Help Wanted: School Principals

by Gary Gordon, EdD
Global Practice Leader, Education Division

A 1998 study by the Association of Elementary School Principals found that 50% of school districts with principal vacancies claimed a shortage of qualified principal candidates. That shortage was found in rural, suburban, and urban districts alike. Fifty-five percent of the districts reported a shortage of qualified candidates for high school and middle school principal positions, while 47% reported a shortage of elementary candidates.

When school district representatives were asked why there was a shortage of qualified applicants, the top three reasons were compensation, job stress, and time requirements.

As a former school principal, I can attest that principals' jobs are big, demanding, and ever-changing. An examination of issues related to job stress, time requirements, and compensation, as well as feedback collected from outstanding principals in recent Gallup focus groups*, may help explain why few teachers, and fewer people outside of education, aspire to be principals.

Stress

A principal in one of Gallup's focus groups last year described the expectations of today's principals this way, "Every single day you make a choice. Do you [focus on being] the instructional leader of the school, or do you make a dent on the paperwork, take care of things like stocking toilet paper, fixing leaky faucets, and all of that? I go home sometimes feeling very guilty that I did not spend enough time with the kids and the teachers."

Principals experience greater job stress today because the role has changed. At one time, the principal's role was primarily to manage the building, as well as manage budgets, students, staff, food service, transportation, and parent communication.

All of these expectations still exist, but new demands require more of the principal's direct involvement. With the advent of statewide accountability testing mandated by the federal government's No Child Left Behind requirements, student performance on tests is the key to the success of the principal, the school, and the district. Pressure to improve test scores requires that principals know curriculum and instructional techniques, analyze and use student performance data, provide and arrange staff development that drives student learning, work with an expanded array of community members and business partners, and coordinate community services for students.

Time Required

In studying great principals over the past 20 years, Gallup has consistently found a strong work ethic and a willingness to commit lots of time to the job. Principals in Gallup's focus groups reported an average 60-hour workweek. High school principals often work 14- and 16-hour days during the high activity season. One high school principal describes the end of a day that started at 6:45 a.m., "School's out for the day, but I am triple-booked for after school. I have a soccer tournament, a softball tournament, and a varsity baseball game. So, I make an appearance at the soccer tournament; I make an appearance at the softball tournament; I have an appearance at the varsity baseball game. At 9:30 p.m., I go home."

Activities create many of the time demands, but the nature of principals' work results in long days. Outstanding principals are rarely at their desks. Paperwork is completed after answering telephone calls, and the telephone calls are often returned after students go home. During the day when students are in the building, principals in Gallup's focus groups consistently reported being in the hallways, classrooms, and lunchrooms, talking with students and teachers.

Compensation

The compensation issue is significant for beginning and long-term principals. As the teacher shortage materialized over the last decade, teacher salaries rose. As a result, the comparative advantage of principal salaries has narrowed in many districts. Teachers' salaries cover approximately nine months of employment. A principal's salary often covers an employment period of 10 months, and often 12 months at the high school level.

As a result, while a beginning principal's salary may be slightly higher than a teacher's, the daily amount earned may be similar to a veteran teacher's. Considering extra assignments, for which a teacher may receive additional pay, a beginning principal may actually earn less per day than a teacher in the same school district.

A New Generation

An entire generation of principals is leaving our schools. As we choose the new generation of school leaders, three actions seem clear. While most teachers and principals aren't in it for the money, school districts must address the issue of principal salaries, making them attractive to teachers and individuals outside of education. The principal's job is changing, and it is imperative that the new leaders have the right talents and are comfortable with the new requirements for student achievement. Lastly, school districts must find ways to relieve principals of excessively long work hours. If we fail in these efforts, we fail in attracting the leaders our students deserve.

*Gallup conducted focus groups in 2001 and 2002 with more than 100 principals from six states: California, Nebraska, Illinois, New Jersey, Virginia, and Alabama. The principals were identified as outstanding principals by university professors responsible for the training of principals. Teacher ratings were done of a sample of the principals and compared to teacher ratings of a random set of principals to verify a difference. The teacher ratings for the principals rated outstanding was higher than the random group and verified their consideration as a study group.


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