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Empty Classroom (Photo: Getty Images) Empty Classroom (Photo: Getty Images)  

Report: To Improve Schools, Pay Principals $100,000

America is producing low-quality school principals who lack the ability to lead, and that can be changed by making them more like business leaders, says a new study from a conservative think tank.

Lacking Leaders, a new report coauthored by Daniela Doyle and Gillian Locke and released Tuesday by the Fordham Institute, assessed the results at five urban school districts across the country that had tried to improve their principal hires in recent years. The report argues that the trick to getting better leadership in schools is to provide principals with greater authority and autonomy to make a difference. Oh, and a $100,000 raise might not hurt.

Currently, Fordham argues, being a principal, particularly in a struggling school, is a tough job with little appeal to those with top talent.

“Leaders must deal with everything from overstretched budgets to mediocre teachers to unruly (and potentially dangerous) students, not to mention heavy pressure to boost academic results (without, of course, ‘teaching to the test,’ much less engaging [in] even more dubious practices),” the report says.

The challenges of being a principal, the report continues, mean that treating the job as simply an extension of teaching is insufficient.

“Districts need to stop viewing principals as glorified teachers and more as executives with expertise in instruction, operations, and finance… This is not a case of ‘advertise it and they will come.’ It’s more like ‘make it a phenomenal career opportunity and they will consider it,’” says the report.

Currently though, the prospect of being a principal strikes many teachers as far less than phenomenal. While teachers can gain tenure and nearly complete job security after a few years of work, principals can be fired more easily. While principals nominally lead a school, the report adds that their powers are often more akin to those of government middle managers than those with true executive authority. In addition, recent boosts to pay for high-performing or highly-qualified teachers in many districts mean that the pay gains to be had by entering administration are initially modest, and occasionally nonexistent.

“Accountability is a major deterrent for people,” said one unnamed assistant superintendent in the report. “If you are a lead teacher in our district, you can make significantly more than assistant principals, while shouldering less accountability and working fewer days, so there is no incentive to leave the classroom.”

One solution Fordham suggests is straightforward: Make principal jobs more attractive by offering a big pay boost. With approximately 100,000 school principals across the United States, Fordham argues, giving a $100,000 raise to principals would cost the country $10 billion a year.

“[That's] obviously not chump change. But that’s less than 2 percent of the K–12 public school budget—and $5 billion less than the total new cost estimated to fund President Obama’s pre-K plan,” the report says.

Boosting pay isn’t the only solution, however. Fordham suggests that school districts could make jobs more appealing by giving principals more leeway to operate like chief executives. Schools could create more room for principals to delegate leadership responsibilities to enterprising teachers, or give principals the budget to contract out challenging tasks such as data analysis.

In addition to changes to the job itself, Fordham is encouraging districts to approach recruitment as a more crucial task. Currently, many districts follow a ” process that primarily promotes from within using informal recruiting tools like encouraging a handful of promising district employees to apply for principal jobs. Districts should have a more deliberate strategy to finding talent, Fordham argues, with human resources representatives actively seeking out capable talent and encouraging them to apply, much as a technology company might seek to recruit top software developers.

Fordham also suggests that in acknowledging a principal’s job as unique from teaching, districts should also lighten up on credentialing requirements, thereby allowing top administrative talent to transition into school leadership from entirely different fields.

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