The job of the school principal has a tough reputation. Principals — often teachers promoted out of the classroom — deal with the bureaucratic challenges of administration without the joys of working directly with students. It can be a hard transition to managing adults, and many districts struggle to provide the support needed. Nationwide, the average urban principal lasts less than five years in the role. Around five to seven years are usually called for in order to make lasting change.
But Dave Levin, co-founder of KIPP Public Charter Schools, a network of innovative college prep charter schools, sees things differently.
“The principal is the best job,” he said. Granted, he says, teaching is pretty good, too. But the network has made keeping its best principals a top priority, finding that principals who lasted longer were able to produce better results that range from lower student turnover to higher test scores.
KIPP partnered with VitalSmarts, a corporate training and performance company, to help pinpoint what made principals stick around or leave. In the end, they came up with a list of four expectations for what principals needed to do, in order to succeed.
Since implementing new systems aligned to those ideas, the percentage of principals who stayed with their school rose from 75% in 2009 to 83% in 2013. Overall, 91% of principals stayed with the charter network in 2013.
For administrators looking to make similar changes, here’s what Levin has to say on what works.
Write your own expectations
“It would be very tempting for a district to import our list,” Levin said. But the process is important. Talking to current leaders, understanding how they think about their jobs, and engaging them in the work gives them a sense that they’re a valued voice in the process.
And it can prevent a perceived conflict between established leaders and new ideas.
"When you’re encouraging people to change the way they think about learning, as long as people are united in this idea of improving,” it can work, Levin said. If the school leaders are involved in writing the list, then they’ll be invested in making they and their peers stick to it.
Keep it simple
When KIPP was working with VitalSmarts, it told network leaders that the list of skills would seem obvious once it was written down. Levin says that’s exactly what happened.
“All the principals who were succeeding in the job were doing these same things,” Levin said. When he presented the list to his staff, they said the same thing.
“It made sense,” he said principals told him. For KIPP, that list included: teach and insist, prioritize and execute, engage your lifelines, and renew to get stronger.
Prepare for results and reward them
Getting principals ready to stick it out starts from their first day on the job. For some school districts looking to keep them around, it may start earlier in the hiring process: Making sure the school and principal are a good fit is key. Levin said that KIPP already attracted high-quality candidates, but once they were on board, they were trained differently.
Now KIPP focuses specifically on the aforementioned four skills and makes sure principals understand what each one means and how they can do it.
And when they do succeed, Levin and his network acknowledge it. KIPP began to reward principals just for sticking around. Principals who stay six years or longer get VIP status at network events.
“Our commitment is K-16 and beyond,” said Levin. “We need people who can have success over the long haul.”
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