With the start of each new school year, the crisis of teacher shortages will once again make their rounds in the news. Yet, what the headlines don’t often relay is that these shortages are not uniform—they are distributed along specific areas (such as STEM) and locales. Most alarmingly, students in low-performing, high-poverty, and predominantly minority schools will be the ones with the greatest shortages—and as a result will have the least access to the quality, qualified teachers that can make the most significant impact.
Yet what is even less well documented is that this problem isn’t just about teachers. It is also about principals. Already high annual turnover rates between 15-30% are often doubled in high-needs schools. In a similar fashion, students with the most need for a quality, qualified, and dedicated principal are the least likely to have one. In this post, we examine the impact of principals on teachers and argue that we cannot solve the issue of the inequitable distribution of teachers without addressing the inequitable distribution of school leaders
Causes of the Inequitable Distribution of Teachers
While there are many causes of the inequitable distribution of teachers, the two primary factors are difficulty in hiring quality teachers and, more importantly, difficulty in retaining such teachers. While a myriad of factors influence these two issues such as student characteristics, locale, school performance, salaries, class sizes, evaluation systems, and school accountability systems, recent research has found that principals have a profound effect on teacher retention.
Importance of Principals
A growing body of research concludes principals influence both teacher and student outcomes—including both cognitive and non-cognitive outcomes for students. Indeed, principal leadership is considered second only to teacher quality in terms of school level factors that influence achievement. Empirical research has consistently established that strong leaders improve student outcomes through several “avenues of influence,” including: providing supportive working conditions; increasing teacher motivation; ensuring effective instructional leadership; developing robust professional communities; and creating supportive school climates.
Perhaps most importantly, the school conditions created by principals can significantly affect the underlying quality of the teaching staff by attracting and retaining effective educators. Research has found that teachers identify principal leadership as the primary factor in deciding to stay or leave a particular school and teaching in general. Therefore, supportive leadership serves as a direct lever to reduce teacher turnover.
The influence of a principal on teacher retention becomes a greater cause for concern when coupled with evidence that the quality of principals is inequitably distributed across schools. Research, in fact, consistently finds a strong correlation between measures of principal quality and school characteristics—especially student performance levels and the percentage of the school population living in poverty enrolled in the school. Moreover, principals—including high-quality principals—tend to abandon difficult-to-lead schools with unfavorable working conditions that often serve high proportions of poor, minority and/or low-achieving populations. The result is that inexperienced and less-qualified principals are highly concentrated in historically disadvantaged and often under-funded schools. They are asked to effectively lead inexperienced and less-qualified teachers whilst making dramatic gains in student achievement.
How does the inequitable distribution of principals impact the inequitable distribution of teachers?
The inequitable distribution of principals has a reinforcing and multiplicative effect on the inequitable distribution of teachers. Regardless of the quality and tenure of the principal, low-achieving schools and schools with high proportions of poor and minority students face increased barriers to attracting, hiring, and retaining quality leaders.
When an inexperienced and lower quality principal is placed into such a school—often at the last second—two major outcomes occur. First, the lower quality principals tend to hire lower quality teachers, thus reducing the overall quality of the teaching corps in such schools. Second, leadership turnover tends to cause greater teacher turnover resulting in decreased teacher-team quality and lower student achievement. In short, the inequitable distribution of quality principals systematically reinforces the inequitable distribution of quality teachers, which in turn has a direct negative effect on student achievement. In effect, the hiring of less qualified educators and high turnover rates in such schools creates a pernicious self-reinforcing downward spiral that results in the creation of persistently under-performing schools.
Regardless of the quality and tenure of the principal, low-achieving schools and schools with high proportions of poor and minority students face increased barriers to attracting, hiring, and retaining quality leaders.
What are the causes?
The inequitable distribution of principals has several causes, but the most prominent cause is poor working conditions. This includes access to basic resources, a positive professional climate, institutional support, and a sense of agency. Low-performing schools often have notoriously difficult working conditions that result in smaller applicant pools and higher levels of leader turnover. Compounding this issue is the sense that pay for such schools does not sufficiently compensate for the lower working conditions. With salaries viewed as insufficient for the requirements of the job, principals tend to not remain in challenging schools when transfers to schools with better working conditions can also lead to improved pay. Furthermore, the pay differential between experienced teachers and new administrators is often not particularly large in some states, thus creating a greater incentive for individuals to either remain in teaching or return to teaching after experiencing the demands of leadership positions, thus reinforcing the cycle of turnover and inexperience.
