Before the pandemic, addressing principal turnover across the state and country was a top priority for us at AWSP. It was an epidemic before the pandemic. Principal churn is bad for kids. Bad for teachers. Bad for schools and the communities they serve. Again, this was alarming and concerning before the current pandemic. Even more alarming when you consider our schools with the greatest needs are churning building leaders at twice the rate. So, if we really care about equity as a system, why isn’t everyone talking about the direct negative consequences of principal churn on our most disadvantaged students and schools?
As we began to unpack the contributing factors leading to so much turnover across the system, the answers became abundantly clear. Our findings were also confirmed by national research recently conducted by the Learning Policy Institute (2018). Why are principals leaving the profession?
- Inadequate preparation and professional development
- Poor working conditions
- Insufficient salaries
- Lack of decision-making authority
- High-stakes accountability policies
I doubt those findings surprise any of us. It’s not very often I come across an educational leader who doesn’t empathize with what our principals endure daily. However, I continue to run into people in the general public with no idea about the workload and scope of responsibilities facing our school principals. To say those workload and responsibilities have increased exponentially is an understatement, highlighted as “poor working conditions” above.
Here’s a glimpse into poor working conditions defined by new (mostly unfunded) mandates, new legislation, and changes in society that have landed squarely on principals’ shoulders. Grab a cup of coffee or glass of wine and sit down, especially when you consider we have not added additional school-level leaders across the system to help carry the load.
Here is a list of compounding and complex additions to the scope of responsibilities for school-level leaders:
- Revised discipline policies and procedures
- Graduation requirements increased to 24 credits, High School and Beyond Plan, Graduation Pathways
- Student cell phones
- Smarter Balanced Assessment
- WAKids Assessment
- The Washington English Language Proficiency Assessment
- Common Core State Standards and changes to Washington State Learning Standards
- Next Generation Science Standards
- Safety planning, including threat assessments and drills like active shooter, shelter-in-place, earthquake, lahar, etc.
- School Resource Officers, specifically additional training and limitations in the work they can do
- Social media issues
- Shrinking budgets coupled with increasing expectations
- Lower salaries for some, in comparison to teacher salaries
- Lower class sizes in grades K-3 means more staff for principals to evaluate
- All-day Kindergarten
- New rules for BECCA and Community Truancy Boards
- Teacher and Principal Evaluation (new instructional frameworks, evaluation system, trainings)
- Professional Learning Communities
- Policy changes related to Harassment, Intimidation, and Bullying
- Ensuring the proper use of student restraint and isolation
- Opioid overdose medication
- Automated External Defibrillators (AEDs) and Epi-Pens
- Medical marijuana
- Legalization of marijuana
- Restrictive collective bargaining language
- Youth suicide prevention
- Social-emotional learning
- Behavioral and mental health screening
- Supervision of an increasing number of extra-curricular and sports activities
- Teacher and substitute shortages
- Implementing Multi-Tiered Systems of Support and Positive Behavior Intervention Supports.
- Ensuring equity outcomes for all students, including those mandated to receive the following categories of support: autism, visual impairment and blindness, emotional disturbance, hearing impairment and deafness, intellectual disability, specific learning disability, orthopedic impairment, speech or language impairment, traumatic brain injury
- eCigarettes and vaping products
- Societal and political division
- Many parents’ belief every current athlete is a future full-ride college and professional athlete
Don’t forget most of the items on that list were generated before the pandemic. Now add that every principal and assistant principal has also assumed the primary functions and responsibilities of a Chief Covid Officer and daily classroom substitute. We can safely say that “impossible” is an additional word to describe the principalship. Something must be done.
During the last decade, we’ve shifted the traditional role of principal from management to management and instructional leadership. We’ve also added the titles of mental health coordinator, peacekeeper, beacon of hope, mediator, and detective, just to name a few. I believe you get the point. So what now?
We must immediately come together as a system to identify:
- short term solutions that get immediate relief to our school leaders now, and
- long-term systemic changes to make the expectations placed on school leaders more realistic.
If we don’t tackle both of these efforts with equal and urgent priority focus, then our system will move from a leadership epidemic to a leadership crisis — and our students will ultimately suffer the consequences.
I will follow up this blog with some ideas to get us all thinking about short- and long-term solutions. For example, why do we still expect a principal to conduct 20-30+ evaluations of classified and certificated staff when they spend 80-90% of their day on crisis management, often due to the latest TikTok challenge? Maybe it’s time for the state to discuss teachers observing teachers instead of the compliance-based exercise happening in many places right now? Just that change alone might keep our leaders from leaving. Instead of thinking outside of the box, let’s get rid of it.
Related: Here's another great, related read from The 19th. The article features many quotes from one of the National Digital Principals of the Year, Cindy Cromwell from the Kelso School District.