who will
interview the candidates. Interviewers should posses such qualities as alertness
to cues, ability to make fine distinctions, and ability to suppress biases,
Anderson says. In some exemplary districts, he says, superintendents establish
the selection process, but then wait until a committee of parents, teachers, and
principals identify two or three top candidates. Winter and others (1998)
recommend training for interviewers, particularly teachers who may search for an
instructional leader and overlook other important administrative qualities.
The structure of the interview process can vary. The interview itself, argues
Anderson, is more effective and reliable when all candidates are asked
identical, predetermined, well-thought-out questions. One school district sums
up the questioning process by saying, "Tell us what you would do, show us what
you would do, let us ask others what you have done in similar situations"
Some districts ask applicants to demonstrate their skills in a performance
simulation, such as watching a twenty-minute classroom lesson designed
specifically for the interview by a staff-development teacher. The applicant
then prepares an observation report and holds a conference with the teacher who
conducted the lesson (Anderson).
As for the actual process of the interview, only a few members of the
interviewing team should conduct the initial interviews, suggests Raisch (1993).
Then, once the candidates have been narrowed down, the entire team can be
divided into panels, and the candidates can move from one group to the next. The
superintendent then asks for the names of two or three people who seemed the
most qualified; he or she also asks the group to talk generally about the
Another step may be to visit the finalists at their "home turf." As well,
superintendents must check references. Barone (1994) warns administrators to
look out for misleading references that should send up a red flag, including
descriptions such as "a real workaholic." That person may accomplish in 80 hours
what another could do in 40. "Always accessible" may mean that the person will
drop everything to see whomever asks, indicating a lack of time-management
HOW CAN DISTRICTS MAKE THE PRINCIPALSHIP MORE
Can school districts change the structure of the principalship
to make the position more attractive to some qualified candidates? Some
observers believe that, to provide more incentives for talented administrators,
the position of principal needs to be restructured.
McAdams recommends that districts preserve the principal's role of
instructional leadership by placing less emphasis on budgetary and legal
responsibilities. To do this, districts would need to add support-services
In the Oxnard School District, Superintendent Richard Duarte, with the school
board's approval, has placed a coadministrator at each elementary school with an
enrollment of 900 or more. Likewise, in Thousand Oaks, California, the Conejo
Unified School District has authorized vice-principalships for its three
elementary schools that exceed 700 enrollment (Adams). Giving principals more
authority to make decisions would free them to perform at their highest level of
efficiency. Barker advocates higher salaries for principals and stronger
mentoring systems for new principals. Job sharing is also an option for
districts. Two people shouldering the responsibilities can ease the stress and
isolation that many administrators may feel.
Adams, Jeanne P. "Good Principals, Good Schools." Thrust for Educational Leadership (September/October 1999): 8-11.
Anderson, Mark E. Principals: How To Train, Recruit, Select, Induct, and
Evaluate Leaders for America's Schools. Eugene, Oregon: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Educational Management, University of Oregon, 1991. 133 pages. ED 337 843.
Baltzell, Catherine D., and Robert A. Dentler. Selecting American Principals:
A Sourcebook for Educators. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Abt Associates, Inc.,
January 1983. 68 pages. ED 236 811.
Barker, Sandra L. "Is Your Successor in Your Schoolhouse? Finding Principal
Candidates." NASSP Bulletin 81, 592 (November 1997): 85-91. EJ 553 822.
Barone, Stephen G. "Avant Garde-Or Out to Lunch?" The Executive Educator 16,
5 (May 1994): 47-48.
Educational Research Service; National Association of Elementary School
Principals; and National Association of Secondary School Principals. Is There a
Shortage of Qualified Candidates for Openings in the Principalship? An
Exploratory Study. Arlington, Virginia: Authors, 1998.
Jones, Rebecca. "Picturing Your Perfect Principal." The Executive Educator
17, 5 (May 1995): 16-21. EJ 502 941.
McAdams, Richard P. "Who'll Run the Schools?" The American School Board
Journal 185, 8 (August 1998): 37-39. EJ 570 113.
Moore, Duane H. Where Have All the Principals Gone? Rochester, Michigan:
Oakland University, 1999. 9 pages. ED 429 368.
Raisch, C. Daniel. "Let Teachers Pick Principals." The Executive Educator 15,
8 (August 1993): 23-24. EJ 466 885.
Seyfarth, John T. Personnel Management for Effective Schools. Second Edition.
Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1996. ED 416 568.
Williams, Anne. "Toll on Principals Creates Vacancies." The Register-Guard
132, 317 (September 6, 1999): 1.
Winter, Paul A.; Donna H. McCabe; and Rose Mary Newton. "Principal Selection
Decisions Made by Teachers." Journal of School Leadership 8,3 (May 1998):
251-79. EJ 565 115.
A Product of the ERIC Clearinghouse on Educational Management, College of
Education, University of Oregon, Eugene, Oregon 97403-5207.