The principal problem
Is superintendent turnover trickling down to the school level?
Kentucky School Advocate
By Madelynn Coldiron
When Kentucky Board of Education Chairman Roger Marcum was superintendent of Marion County Schools a decade ago, he began noticing that there were fewer applicants for the job of principal.
“Even when I retired in 2009, I was seeing a large turnover in principals, particularly at the high school level,” he said.
And that was well in advance of the state’s Professional Growth and Effectiveness System, which principals say adds more demand on an already demanding position.
“From everything I can tell, it is becoming much more demanding compared to what it was even four or five years ago,” said Dr. Sam Evans, dean of Western Kentucky University’s College of Education and Behavioral Sciences. “With PGES coming on board and all the demands on top of that that principals are facing, it is becoming – I’m not sure I would say a stressful job – but sufficiently demanding that I think it is going to have an impact on our ability to retain principals over a period of time.”
PHOTO: Travis Earlywine, principal of Bourbon County Middle School, talks to seventh-graders Jacqueline Castro and Daniel DeLoya as he walks the hallways on the first day of classes Aug. 13.
Dr. Robert Biggin, associate professor and coordinator of the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy in Eastern Kentucky University’s College of Education, said he’s not seeing a drop-off in interest in the job, but said, “The longevity of principals and superintendents is a problem.”
Williamstown Elementary School Principal David Poer, who is also president of the Kentucky Association of Elementary School Principals, said he thinks potential candidates for a principal position “are thinking carefully about that, just because there is so much right now – so many things that have moved quickly in the last five, six years.”
A recent training in his district by an outside agency was led by a couple of former principals who had “decided they had enough years and didn’t want to go through that,” said Poer, in his 18th year as principal.
“Those who are close to retiring, they generally go on and do it,” said Bourbon County Middle School Principal Travis Earlywine.
“I think you’re seeing people either moving on up to other avenues, people retiring or people just deciding, ‘Hey, this is just not for me,’” said Lincoln County High School Principal Michael Godbey, who was named 2015 Kentucky High School Principal of the Year by the National Association of Secondary School Principals. He said he knows of a couple of principals who have bailed on the job and gone back to the classroom.
“You’re juggling lots of things at one time and it’s just overwhelming,” said Godbey, a 13-year principal who made his comments shortly before taking the Lincoln County position, while he still headed Frankfort High School.
Rosemarie Young, executive director of the Kentucky Association of Elementary School Principals, said while PGES may be an added stressor, the job “is just stressful to begin with.”
“I don’t know too many principals who are not feeling the overwhelmed sense of frustration, a sense of not being in control necessarily of the time they have because they’re so task-oriented to get all these things done,” said Young, who also is the field placement coordinator for Bellarmine University’s College of Education.
Biggin also cited that lack of control. “I would say that the problem for principals that I’ve heard of is decreased autonomy,” he said. “Both KDE and central offices have become more and more prescriptive.”
Professional Growth and Effectiveness System
Principals are the middle of the PGES sandwich: they must use that system to evaluate their teachers and other staff, while collecting data and setting growth goals for their own performance so they in turn can be evaluated by their superintendent.
Earlywine, Godbey and Poer say they support the framework and goals of the PGES, but as Earlywine noted, it has nearly doubled the time it takes him to evaluate a teacher.
“But I don’t want to say that in a negative way because I do also think it has forced us to look at things that maybe we haven’t in the past,” said Earlywine, who has been a principal for 11 years. “It’s just that when you add that to all of the other things we deal with, it is time consuming.”
Marcum acknowledges it’s a complex process and it will take a while for principals to develop skills to carry it out effectively. Whether it’s had an effect on principal turnover, “I don’t know that I’m prepared to answer that yet.”
Dr. John Settle, executive director of the West Kentucky Education Cooperative, said when PGES was first launched, “there was a lot of anxiety that it would cause veteran principals to retire and make it more difficult to recruit new principals.” But he said he has heard less concern in the last year or so.
The state board of education in August delayed incorporating PGES performance ratings for teacher and principals into the accountability formula due to concerns about the system. Marcum said the board also needs to continue to look at ways to make it “more effective and less time intensive.”
What would help
Like many elementary school principals, Poer works solo – an assistant principal’s position was cut six or seven years ago. “Having somebody else to share the load would certainly help,” he said.
“We’ve got to look at how are we structuring and staffing the leadership within the schools so that it does become manageable,” said WKU’s Evans. “If you have a school with a lot of challenging students and you’re it as a single principal – the potential behavioral problems – you just exacerbate the challenges that the principal has in that role.”
Evans also suggested that leadership skills necessary for being a principal need to be developed much earlier, at the undergraduate level.
Earlywine said his district is fortunate in being able to implement a new software program that will be used to upload PGES information during the school year, bypassing the state’s system until time to submit the summative product. The program was designed by a contractor for the district.
“I do think that’s going to expedite the paperwork side of it,” he said.
Some larger districts have teacher or principal effectiveness coaches to work with PGES, but small districts don’t have those resources, Godbey said.
While PGES “is great,” he said, “I think we’ve got to find a way to streamline that into a process that’s not so overwhelming and burdensome that it becomes complicated. And people either burn themselves out doing it with fidelity or it’s not done to fidelity; it’s just done bare minimally just to get by.”
Board View: ‘It’s just juggling things’
Somerset Independent school board member Jeff Perkins knows something about the pressures of being a school principal. He spent three years as assistant principal of Somerset High School and then four years as principal before retiring in 2009.
“Year in and year out it gets more and more demanding,” Perkins said. “I think that has a lot to do with the different mandates, changes from Frankfort usually.”
And there have been a lot of changes since he retired, he noted, including the new evaluation system for teachers and principals that he said has added to the workload. Perkins, who has been a school board member since 2013, is concerned that fewer educators are aspiring to the job.
“They’re thinking, ‘Man, why do I want to do that? I can stay in the classroom and moneywise, maybe it’s a little bit difference but I don’t know that I want to do that,’” he said.
A high school principal’s position, Perkins added, “is probably the toughest job in the district,” especially in a smaller school system. “It’s just juggling things so much every day.”
A high turnover in that job may affect achievement because students need stability and leaders who understand their school, he said.
“It’s kind of like coaching: you get a coach every couple of years and you start all over again. That’s kind of the way it is with principals, I think,” said Perkins, who also was football coach and athletic director at Somerset High School.