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As New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina begins to make policy decisions, many —such as limiting or even eliminating schools closures and restricting or ending the co-location of charter schools — are intended to roll back the policies of the previous administration. There is nothing unusual about members of a new administration coming in believing that they are smarter than their predecessors. Why else agree to accept the second hardest job in America if not to improve on the work of those who came before you?

School principal requirements
Eric Nadelstern

In one area, however, the Chancellor and her administration may soon discover that the future isn’t what it used to be. I’m speaking of the new requirement that prospective principals should have seven years of teaching experience. This policy change is likely to adversely affect the quality of school leaders in the future.

Allow me to explain. Thirty years ago I opened the first International High School in New York City. (Today, there are 16 in New York and two in California.) At the time, 80 percent of high school principals were middle-aged white guys. At 35, I was among the youngest.

In the years since, the demographic profile of high school principals has changed dramatically. The median age for all principals is in the mid-30s, and it’s not unusual to find principals in their late 20s. As importantly, there are many more women, African-Americans, Latinos and Asians in principal positions than there were when I first became a principal. Today, school leaders are a more diverse group, and more reflective of the demographics of the students we serve.

The question remains as to why the dramatic drop in median age. By way of attempting to better understand that change, we need to understand how young people approach work in the 21st Century. We know, for instance, that most young people today will have five or six jobs, if not careers, over the course of their working lives. This stands in stark contrast to my career and Carmen Farina’s since both of us have spent 40 years working in the New York City Public Schools. What’s more, we knew when we entered teaching that this would be our career destination.

In contrast, most young people today are only prepared to stay with their jobs as long as they feel they are learning and growing. When that growth levels off as it invariably does, they move on to another job where they can continue the learning trajectories. I’ve seen this trend among our best teachers and principals, with less talented individuals remaining in place longer. This is not a dynamic that I discovered, but rather, the conventional wisdom of the day in most professions. Nevertheless, as a profession, we have not sufficiently and systematically studied the demographic trends I’m describing, nor have we considered the implications for the way we structure our schools and manage human resource policies in school districts.

“This policy change is likely to adversely affect the quality of school leaders in the future.”

The Chancellor’s new policy regarding seven years of experience for principal candidates flies in the face of current working trends and demographics. As a result, it will likely have the following unintended consequences:

  • The strongest school leader prospects will go elsewhere, benefiting charter schools and other districts.
  • Those who remain and move into school leadership positions will likely be weaker candidates, many of whom will be motivated by the bump in salary.
  • The district will fall short of hiring the 200 new principals each year that it requires.

Any student of public policy understands the danger of exacerbating the very situation you are attempting to solve by the act of policy making on the fly based on intuition rather than data. I fear this policy might very well be such a pitfall, and hope that it’s not too late to study the demographic information before attempting to solve one problem by exacerbating a more serious one.

Eric Nadelstern is a former deputy chancellor for school support and instruction under Bloomberg and currently a professor of Practice in Educational Leadership at Teachers College, Columbia University. He is also the director of the Summer Principals Academy at Teachers College.

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9 Letters

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  1. I think 7 years should be the bare minimum of teaching experience required for a principal or administrator in any school. And the experience must be in the grades that that person will be overseeing. (elementary experience for an elementary principal, high school experience for a high school principal) Finally, principals should be required to return to teaching periodically (for a week or so, at least) to remain cognizant of the challenges that teachers face every day. Certainly administrative experience (or at least capacity) is important, but teaching experience is essential.

  2. I agree with Lola. 7 years should be a minimum! I would like Eric to define “best candidates.” My experience is that the mediocre teachers with little practical classroom experience and less desire to learn, become middle management leaders (principals in this case), rather than putting in the years needed for The real practical experience they need to lead. Eric, the reason a majority of teachers move into the principal program is money and prestige, not to help the common cause of education. The proof of that is in the record of any principal who was too lazy to do due diligence to get rid of their bad teachers. You are looking at education and leadership through tose-colored glasses.

  3. How does Mr. Nadelstern explain why we still have doctors? It takes many years to become a doctor, a school leader should be no different.

