U.S. education fails to adapt to the changing nature of students, principals

The representation of the principalship in America continues to undergo a major shift in terms of demographic composition, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. Long considered the capstone role of a lengthy and rewarding career in education, the principalship has begun to skew toward a much younger group of people who bring fewer years of experience and fewer educational credentials to the profession than were evident a mere 25 years ago.

Fewer sitting principals surveyed have educational credentials beyond a master's degree as compared to their predecessors, and the current average age of new public school principals is 43 years versus nearly 55 years for experienced principals. There were 29 percent fewer principals with 10 or more years of experience in 2012 than there were in 1987. (Only 11 percent of sitting principals in traditional public schools surveyed in 2012 had more than 10 years of experience; in charter schools, the figure is less than 8 percent.) At the same time, principals are staying in the seat fewer years. In fact, today's principals sit in their schools for an average of only 4 years in traditional public schools and 3 years in charter schools before choosing to move on to another principalship, another role in the district office or perhaps to another profession entirely.

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.

Meanwhile, more attention around our 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 Maryland has registered a significant increase in both the numbers and percentages of students receiving free and reduced meals (FARMS), 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 — constituting more than a third of its student population. Equally striking are the relatively large proportions of FARMS 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 FARMS.

With these changes comes a renewed opportunity to consider a fresh perspective from school leaders to deal with the rapidly shifting student population across Maryland schools and beyond. However, even as the principalship continues to be touted as the second most critical factor behind classroom instruction to impact school achievement, little attention has been paid across the profession to differentiating training, professional development or ongoing support amid ongoing changes to the position and the student body. This raises questions about 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).

The evolving nature of the principalship suggests the need for a 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 partnered with Prince George's County Public Schools to convene a first-ever regional conversation on the topic last month. Greater Impact 2017 brought together nearly 150 district leaders, university faculty and related agency partners from across the country to the Hopkins campus to consider best practices in this vein and 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 toward 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 mid-career pathway across multiple roles and districts. The continued academic success of our children necessitates this consideration.

Annette Campbell Anderson is assistant dean for community schools at Johns Hopkins University; her email is annette.anderson@jhu.edu.

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