Janice Jackson Credit: Photo by Joe Gallo

A seismic generational shift is taking place among school leaders in Chicago Public Schools. Following a wave of retirements in the past few years, almost two-thirds of principals are new to the job and have five years of experience or less, according to the Consortium on Chicago School Research’s  biennial survey of principals. And now, almost 20 percent of principals is younger than 40, compared to less than 2 percent back in 1999.

This shift shows no signs of slowing down. The district will have to fill about 100 principal slots at the end of this year. The district’s pension incentive program is set to end in spring 2012, and another wave of retirements is likely; about half of principals left the job in 2006 and 2007, just before the last incentive expired. And a substantial percentage of newer principals who responded to the Consortium survey say they have no plans to stay in the job long term.

This continuous turnover raises a red flag for school improvement. According to a Catalyst Chicago analysis, 61 percent of the lowest-performing elementary and high schools have had three or more principals since 2000; another 25 percent have had two principals.

Veteran principals are becoming a relic of the past. Local and national surveys show that many of the new wave of principals, like professionals in other fields, do not expect to stay on the job long term.

  • Research has identified good principals as an essential component of a successful school.
  • Chicago Public Schools has raised the bar for prospective principals, potentially limiting the pool at a time of high demand.  
  • In line with federal Race to the Top criteria that call for states to improve the quality of teachers and principals, the U.S. Department of Education plans to target more resources toward training for school leaders.

A strong principal, who can lead teachers and improve their instruction, is one of the five essential factors that are necessary for school improvement, according to Consortium researchers. A new principal can infuse energy in a stagnant school, but each time a school changes leadership, teachers are confronted with new expectations and strategies often change. 

“Very often, it’s a complete reversal of whatever [the previous principal] was doing, including the things that might have been working well,” says Ingrid Carney, who spent about a decade working in teacher professional development before becoming a principal and later founding LAUNCH, a now-shuttered summer program that aimed to help aspiring principals succeed.

While there’s no research consensus on the length of time it takes a principal to become proficient at his or her job or to improve a school, experts typically note that school improvement efforts need up to five years to take root.

The bottom line: If principals start leaving too soon, schools will flounder, says retired CPS principal Carlos Azcoitia, now a National-Louis University professor. “If you have constant change with teachers and principals, then you won’t develop that continuity,” he says.

Younger principals, in turn, may drive turnover, says Sara Ray Stoelinga, a senior research analyst at the Consortium on Chicago School Research. With more working years ahead of them, they suddenly have time to try new careers. “There are possibilities for developing curricula, [or] serving as a clinical professor at a university,” she says.

Chicago’s turnover story is part of a national trend. New York and other cities have seen their share of baby boomers retire. And a 2008 survey done by the National Association of Elementary School Principals found that only 38 percent of respondents saw that field as their “final occupational goal,” down from 58 percent in 1998.

“There are expectations now that younger generations will experience many different career changes over the span of their lives,” says Gail Connelly, the group’s executive director.

New principals will face considerable pressure to raise student achievement. CEO Ron Huberman has mandated that principals and chief area officers institute regular performance management meetings. The threat of school turnarounds, which send principals and most teachers packing, is high. And while the number of warning resolutions filed by the district against principals for poor performance is still tiny, it is on the rise. A Catalyst Chicago analysis found that 11 resolutions were filed in 2009, up from just five in 2007.

“A lot of principals feel like their jobs are on the line,” says Joan Dameron Crisler, a retired principal who spent 20 years at Dixon Elementary on the South Side.

Crisler says strong support from central office helped her remain in the job for so long.

But times have changed. “Accountability is not new,” Crisler notes. “[But today], it is perceived that there are a lot of threats and intimidation.”

Victoria Chou, dean of the College of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, says principals now must get approval from area officers to carry out tasks they used to do on their own. “I think the anxiety level is up,” Chou says.

But Monica Santana Rosen, head of the district’s Office of Principal Preparation and Development, says she sees no evidence of increasing turnover because of tougher accountability. But she and the district expect principals to show results quickly. After a year, she says, student achievement and other indicators, such as attendance, should begin to improve.

After three years, says Alicia Winckler of the Office of Human Capital, “If it’s not happening, it’s not likely to ever happen.”

Yet most experts say principals need more time to show real improvement. Carney notes that rookies have a steep learning curve in the first few years. But even an experienced principal might need more than two to three years to improve a school.

ISBE is expected soon to pass rule changes that will make it tougher to earn a principal’s certificate and make preparation programs more rigorous. (See story on page 14.) The state’s effort to beef up the candidate pool is part of a trend driven largely by President Barack Obama’s administration, which has made raising the quality of teachers and principals one of four criteria to win federal Race to the Top funds. This year, the U.S. Department of Education is spending $29 million on principal development, and proposes to spend $170 million on training for principals and school leadership teams in 2011.

To help new principals in CPS, including those who have experience but are new to their school, the district now provides them with a dedicated mentor for up to three years, Rosen says. Experienced principals provide coaching for newcomers. “I’ve never had a principal tell me they didn’t want to participate,” Rosen says. The vast majority continue with the program in years 2 and 3.