  4. One of the HUGE issues on the ground, in the trenches, is the need for principals to refine their ability to properly evaluate and provide meaningful feedback to teachers. How in the world would one do so without first experiencing and mastering to some degree the messy world of teaching? Poorly, I believe, and is such part of the issue in schools today. ESPECIALLY with evaluations having such high stakes, to suggest less than 7 years to me, is irresponsible.

  5. A path to management that works well for Walmart or McDonalds is inappropriate and a travesty with regard to public education as it is predicated on the belief that education is not a career, but merely a way station to an eventual better job. Isn’t this the approach used by Teach for America?

    After seven years a teacher may have learned enough of their content, craft and art to actually have something to offer to other new and/or experienced teachers in their particular education area, but it would be the rare person in their late 20’s or 30’s that has the maturity and wisdom to be an effective educational leader within the overall school. In years past, wasn’t the principal referred to as a Master Teacher?

    At any rate, if the concern of Mr. Nadelstern has to do with the learning and growing needs of talented young teachers necessary to retain them long enough in the classroom, there are many things that can be done by an effective principal and instructional leader to provide motivation and job satisfaction to his or her teachers.

    I do agree that the way we structure our schools and manage human resource policies in school districts is fundamental to attracting and retaining teachers, many of whom could go on to become outstanding principals. Unfortunately, the current education (no excuses) reform effort is resulting in teachers leaving the profession.

  6. Eric – your animus toward, and jealousy of, Carmen is clouding your judgment! Your Big Ideas (e.g., networks and ) were a big failure. Stop trying to prove otherwise! Now that we finally have a chancellor who recognizes that supporting real teaching and learning is the top priority, you can’t stand anything that brings us back to “the good ole days” of supervisors being qualified to supervise. A teacher with seven years experience is probably still in his/her late ’20s. We’re not talking about old white guys like you who, BTW, had a helluva easier time getting to be a principal than a woman like Carmen. Also, why are you using a 20-year old photo?

  7. I could be wrong on this, but it sounds like all of the negative comments so far are coming from “the older crowd.” I don’t think Nadelstern’s point was to argue that we should hire the youngest principals we can. He was pointing out that the younger generation approaches their career differently and that it may be difficult to keep high quality candidates teaching for 7 years so they can qualify for administration.
    Since we have multiple careers, we believe we can contribute a lot of diverse experience and knowledge that other candidates, who have only been in education, are missing out on. For example, I worked for a short while at a Big Four accounting firm as a Tech Consultant then I changed careers and became a teacher. In my first year of teaching I used my technology knowledge and experience to earn our school the Arizona Department of Education spotlight on Innovative Teaching for 2014. And it’s not like the school was gearing up for it and I stepped in at the last minute. I teach at a Title 1 school with zero resources. You have to remember, we are the generation of Mark Zuckerberg, where age means nothing if you work hard and keep expanding your world.
    As Ted Smith said, “In years past, wasn’t the principal referred to as a Master Teacher?” Key words here are “In years past.” I don’t view my principal as a master teacher that I would go to for teaching help- isn’t that why we have instructional coaches and PDs? In my view the principal is in charge of running the school, making sure the teachers have what they need, and supporting student learning in any way possible.
    Sure you need teaching to be part of your job collection, but it doesn’t need to be such a large portion. After all, how does standing up in a classroom for 7 years prepare you to balance a budget?

  8. For Grant: standing up in a classroom for 7 years prepares you to understand not only the needs of students, but the real needs of teachers, the dynamics that poison the well, the various stakeholders and how they interact. That will help you balance a budget because you will know a myriad of things about what stakeholders need in order to do their jobs well. You will have learned from the ground up and your priorities will be on straight when it’s time to apportion the limited dollars you’ll get to run your team.

    I hate having new administrators without real on the ground experience because their leadership is always built on talking points and things they heard in principal school rather than on what they know from having been grown from the ground up.

  9. Teacher Leader, I disagree. The real needs of teachers can be communicated by teachers. The real job of a leader is to listen to them and prioritize the needs of the teachers, students and school community in the best way possible. It doesn’t take 7 years of teaching to learn how to listen.

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