School's In: The Challenges Ahead

THE BALTIMORE SUN

THINK BACK to your childhood and conjure up the image of your school principal. You probably remember the dreaded trips to the principal's office, detention, or trying to pretend as if you were behaving when he or she walked unexpectedly into your classroom. But the job has changed dramatically in recent years, and there are fewer and fewer qualified people who want to take it.

Being a public school principal isn't easy today. In Baltimore, with a population of children who too often carry significant emotional and physical baggage by the time they enter kindergarten, the job is particularly tough.

Principals not only must manage a building and enforce discipline, but they are now viewed as the instructional leaders in a school as well. Many potential candidates feel the salary differential between a veteran teacher and a principal is not substantial enough to warrant the increase in time and responsibility. And if that isn't enough, principals are now being held to unprecedented levels of accountability.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act links student academic achievement to the school principal. As part of this new system of accountability, the Maryland State Department of Education just released its roster of schools in need of improvement, and while there was some good news in Baltimore, 76 schools (out of a total of 184) still found their names on the list. If their test scores don't shape up, the state has the right to take corrective action, including the replacement of principals.

Like most cities, Baltimore has an immediate need for qualified candidates for these top jobs. Not only are there vacancies every year, but there are also principals who have not produced what the state has determined to be an acceptable level of academic achievement.

Unfortunately, despite this need, the city school system has not had a principal recruitment plan for years. The good news is that one is reportedly in the works. If it reflects the best practices in other urban school systems, it will include a restructuring of the current program for internal promotion, combined with an expansion of the programs that recruit external and nontraditional candidates.

Baltimore's current system of internal promotion doesn't work. Many credentialed candidates have been sitting in the pool of potential principals for years without promotion. Why? Like many public school systems, instead of aggressively recruiting teachers and staff who have obvious leadership potential into the pool of principal candidates, many have taken the required coursework and self-selected into the pool. But they may not be considered up to snuff and are therefore not hired.

While the internal promotion policy may be in need of reform, until recently the external recruitment of principals had been far worse. Speak to principals who were recruited from outside the city system a few years ago and you hear horror stories of missing paychecks, broken promises and a confrontational relationship with North Avenue.

Happily, through creative programs such as the Johns Hopkins-Morgan State principal intern partnership, run in collaboration with the city school system, qualified nontraditional candidates are beginning to emerge. This partnership draws upon the rich resources of our higher education establishments and combines that knowledge with real everyday experience of being a principal in Baltimore.

The program is a new one, and only time will tell how effective it will be. But early indications are that it is producing quality principals, and it appears to be getting stronger by the year. Baltimore needs more programs like this one that diversify the leadership in our schools.

But we have to do a better job of growing our own candidates from within the school system as well. With a restructuring of the internal promotion policy, in addition to the expansion of the efforts to bring in qualified external and nontraditional candidates, the city school system can strengthen the leadership in its schools and avoid placing unqualified candidates in these demanding positions. Doing so will pay long-term dividends.

Christopher N. Maher is education director of Advocates for Children and Youth.

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