Over the last two years, we have interviewed dozens of educators about school leadership. At the end of every conversation, we always ask the educator if they might want to be a high school principal one day. Their answers are consistent: “No, thank you.”
Take Sonjah McBain. As an instructional coach at a small high school in New York City, Sonjah was beloved by students, staff and families. She was credited with drastically improving students’ results through rigorous, relevant instruction. Sonjah was quickly tapped for school leadership, and she apprenticed at her school, where she added leadership tasks to her plate while juggling her core responsibilities.
But the more Sonjah saw of school leadership, the less she wanted it. As she looked around, she saw a role focused on compliance, numbers, testing and operations, rather than creating a high-quality school where every student is known, challenged and supported.
“I wanted to develop culture, systems, figure out curriculum and co-teaching, be with the students,” she explained. “Principals don’t get that time. So much of their time is stolen. It becomes easy for school leaders to lose sight of the building and what makes it work.”
After completing her apprenticeship, Sonjah was firm — though school leadership wanted her, she did not want the job. Not in its current form. She opted for an assistant principal position instead.
Sonjah’s story is one we’ve heard often. Additionally, many leaders are calling it quits, walking away from a principalship in favor of roles as assistant principals, instructional coaches, teachers — or leaving the profession altogether. Nationally, the tenure of school leaders has decreased significantly over the last decade. one in five principals leaves their school every year; the annual principal turnover rate in the highest-poverty schools is 28 percent.
In a 2020 poll by the National Association of Secondary School Principals, 45 percent of principals said that pandemic working conditions were “accelerating their plans to leave the profession.”
So, what can we do to attract, develop, and retain good leaders?
Research tells us that school leaders are key to ensuring high achievement for all students and are powerful levers for change. School leaders can serve as multipliers — increasing the efficacy of a teaching staff, impacting an entire school rather than a handful of kids. We know that young people thrive in schools that offer them opportunities to develop identity, form authentic connections, find purpose and master competencies that are meaningful and linked to their goals for the future. We also know that, in the absence of great leadership, the status quo is failing students of color, low-income students, students learning English as a second language and students with disabilities.
In short, great leadership is essential to student success.
Yet effective and innovative leaders are not born — they are nurtured. As Sonjah explained, “Had I had the right supports — and extended supports to make school what it could be — my motivation would have been there to be a school leader.”
In our efforts to understand what is driving Sonjah and others away from leadership, we’ve found that one thing is clear — principals are set up to fail. They are not prepared or supported to create the school experience that all students deserve and need to succeed.
Most principal preparation programs lack focus and practical preparation. While on the job, principals receive limited or incoherent coaching and support, which leads to feelings of frustration and isolation. When these challenges are combined with the inarguable facts that the scope of the role is often too vast for one person and district conditions make autonomy and change elusive, the result is almost inevitable: Strong educators do not want to be school leaders. Current school leaders do not want to stay school leaders.
Quite simply, the pipeline for school leadership is broken.
We must give prospective leaders tangible support, resources and preparation to enhance their existing strengths so that they become powerful advocates and change agents in their communities. As we ask principals to combat the inequalities that have surfaced during this pandemic and those that have been there for centuries, we need to create a leadership pathway that focuses on leading for transformation.
Strong educators do not want to be school leaders. Current school leaders do not want to stay school leaders. Quite simply, the pipeline for school leadership is broken.
Research and effective principals tell us a lot about what is essential in strong preparation programs: prioritization of school leader competencies that go deep on instructional, adaptive and student-centered leadership; transformative learning experiences that bridge theory and practice; robust mentoring and professional development over multiple years; and meaningful apprenticeships that provide both fieldwork and gradual on-ramps. Aspiring leaders need to be able to try on the role of principal and understand what success can look like before they step into it.
Above all, leadership preparation programs must invest in recruiting leaders of color, and prepare all aspiring leaders to lead for equity, building their capacity to drive change in diverse communities.
There is no single action that will solve the broken pipeline; but in concert, these actions can help to develop and sustain transformative leaders.
It is time we look in the mirror and acknowledge that we can and must do better; we can create the school experience that all our students deserve. We can’t have equity and transformation in our schools if we don’t have it in our leadership pipelines and preparation.
Let’s transform schools and their leadership — together. We can give prospective leaders like Sonjah a reason to embrace this important role and lead schools worthy of the students they serve.
Elina Alayeva is executive director of Springpoint and Leah Hamilton is director of education for the Barr Foundation.
This story about developing principals was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.