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by Gretchen Rhines Cheney
Not enough principals are satisfied with their jobs. While many school leaders care deeply about improving the academic abilities of their students, a recent MetLife study found that principal job satisfaction has decreased by 9 percent since 2008. Underlying reasons for this decrease in satisfaction include 48 percent of principals expressing they feel “great stress” several days a week. Additionally, 75 percent believe the job has become too complex and observe that while there is a high level of accountability for outcomes, they do not always have control over aspects of leadership that drive those outcomes, like finances, the removal of teachers, or curriculum and instruction. This combination of stress, lack of control and increasing job complexity led one-third of school leaders surveyed to report they are likely to leave the principalship to enter a different occupation.
Just as students are less likely to perform to the high-expectations No Child Left Behind (NCLB) created for our schools when suffering from undue stress, principals are unlikely to maximize their impact on student achievement and meet school accountability standards if they are experiencing continuous stress from factors outside of their control. We can minimize the negative impact on principal performance these issues cause, however, by redefining principal preparation so that programs adequately prepare future school leaders for the complexities and stresses of the job.
Interestingly, 75 percent of principals surveyed for the MetLife study reported feeling prepared for the job. When asked to define their leadership priorities, they highlighted some tough topics including implementing the Common Core State Standards, creating and maintaining an academically rigorous environment, and evaluating teacher effectiveness. They also note the importance of using student performance data to improve instruction and the need to develop strong teaching capacity across the school.
But these skills are not a focus of our current principal preparation structures. A study recently released by the George W. Bush Institute found that these important topics were not given nearly enough attention in how states define principal effectiveness or in principal preparation coursework. Only 27 states articulated in their principal effectiveness standards the role of the principal in hiring, developing, supporting, and evaluating teachers; implementing data-driven instruction; and developing a positive school culture. Many states do not even require their principal preparation programs to include courses on instructional leadership and human capital performance management.
More concerning is that many states are unwilling to strategically design or redesign principal preparation – 19 states actually limit principal preparation to institutions of higher learning.
So while principals say they are prepared for the job, it is not surprising that many leaders find the instructional leadership components of the job difficult to manage and very stressful. Yet this is the core of their work, and if anything, the stakes are only going to get higher as Common Core and new teacher evaluation systems roll out in the coming years.
We need to be paying a lot more attention to ensuring our leaders are prepared to take on these enormously challenging tasks and given the authority they need to drive improvement. Until we do, too many quality school leaders will burn out from the pressure of the job. Our schools and students cannot afford this continual churn of talent.
If we want great leaders to take on the most challenging schools, we must do more to promote effective principal preparation and increased job satisfaction.
This piece was guest authored by Gretchen Rhines Cheney. Gretchen founded and leads the PAROS Group, an independent education consulting operation based in Washington, DC. She is a published author on school leadership issues has served as a policy advisor to the Bush Institute’s Alliance to Reform Education Leadership (AREL) since 2011.
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