Retaining Principals. ERIC Digest.
by Hertling, Elizabeth
The shortage of applicants for the position of principal is receiving
a lot of media coverage. Stories feature schools opening with temporary
principals at the start of the school year and tell of vacancies due to
A study of elementary and middle-school principals conducted by the
National Association of Elementary School Principals in 1998 found that
the 42 percent turnover that has existed during the last ten years is likely
to continue into the next decade (Doud and Keller 1998). The shortage of
applicants for principal-ships makes retaining current principals even
This Digest examines some reasons--other than retirement--that school
principals leave their jobs, and offers strategies districts can employ
to retain them.
WHY DO PRINCIPALS LEAVE THEIR JOBS?
Today's principal is faced with the complex task of creating a school-wide
vision, being an instructional leader, planning for effective professional
development, guiding teachers, handling discipline, attending events, coordinating
buses, and all the other minute details that come with supervising a school
"In short, the... principal must be a hero!" say Diane Yerkes and Curtis
Guaglianone (1998). They point to many factors that make the principalship
* long hours-for most, a 60- to 80-hour work week
* workload and complexity of job
* supervision of evening activities "unending"
* minimal pay difference between top teacher and administrator
* feeling overwhelmed with very high expectations
* state and district mandates that require "mountains" of paperwork
* increasingly complex society and social problems
The increasing demands of the position can cause many principals to
feel the stress is not worth it.
"It used to be that you could get by being a good manager. Now principals
must do everything from ensuring that immigrant students learn English
to bringing all kids up to high standards, and so much more," said Carole
Kennedy, principal in residence at the U.S. Department of Education (Ashford
Erosion of authority to effect change, escalating expectations of accountability,
lack of support, and a stressful political environment for school leaders
are other factors that cause principals either to consider leaving the
field entirely or to request classroom teaching assignments (Adams 1999).
ARE TWO HEADS BETTER THAN ONE?
To ease the burden on overworked principals, some school districts are
now turning to job sharing. Dividing tasks between two leaders who possess
skills in different areas-such as supervising instruction and managing
discipline-lets schools benefit from more well-rounded leadership. Job
sharing also makes it possible for someone who is interested in pursuing
a career in administration to fill a part-time internship-type position.
How does job sharing work? It depends on the needs of the school. Muffs
and Schmitz (1999) describe one school's solution: The "veteran" principal
works the "first shift," and the intern principal covers the afternoon
hours. Because the job requires constant communication, the two principals'
shifts overlap at least one hour a day so they can work together. Or, one
observes a class while the other addresses other school concerns. Although
both principals attend some school-related evening events, they alternate
for other after school activities to so that both principals have more
time to spend with their families.
Farragut High School in Knoxville, Tennessee, also has experimented
with job sharing-except the job of principal is not shared by two people,
but by a team of six (Ashford). There is one principal for each grade level
and that person moves along with his or her class. For example, this year's
tenth-grade principal will be the eleventh-grade principal next year. After
the four-year rotation is complete, he or she starts over again with a
new class of ninth-graders.
In addition, Farragut also has a chief principal whose role is to work
closely with teachers as an instructional leader. He serves as the final
authority and oversees community relations, staff development, custodial
maintenance, and other administrative functions, as well as teacher evaluations.
A curriculum principal is in charge of curriculum matters, including textbooks
and a master schedule for the whole school, and spends time in the classroom
working with students.
HOW CAN THE TRADITIONAL PRINCIPAL'S ROLE BE REINVENTED?
Many principals complain that they are forced to spend too much time
handling administrative tasks such as setting bus schedules and overseeing
custodians, and too little time on instructional leadership. "Some weeks
I spend more time arranging to have the garbage picked up by the township
than observing classes," said one principal (Ashford).
In England and Wales, some schools have already addressed that problem
by splitting administrative duties such as budgeting and building management
away from instruction. School heads work in tandem with business managers,
called bursars (Richard).