In recent years, the emphasis on school and principal accountability has added another dimension to the workplace demands for principals. While part of the draw to school leadership is the desire to help students achieve, the mismatch between school and principal accountability measures and on-the-ground effectiveness can quickly lead principals to feel a loss of influence, job satisfaction, and security regarding career dismissal and mobility. Particularly for new principals, low student achievement coupled with the pressures of accountability may lead to increased levels of turnover. Recent research on how principals are evaluated has revealed that state evaluation systems often inaccurately measure principal effectiveness and, moreover, are likely to be most inaccurate for leaders of schools serving high proportions of poor students and students of color. Often, principals are assessed on characteristics that are not directly in their control–such as chronic absences—instead of features that they do control—such as faculty support and resource allocation. This inaccurate assessment of principal performance can also lead to greater turnover—as well as greater reluctance to serve in a hard-to-lead school.
Generally, state principal evaluation systems are not aligned to the practices which have shown to improve student achievement. The same trend may be seen in overall school accountability systems that focus on status measures of attainment or use of growth measures that do not adjust for relevant factors outside the control of the principal and school. Indeed, research on this has revealed that failures to account for differences in resources and student demographics creates strong disincentives for quality teachers and leaders to work in disadvantaged schools. As a result, those schools that could benefit most from strong and sustained leadership are chronically and systematically afflicted with low quality leaders and high turnover.
While the inequitable distribution of principals is both concerning and widely problematic, there is a silver lining. There are some potential strategies that, when adopted in concert and supported by appropriate resources, can address the inequitable distribution of principals and, consequently, the inequitable distribution of teachers. These broad recommendations involve cooperation and collaboration between federal and state education agencies.
1) Create incentives for increased production of leaders of color and the hiring of leaders of color.
Research suggests policies that create incentives for the preparation and hiring of principals of color can lead to higher levels of principal retention, greater hiring of teachers of color, and increased student achievement in schools serving diverse student populations.
2) Refine school and principal accountability systems.
While researchers have consistently argued that school and principal accountability systems must adjust for student characteristics and resource allocation levels to accurately assess educator effectiveness, states continue to rely on systems that measure student characteristics more than educator effectiveness. Student achievement is highly influenced by student background characteristics—meaning that teachers and principals are often judged by what students bring to the classroom rather than what they learn in the classroom. In concert with researchers, the USDoE could work to establish parameters for model evaluation systems that more accurately measure school and principal effectiveness. This should be supported by providing incentives and technical assistance so that states can begin to experiment with such systems.
3) Create incentives for states and districts to provide greater salaries for those choosing to lead the most disadvantaged schools.
ESSA already includes a provision for states to provide additional money to principals to work in hard-to-lead schools. The USDoE should work with partners to highlight the importance of including this strategy in their state equity plans.
4) Provide targeted funding for research on leader preparation, leader labor markets, principal working conditions, and leader data systems.
While recent research has led to some important findings about these issues, we need to know far more about these areas to ensure that every school has access to an effective leader. As such, specific research funding should be set aside for the support of high-quality research efforts in these areas. For example, establishing a competition amongst statewide longitudinal data systems could focus on the collection of data on leader preparation, placement, labor market dynamics, working conditions, and turnover.
5) Provide incentives and resources for states to develop and adopt principal preparation evaluation systems.
Successful attention to the above recommendation can lead to an opportunity for the federal government to support states in developing and adopting leader preparation evaluation systems. While various organizations have proposed such systems, states will need fiscal support and technical assistance to do so.
Positive leadership effects are shown to be the greatest in schools that are the most disadvantaged. Efforts to support quality principals where they are most needed will not only help attract and retain better teachers, it will also help to create an environment where students can succeed.
 See: Strauss, V. (2017) “Teacher shortages affecting every state as 2017-18 school year begins” August, 17. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2017/08/28/teacher-shortages-affecting-every-state-as-2017-18-school-year-begins/?utm_term=.b8c20b6e81ec
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