Training our next school leaders

Do better public schools in Maryland begin in the principal's office?

Data from the National Center for Education Statistics suggest that the representation of the principalship in America continues to undergo a major shift in terms of demographic composition. Long considered the capstone role of a long and rewarding career in education, the principalship has begun to skew toward a much younger, more diverse and more female audience who bring fewer years of experience and educational credentials to the profession than were evident in the role a mere 25 years ago. With these changes come a renewed opportunity to consider a fresh perspective from school leaders to deal with a rapidly shifting student population across Maryland schools and beyond. Conversely, the pace at which districts need to replace principals throughout the region due to increased rates of movement among principal seats raises questions around threats to long-term stability in school leadership at a time of shifting budgets and amid rising demand for stronger leadership accountability on standardized assessments such as the Partnership for Assessment Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC).

According to a recent New York Times article ("Want to Fix Schools? Go to the Principal's Office," March 10), "Principals are so important because they offer one of the most effective means to improve teaching." Yet, even as the principalship continues to be touted as the second most critical factor to impact school achievement, the demographics of the role have shifted significantly with little attention paid across the profession to differentiating training, professional development or ongoing support. Fewer sitting principals surveyed have educational credentials beyond a master's degree as compared to their predecessors from 25 years ago, as well as fewer years of experience and education as they head into the position. The Schools and Staffing Survey also reports an increase in the overall percentage of women in the profession from 31 percent to a majority 52 percent. This correlates with a related increase in the number of principals in the U.S. from nearly 78,000 to almost 90,000 between 1987 and 2012, likely due to the growing number of charter schools that have opened during this period as well as rising school enrollment trends in the southwestern part of the country.

At the same time, principals are staying in the seat fewer years. There were 29 percent fewer experienced principals with 10 or more years of experience in 2012 than there were in 1987. The current average age of new public school principals is 43 years versus nearly 55 years for experienced principals. And new principals aren't staying in their seat long — on average, only 11 percent of sitting principals in traditional public schools surveyed in 2012 had more than 10 years of experience. Longevity among sitting charter school principals with 10 or more years fared even worse, declining to less than 8 percent of all charter school principals. In fact, today's principal sits in their school for an average of only four years in traditional public schools and three years in charter schools before choosing to move on to another principalship, another role in the district office or perhaps to another profession entirely.

Meanwhile, more attention around the region has been rightfully focused on another key demographic shift happening simultaneous to changes in the principalship. Since 2000, every one of the 24 jurisdictions in the state has registered a significant increase in both the numbers and percentages of students receiving free and reduced meals, a conventional proxy for family poverty rates. Even traditional areas of relative wealth such as Montgomery County have not been exempt from this growth during the past 15 years with a rise of nearly 17,000 more students in need and constituting more than a third of its student population. Equally striking are the relatively large proportions of such students in rural districts such as Wicomico and Somerset counties where rates hover between 60 and 70 percent. Overall, Maryland showed a 17-point increase from 29 percent in 2009 to 46 percent in 2015 of all school-age children receiving a discounted or free meal.

However, a collective response to help principals train for and deal with these challenges has been relatively obscure. Given the challenges associated with addressing rising levels of poverty in our classrooms, an effectual response by school leaders demands that those with a stake in the success of our public schools call attention to ways to better prepare and support nascent principals. The evolving nature of the principalship suggests a future candid conversation around how to best prepare schools and districts for this new systemic expectation of musical chairs in school leadership. For our part, the Johns Hopkins University School of Education has partnered with Prince George's County Public Schools to convene a first-ever regional conversation this week on the topic. Greater Impact 2017 will bring together district leaders, university faculty and related agency partners on the Hopkins campus to initiate a discussion around how our collective efforts can advance the mutual goal of having ready and supported school leaders for every school in our area.

With a keen eye towards this future, the Wallace Foundation, for example, has already deeply invested in helping several districts throughout our region develop a comprehensive response to growing and sustaining strong principal pipelines. There are surely others who will need to be at the table as this issue continues to impact a wider constituency across the state and broader region. Taken together, the data suggests the need for a fresh approach in recruiting, hiring and training of aspiring school leaders who increasingly see the principalship as a midcareer pathway across multiple roles and districts. The continued academic success of our children necessitates this consideration.

Annette Campbell Anderson, Baltimore

The writer is assistant dean for community schools at Johns Hopkins University.

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