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?
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.
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.