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The overlooked crisis of school leadership





by James H. Lytle

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When I started working for the School District in 1970, there were 300,000 students attending 265 schools. When the new school year begins, there will be 200,000 students at 303 schools, including charter schools. There are now more and smaller schools than there were in 1970, when some high schools had 4,000 students and were on double shifts. In one sense, this shift can be seen as an improvement, because small schools tend to be more caring and effective than big schools.

But as the number of schools increased, the demand for school leaders -- principals -- grew markedly too. At the same time, the job of principal has become more complex, more demanding, and less attractive in a District ill-equipped to support or retain quality school leaders.

Recent research indicates that principal leadership accounts for about 25 percent of a school's performance. This means recruiting, developing, and supporting effective principals should be a top priority for any school district or charter management organization. To put it differently, there are no good schools without good principals, and there is no more cost-effective way to improve schools than to provide good leadership.

As things stand, however, the District has almost no capacity to transition or support principals, new or experienced. No pipeline program is in place, no systemic leadership development program, no workable supervision or peer-support program. And decreasing resources and staffing make the principals’ jobs increasingly challenging (some might say impossible).

An assessment of the District’s school leadership situation indicates that next fall:

  • At least 70 schools will have new principals.
  • About a quarter of school principals will have no experience in Philadelphia (although a few may have had experience in other districts).
  • More than half will have less than five years of experience as principals.

The screening and selection process to fill the vacancies has been going on for the last several weeks, with virtually no public awareness.

In addition, principals will be leading schools in a District enmeshed in crises. Beyond the unprecedented budget shortfall and layoffs, there have been school closings, charter expansion, contentious labor relations, and a growing perception of city schools as violent and disorganized. Add to that constant leadership turnover in the School Reform Commission, in the superintendency, and among key central and regional office personnel.

Through all this, effective principals have been expected to do more and more to hold their schools together. They must establish a safe climate and engage parents and community leaders. Principals need to provide instructional guidance, allocate increasingly scarce resources, and hire and develop their teachers. Most important, the principal must build trust among staff and students. The best approach to school leadership is as a collective responsibility with teachers and parents.

Principals are also expected, in the current policy environment, to implement new teacher-evaluation systems and usher in the Common Core standards into curricula and tests. They must make sure that students with special needs have suitable programs and supports and increase college access for all.

The administration’s effort to address the principal pipeline problem has been to support an “alternate route” certification program called PhillyPlus, which is managed by the Philadelphia School Partnership. The program is modeled on New Leaders for New Schools, a national program with grandiose claims but no evidence that it produces more effective principals than traditional programs. The PhillyPlus design assumes that its candidates will be assigned to assistant principal vacancies for their paid internships, but if the budget cuts hold, there will be no assistant principals in the District next year. Nor does PhillyPlus have the capacity to respond to local need, which is to provide at least 60 new principal candidates each year.

At the heart of the District’s leadership challenge is a simple truth: Leaders want to be part of organizations that are mission-driven and have the prospect of success over time. That is why some of the best principals have been leaving Philadelphia. A recent example is Stephen Brandt, the award-winning principal of Roxborough High School, now on his way to Bensalem. A recent NewsWorks article explains that “the current state of the Philadelphia School District played a big part in Brandt's decision.”

None of the current senior management team has been in the District for more than nine months. Central office turnover has been rampant, especially in Human Resources. Yet decades of research in the education, corporate, and nonprofit sectors provides compelling evidence that leadership stability at all levels is closely linked to organizational performance.

The need to create a sustained and systemic talent-development-and-leadership pipeline is acute. Current conditions require extraordinary, not ordinary, school leadership. The problem is not simply a District and charter school one. It is a civic crisis with the very real prospect of a disintegrating public school system.

As a first step, the District and the Philadelphia School Partnership need to make the leadership crisis a top priority by reaching out to the corporate and university sectors for help in addressing their leadership needs. In the short term, that might mean assisting in summer training and orientation programs, and providing mentors for new and experienced principals. In the longer term, that could mean collaborating with universities and the business community to design programs that tie directly to the District’s specifications. Given the array of challenges the District’s senior leadership are now confronting, I worry that this priority will remain unaddressed until the other crises have played out.

James H. Lytle is Practice Professor of Educational Leadership at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, a former District administrator, and a former superintendent in Trenton.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

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