In January 2001, the Houston, Texas, school district inaugurated a training
program to certify business managers, who are expected to ease the burden
on principals. The business managers are responsible for administrative
functions such as the school budget process, purchasing, payroll, facility
management, data management, transportation coordination, management of
non-instructional personnel, and compliance with state, district, and federal
regulations. The district suggests that principals might opt to use money
in their budget to hire one of these business managers in lieu of an assistant
WHAT OTHER METHODS EXIST TO RETAIN PRINCIPALS?
Hiring additional people to distribute the principal's workload is prohibitively
expensive for some districts. NAESP's study found that unless enrollment
at a school exceeds 600 students, it is unlikely that an assistant principal
position will be created (Doud and Keller).
One way to keep principals at their jobs is to provide an increased
level of professional development. The Educational Research Service (ERS)
found that principals repeatedly expressed a desire to augment their expertise
and personal skills, but found the current professional-development activities
at their schools lacking (2000). In a study of 105 California superintendents,
more than 65 percent listed poor interpersonal skills as a reason principals
may fail at their jobs (Davis 1997). The second highest reason was poor
decision-making. Both of these failings could be addressed--and avoided--through
ERS reported that one of the most frequently requested opportunities
for development was the chance to network with other principals to exchange
ideas, evaluate the demands of their jobs, and discuss how to implement
change at their schools. Principals also placed a high value on follow-up
training and training on how to translate ideas about change into practice.
Districts can learn from the Chicago Public Schools, which has developed
some of the most comprehensive programs for professional development of
principals. Training is available for aspiring principals, first-year principals,
and experienced administrators, and is geared toward addressing the specific
needs of each group. Techniques used in the training include case study,
simulation, reflective analysis, and coaching (Peterson and Kelley 2001).
Casey and Donaldson (2001) cite the case of California's Pajoaro Valley
Unified School District as a prime example of comprehensive professional
development. The program sets a common vision for principals through its
Professional Standards for Administrators, which establishes clear goals
for principals. Their Administrative Cycle of Inquiry includes self-assessment,
personal and site goal-setting, professional development, and evaluation.
This offers the principal the opportunity to self-reflect and to meet with
his or her supervisor and also with a peer/mentor partner.
The program is tailored to meet the needs of the district. Pajoaro Valley's
zone assistant superintendents gather information from principals regarding
their professional-development interests. The district's Professional Communities
Team then takes this information and provides the kinds of training and
growth opportunities the principals perceive they need.
WHAT CAN SCHOOL BOARDS DO TO HELP?
"The superintendent and the board of trustees must be committed to a
new vision of quality, accountability and sensitivity to... administrators,"
suggest Yerkes and Guaglianone.
Although the principal is responsible for establishing the climate and
culture of the school, Yerkes and Guaglianone say the principal is not
the sole source of the positive attributes of a healthy school. Students,
teachers, staff, parents, and the community all are partners in creating
a dynamic school. The authors suggest school boards should educate the
community about the changing role of the principal to garner increased
support for principals and perhaps lessen the demands on those occupying
Yerkes and Guaglianone also advise boards to take the following steps:
* Offer financial support for sabbaticals to give burnt-out principals
* Create a family-friendly environment to accommodate principals' personal
* Review the salary schedule and find a way to reward principals.
* Determine flexible attendance requirements and expectations at school
* Redesign the organizational structure of the job.
Doud and Keller also suggest that boards devise financial incentives
to keep retirement-eligible principals from leaving.
The principal's job is complex and demanding-and so is the task of administrators
faced with retaining them. There is no magic solution, no easy answer.
However, thoughtful examination of the nature of the principal's role will
better equip school districts to retain principals.
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Casey, John, and Clem Donaldson. "Only the Best." Leadership (January/February
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the Leaders We Need. Arlington, Virginia: Authors, 2000.
Muffs, Michael I., and Laura Ann Schmitz. "Job Sharing for Administrators:
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Peterson, Kent, and Carolyn Kelley. "Transforming School Leadership."
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