The CPS program has drawn praise from education experts, including DePaul University education Professor Barbara Radner, director of the school’s Center for Urban Education.
Radner says it’s vital for new principals to have an old hand around to model tasks such as promoting a positive school culture and getting rid of underperforming teachers—the task that new principals found most difficult, according to the Consortium’s 2007 principal survey. A forthcoming study by UIC’s Chou found new principals were more likely to hire teachers based on superficial factors like the university the applicant had attended.

CPS also plans to open an Office of Leadership Development and Support in the coming months, to provide professional development to assistant principals, principals and area officers.

These supports should help. But the pressure of the job is high, and many agree higher turnover, compared to the past, is inevitable.

The principalship “is just not set up for that person to be effective,” says Mary Ann Pitcher, a project director for the University of Chicago’s Network for College Success, who spent the past five years coaching new high school principals. “People get really tired and stressed out.”

In addition to providing instructional coaching to teachers, new principals—particularly those who are in high schools—must learn to juggle massive logistical challenges and up to 200 direct-report supervisees, Pitcher says.

To help them cope with skyrocketing workloads, she teaches them to distribute responsibilities among others at their schools. “Other leaders [in the building] have to be responsible for certain core pieces of work, or outcomes,” she says. “Then, how do they report to the principal?”

Pitcher also suggests strategies like using instructional teams that work toward common goals, and having teachers help identify school needs and solutions.

The central office also must be more aggressive in supporting new principals. “I think the district’s got to take some responsibility for a framework they expect to be sustained in schools,” she says.

Kurt Jones, now in his third year as principal of Libby Elementary in impoverished New City, is blunt about the stress he and other rookies face.

“Stress is really hard on young people,” says Jones, who was 30 when he took over at Libby. “[When] we’re young, we’re still learning how to deal with emotions. The emotional strain is huge. And we begin to see that there are other options where you don’t get beat up on every day.”

At first, Jones says, he attacked Libby’s problems as if he were “a huge ball of fire.” But he soon learned to be more balanced and spread the workload. His outgoing personality helped him connect with central office staffers who could resolve issues. He learned to break big problems into smaller, sequential steps.

Now, even on the occasional bad day, he has no desire to quit. “There’s a bigger world out there to conquer, but I guess I take the selfish approach and say, ‘I love my 600 [students],’” Jones says. “That’s the picture that I will focus on for as long as I get the chance.”

Westinghouse College Prep Principal Janice Jackson is one young principal who already envisions herself in other jobs. “My mother thinks you’re supposed to get a job, work it for 30 years, and get the gold watch at the end,” says Jackson, who is just 32 but has been a principal for six years and is in her second post. “I will always be in education, but do I see myself being a principal for 20 or 30 years? No, and I probably shouldn’t be. It’s a very demanding job.”

Josh Anderson, the executive director of Teach for America-Chicago, is one observer who questions the premise that veteran, long-term principals are necessarily better. He notes that achievement hasn’t budged at some schools led by experienced principals.

“I’m comfortable with a departure from the status quo,” he says. “Three to seven years seems to be a critical [minimum] threshold.” Here in Chicago, Teach for America has launched a principal preparation program to create a pipeline of candidates. (See story.)

One advantage of having a younger principal at the helm: They are often more comfortable with data and have been trained to be more adept at using it to improve teaching. Students might also find them easier to connect with and “cooler.”

Jeff Wright, principal of King College Prep, says he went into school leadership specifically because he disliked the stereotype of the principal as a hard-core disciplinarian who keeps his distance from students. As a teacher in Minnesota, he noticed that his students mistook the hall monitors for administrators, telling him that they were “the people who wore walkie-talkies on their hips and yelled at kids.”

At first, Wright, who is in his 30s, wanted to tackle school improvement on a larger scale, but after earning a master’s degree in administration and social policy, he decided against that and headed back to teaching. He didn’t get an interview for any of the teaching jobs he applied for, but got a call-back from Jones College Prep for an assistant principal’s job—and landed it.

Three years later, he won the principal spot at King, just blocks from his house. Although he says some people are surprised by his age and his boyish face, he doesn’t believe his youth has been a drawback. “I’ve often joked that it allows me to go undercover in the cafeteria and talk to the students,” Wright says.

The students do seem to notice the difference. “He’s not only trying to get you to obey [the rules],” says Taylor-Simona Jannings, 16. “He looks at both sides of the story and tries to keep you on the right track.”

Senior Rodneka Perry, 18, agrees. “Older principals would communicate with us as children, but he recognizes us as young adults,” she says.

Wright is finishing his first contract with the school, and hopes for another. Down the road, he might pursue a superintendent position.

“My wife and I have joked about everything from becoming cranberry farmers to working in the system until retirement,” Wright says. “I would hope that I had not reached my pinnacle professionally at age 31.”

Tell us what you think. Leave a comment below, or send an e-mail to rharris@catalyst-chicago.org.

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