Want great teachers? Recruit great principals

Many of us remember that special teacher who ignited our interest in learning. Who recognized our love of nature and channeled it to make science exciting. Who helped us overcome a fear of failing algebra. Who realized that difficulties at home create difficulties at school. They instilled us with the confidence we needed to succeed.

Yes, teachers change lives.

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Less, however, is said about the campus leaders — principals — who make it possible for teachers to do their best work.

“Teachers are the most impactful (educators), leading to an increase in student outcomes,” said Eva Chiang, deputy director of education reform at the George W. Bush Institute. But, she added, principals are the talent managers who know how to “get and keep the good teachers.”

Chiang said about 20 percent of principals nationwide leave their jobs each year, which often disrupts the stability at their schools. The shifting environment affects teachers and can foster a chaotic atmosphere in the classroom.

Chiang said the turnover rate for principals at the Fort Worth Independent School District is slightly below the national average, but it’s growing.

So, kudos to Fort Worth ISD Superintendent Kent Scribner for recognizing a need and successfully applying to a program at the Bush Institute designed to “attract, develop, and retain high-quality principals.”

For the next three years, Fort Worth, and three other districts chosen from about 70 across the country, will each be assigned technical advisors. They’ll help identify district needs and create plans for providing stronger campus leadership. The districts will share findings.

Karen Molinar, chief of elementary schools at FWISD, says top teachers leave schools when the principals don’t create a supportive, dynamic environment.

“Teachers don’t quit the students, they quit their leaders,” said Molinar.

She said her district’s top principals are being recruited by surrounding suburbs who increasingly face the challenges of inner city districts: a growing number of low-income children who need additional help; high student mobility as students change schools frequently; a large number of English language learners.

Principals leave because they want higher pay, promotions not available in the district and because of retirement, said Molinar.

Across the country principals quit because they’re overworked; there’s little money to innovate; because district policies stifles autonomy, and because superintendents and executive managers don’t have enough time to nurture their principals, said Chiang.

Numerous education foundations and think tanks like the Bush Institute have zeroed in on the need for better principal training. The Wallace Foundation found 80 percent of superintendents surveyed said universities are not effectively preparing principals for the growing demands of the job.

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It may be hard for some to envision how training principals filters down to what ultimately matters — student success. We’re glad Fort Worth ISD is connecting the dots and thinking long term.

The Bush Institute’s Chiang says the payoff may not be immediately obvious. She believes districts like Fort Worth with more effective principals on their campuses will be able to measure higher student achievement in five to seven years.